David Savitt, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics, has been chosen to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon science and engineering professionals who are in the early stages of their independent research careers.
"It is surprising and a very nice, unexpected honor. It is very gratifying to be recognized in this way," said Savitt, who is one of 102 researchers selected by U.S. President Barack Obama to receive the award.
"The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead," Obama noted in a statement. "We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America’s global leadership for many years to come."
Other recipients are affiliated with agencies and institutions that include the U.S. Forest Service, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Harvard University, Stanford University, Princeton University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Carnegie Mellon University.
In previous years, UA faculty members Felicia D. Goodrum, a virologist at the College of Medicine
and College of Nursing professor Leslie Ritter have earned the national award.
Savitt is an expert in number theory who works persistently to marry his passions for research, teaching and outreach.
"The mathematics department is proud of Dr. Savitt's presidential award, but it is also hardly surprised," said Daniel J. Madden, interim head of the department.
Since Savitt joined the UA faculty in 2005, he has "played an important role in every part of our mission, and is already one of our most valuable colleagues," Madden noted.
"The University of Arizona has had a strong research program in number theory for over 60 years, and David represents a continuation of that tradition," Madden said. "The subject has changed a lot in those years and Savitt is on the cutting edge of the 21st century approach to the subject."
As a researcher, Savitt works to expand our understanding of natural numbers by studying more complicated types of numbers, unveiling how developing more complex questions about generalized numbers can lead to increased understanding of important ideas in the world around us.
"At its heart, number theory looks at the counting numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4.... Even after 2,500 years of using these numbers, mysteries remain," Madden said. "Various general aspects of these natural numbers play vital roles in modern life, most famously in the transmission and security of our communications."
While Savitt's work can inform modern mathematics, he expects the impact will come in the future.
"The history of mathematics is full of instances where mathematics, for its own sake, precedes the eventual applications of the mathematics. It is about providing information to help answer fundamental questions about the universe," he said. "If someday my work proves to be relevant for some physical reason, then that would be tremendous."
Concurrently, Savitt, who in 2009 earned the UA College of Science Distinguished Early Career Teaching Award, is helping to train both the next generation of mathematicians and lovers of math.
At the graduate level, Savitt is among the UA faculty members who run the National Science Foundation-funded Arizona Winter School, an intensive five-day program for advanced graduate students. During the interactive program, students work with faculty members and postdoctoral fellows in study groups and on research projects, later presenting their work.
Savitt participated in the program several times during his graduate studies.
"Coming to the Winter School was an important part of my formative experience as a mathematician," he said. "What you can learn in a week, or in coming out of a conference after a week, is certainly not the same as what you can learn in one year. But that super-intense experience was important to me."
Savitt has since been devoted to working with younger populations and does not subscribe to the belief that some are innately destined to struggle with math.
"When someone says they are terrible at math, I am skeptical," Savitt said.
"I believe that it is true that they may have had a negative experience along the way. Somehow, learning math is, maybe, more of a fragile endeavor than some other subjects," he said, noting that math is often learned in linear fashion with bodies of thoughts informing the next.
"If you don't understand the influences of the 14th century you may have a shot at understanding the 15th century. But the moment you have not absorbed a year in the mathematical curriculum, you're in trouble."
Savitt is one of the directors of the Canada/USA Mathcamp for High School, a summer program designed for mathematically talented high school students, offering them early exposure to advanced mathematical ideas.
"It's a wonderful way to spend the summer – in an atmosphere where kids are willing to drink up as much about mathematics as they can. It is really a joy. We want to convey a joy of mathematics to the students and support that enjoyment," said Savitt, deputy director of Mathcamp.
"The Early Career Award is not just an award for research, but also service to the community, and I think of this award as a recognition for the kind of program that Mathcamp is," Savitt said. "So it's not just an award for me, but everyone who has put in hard work to making the program what it is and for my colleagues and close friends who have kept the program going."