Mattingly chairs the mathematics department at Duke University.
He chairs the mathematics department at Duke University and teaches math and statistical science while pursuing a variety of research. But Charlotte native Jonathan Mattingly never meant to major in math, never mind teach it, and he never expected to end up back in North Carolina as an adult. He’ll bring his own story, and his advice about trying new paths, to students on August 16 as the featured speaker at Convocation, the official opening of the new school year.
After graduating from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 1988, Mattingly headed to Yale. He sampled a variety of classes, including science and math courses, and ended up graduating with a degree in applied mathematics. Then he took off to travel for a year through Europe and North Africa before settling in the south of France.
“I was a bit burnt out,” he says.
He learned French and eventually enrolled at École normale supérieure de Lyon, where he earned a master’s degree in nonlinear physics. Returning to the U.S., Mattingly earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Princeton under the highly regarded Russian mathematician Yakov G. Sinai. “I was his first American student, so we had to negotiate things like what it meant for me to be his grad student and for him to be my advisor,” he says.
From Princeton, Mattingly headed to San Francisco to work as a post-doc for four years at Stanford. Then, in 2003, “I went on the market to find a real job,” he remembers, and tried to be open to new locations, “despite being deeply in love with San Francisco.”
When the opportunity at Duke came up, he made a checklist of plusses and minuses. “I love the South, but I never expected to come back here. But I thought about things like I could live downtown and walk to work. And I remembered all the things I really liked about the area,” he says.
One of the plusses in Duke’s favor was the chance to reconnect with Science and Math, Mattingly says, “and start to pay back some of what was given to me.” For seven years, he’s worked with a handful of advanced NCSSM students that his former teacher, math instructor Dan Teague, brings to Duke twice a week to work as part of research teams.
“Their eyes get really big when I tell them I was his student,” Mattingly laughs. “I’ve roped in a number of my colleagues, and they love working with these students.”
Indeed, Mattingly was a member of Teague’s first team to enter, and win, the Mathematical Contest in Modeling, a weekend-long challenge. “He had to check if we were even eligible, we were the first high school team to enter,” Mattingly says. Teague is one of a handful of NCSSM mentors who Mattingly remembers fondly, including physics teacher John Kolena, math teacher and soccer coach Kevin Bartkovich, research advisor Steve Warshaw (recently retired as academic programs vice chancellor), math instructor Helen Compton, science dean Jo Ann Lutz, and more. “These were people who directly affected my path, and so many of them were fantastic,” he remembers.
Returning to NCSSM as the 2016 Convocation speaker is another way for Mattingly to give back. He won’t be telling the students to follow their passion, he says. “A lot of people tend to think you need to be on a definite path or you’re in trouble. Others say, ‘Oh, the world is your oyster, you can do anything.’ I think you need to be on a path, but don’t be afraid to try different paths.”