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Cutting a Wide Swath with Math and Classics

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When David Jekel was looking at colleges, he had in mind a small Christian school, similar to his high school.  Then he visited the University of Washington. “I realized that it would be a good idea to have a bigger, more diverse group of people to interact with,” he recalls. “I thought it would be a good mind-broadening experience.”

David Jekel

“I want a multidisciplinary understanding of the world,” says double major David Jekel. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Evidently so. Jekel thrived at the UW and was recently selected as the College of Arts & Sciences 2015 Dean's Medalist in the Natural Sciences. He graduated this month with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and classics—an unusual combination that makes perfect sense to him.

“I am majoring in both math and classics because I want a multidisciplinary understanding of the world,” he explained in an honors essay about his educational goals. “I cannot study everything, but these two disciplines cut a wide swath across the field of human knowledge. Mathematics reveals nature, classics [reveals] human nature.”

Jekel excelled at math from an early age. His small high school had few options in advanced mathematics, so he studied independently from books. That changed dramatically at the UW, where he had opportunities to take graduate courses, pursue research, compete in international math challenges, and serve as a teaching assistant.

“I didn’t really understand what math was until I was a sophomore or junior here,” he says. “It’s one thing to be able to compute things and do some algebra and trigonometry, but when you begin to rigorously prove things and get to some deeper and higher-level results, that is something totally different and much more interesting.”

After his sophomore year, Jekel participated in the Mathematics Department’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program, which attracts top students from across the country. The students tackle math problems individually or in small teams. “These are open problems, things people haven’t done before,” explains Jekel. “It wasn’t like a math class. It was more like a warm-up for doing research.”

I cannot study everything, but these two disciplines cut a wide swath across the field of human knowledge.

He took his first graduate course the following year and two more his senior year, proving to be “better than our very best graduate students,” according to his professors. Fortunately for the department, Jekel has shared his talents, serving as a teaching assistant for the honors calculus sequences and for the REU summer program.

Jekel has taught his professors a thing or two as well. “He is doing so well I cannot keep up with him,” admits James Morrow, Barbara Sando and Vaho Rebassoo Term Professor of Mathematics, who invited Jekel to work with him on inverse problems for electrical networks. “Each week he comes in with a new set of results. I have never supplied any of his ideas. They are all his own and they are brilliant.” 

David Jekel

“He is doing so well I cannot keep up with him,” a professor said after inviting David Jekel to work with him on inverse problems for electrical networks. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Classics professors have been equally wowed by Jekel’s intellect.  Professor James Clauss can tick off half a dozen areas in which Jekel has done graduate level work, describing him as “scary-smart.”  Jekel has twice received the Classic Department’s Jim Greenfield Undergraduate Scholarship in addition to awards in mathematics.

Jekel began studying Latin and ancient Greek in high school, the latter to read the New Testament as originally written. At the UW, he discovered that classics is much more than religious texts. “I realized that there were aspects of the classical sources that I hadn’t been exposed to in my Christian high school,” he says. “There is quite a diversity of ideas in Greek and Roman literature.”  A favorite of his is Plato, despite recognizing that Plato doesn’t prove his philosophical theories rigorously. “You can’t read Plato’s writing and not be inspired by it, even if you think he’s wrong,” says Jekel. “It stimulates your thinking in a lot of ways—something it has in common with math. They are both about powerful ideas that changed the world.”

This year Jekel made his own small contribution to changing the world. After taking a UW Honors class about the role of post-secondary education in prison, with prisoners as classmates, he joined HOPE (Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education), a UW registered student organization that works to provide sustainable and inexpensive educational opportunities to prisoners and educates citizens about the need for prison reform. One recent project was an exhibition held on the UW Quad in May 2015, which featured art by inmates and information about the criminal justice system. Jekel built a model prison cell for the exhibit using PVC pipe, to provide a visceral sense of prisoners’ cramped quarters.

This fall, Jekel will enter a PhD program in mathematics at UCLA, with plans for an academic career as a mathematician. At the UW he tempered his academics with other interests, including church and weekly swing dance sessions; he expects a similar balance in L.A. He also plans to study German and attend a Latin conference in Southern California, and he would like to master three or four more languages. “I can sometimes have overambitious desires,” he says.

Overambitious? Maybe not. As his professors have learned, for David Jekel almost anything’s possible.   

To read more about David Jekel in his own words, visit his website at davidjekel.com.