The Beauty Behind Mathematics and Communities: An Interview with Professor Moore

Katherine Moore is a visiting assistant professor of mathematics who came to Amherst this year. She received a Ph.D. in mathematics at Dartmouth College and was a postdoc at Wake Forest University. This fall, she is teaching courses in Calculus and Linear Algebra.

What did you do before you started teaching here at Amherst, and what led you to Amherst specifically?

I got my PhD at Dartmouth in 2018, and it was a six-year-long process. I was also teaching and doing research during that time, which is pretty much what my days look like now. For three years, I went down to Wake Forest for a postdoc and slightly switched fields towards data. I started working on questions related to data and developing methods to design algorithms. I now sit at this intersection between math, statistics, and computer science. I mostly focus on math, but am still curious about questions involving data.

I came to Amherst because I wanted to go up north and live in the Northampton area. So when I got the job at this college, I was very excited: I have always wanted to teach at a liberal arts college while performing research.

How did you get into the field of mathematics?

I majored in math as a college student and never stopped doing it. As I was learning math theorems, I became curious about the essence of them and whether they could be useful for real problems. I was interested in the application of math and kept going from there.

How would you persuade a student to take more courses in mathematics?

Math gives you a setting where you can answer the “why” completely. It’s unlike a lot of other areas, where you can’t really discover something through reasoning alone. But in math, you can discover something new just through reasoning. In a lot of cases, it is a lot simpler than other fields, so you can really hone your ability to communicate and logic your way through complicated arguments.

Could you briefly describe your research?

I think a lot about where communities and groups of people arise from. In the real world, they arise from this balance between conflict and alignment. People have disagreements, so they take sides with others, which is what gives us this community network: we have strong ties with certain individuals and we have weak ties with others. So can we take this idea of conflict and alignment and develop a mathematical algorithm that formalizes these ideas? The answer is yes! My research essentially tells us how we can find groups within data from a human perspective.

What potential applications do you see your research having on the world?

Lots of people are going to start using this algorithm to answer their research questions. Some people, such as geneticists and linguists, have started to use it for clustering their data into groups. Pretty much anybody that wants to identify groups within data can use this algorithm. It is useful when you are first starting to explore your data, so that you know the kinds of questions to ask next.

How has your experience at Amherst been so far, and how would you compare it to your experiences at other universities?

It has been great! I love talking to the people here, and I appreciate the overall openness to interactions. My favorite parts have been wandering around, learning what other people are interested in, popping into lab meetings that other people are holding, and seeing what kinds of projects people are into.

The other universities I have been to were a little bit bigger, so I didn’t run into the same people too often. But now I’m starting to see the same people all over the place because there’s a good frequency of interactions here.

What influence do you hope to have on Amherst?

I hope that people who are in non-math disciplines take more math and that people who are in math disciplines take more statistics and computer science. All these subjects answer questions from slightly different perspectives, and there are a lot of connections between these fields. Having a solid math foundation will make all the things you learn in statistics and computer science so much more fun, and you can even see how math applies to your science, geology, or linguistic courses.

What advice do you have for students at this college?

I hope that people enjoy sitting around outside and talking to one another — this is what I look back on most fondly from my college experience. People should really enjoy the company of their peers and take college a bit slow.

Would you like to share anything else about yourself?

I think a lot about my own “happiness quotient”: if my overall wellbeing is good, then I am much more effective at the things I am trying to do. To keep my wellbeing at a good level, I make sure to spend a lot of time outside and surround myself with people that I enjoy. For example, when I’m walking outside and notice that I’m stressed, I’ll walk a little slower and take that moment to breathe and regroup. Even though I’ll get to my destination a bit later, arriving with a better mindset is 100% worth it.