Goldwater Scholar Revels in the Art of Math
By Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93
Sophomore Tristan Phillips is majoring in mathematics, but he considers his field of study more of an art.
Where many people see random numbers on a page, Phillips sees meaningful, logical patterns. “There is beauty in math,” he said. “Pure mathematics is really more of an art than a science.”
The New Hampshire native and Honors Program student was recently awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation Scholarship. He is Shippensburg University’s first Goldwater recipient.
The federally endowed scholarship program, established in 1986, was designed to encourage outstanding students who intend to pursue research careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. Goldwater scholars are selected based on academic merit, and are nominated by campus representatives from 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide.
Phillips was one of only 240 students nationwide to receive the scholarship this year, selected from more than 1,200 applicants.
“We are enormously proud of Tristan’s success in this highly competitive national scholarship program,” said Dr. Kim Klein, director of the SU Honors Program. “An important key to Tristan’s achievement was his engagement in undergraduate research projects beginning in his freshman year.”
Research opportunities were a key factor in Phillips’ decision to attend Ship.
Phillips, who applied to more than a dozen colleges, admits that Ship was originally his “safety school” option. But a campus visit and meeting with Klein convinced him that Ship had much more to offer.
“I was serious about conducting undergraduate research, and Ship’s Math Department was accommodating,” Phillips said. “In fact, I realized that bigger schools often have more competition just to be part of research projects.”
Klein directed Phillips to Dr. Lenny Jones, professor of mathematics.
“When Tristan came to Ship as a freshman, he knew exactly what he wanted to do—earn a PhD in number theory,” Jones said. “He came to my office and said he wanted to do research. I gave him a list of topics, he picked one, we launched it and finished in the first semester.”
The two quickly formed a working relationship, conducting their research in pure mathematics on almost a daily basis.
“There are no applications for our research outside of pure mathematical ones,” Jones said. “It’s not our goal to do that. We just want to prove a pure mathematical result.”
As Phillips explained it, “You don’t ask why or how a Van Gogh painting can be applied in the world, you just enjoy it.”
They conduct most of the mathematical computations by hand. “You can use computers to a certain extent for research, but a computer cannot come up with creative ideas. A lot of the work is done with pencil and paper,” Jones said.
Their first research paper on number sequencing was accepted for publication in the Journal of Number Theory, a top honor for math professionals.
In January 2016, Phillips presented the paper to nearly 6,000 mathematicians at the joint meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America in Seattle. He also was invited to present his research at conferences in Baltimore and Atlanta.
Phillips and Jones have since collaborated on two more research projects, and had a second paper published in the Journal of Number Theory. A third paper has been submitted for publication, with two more papers in the works.
“I’ve never had a student be so productive in such a short amount of time,” Jones said. “Yet, he is very easy-going. He does not get flustered.”
Phillips’ accomplishments were noticed by several faculty members, who realized his potential for the Goldwater scholarship.
“I first heard about the scholarship from Dr. Klein,” Phillips said. “I was interested, but I did not think I would get it. It’s very competitive.”
Dr. John Richardson, professor of chemistry and Ship's Goldwater faculty representative, nominated Phillips for the scholarship. He received notification of the scholarship early this year.
In addition to his research and studies, he participates in the campus Chess Club, is a member of the Honor Society, and serves as a volunteer assistant for the cross country and track and field teams.
Phillips is on schedule to graduate next spring. He plans to attend graduate school for mathematics and eventually become a professor and active researcher.
“I have no doubt that he will succeed,” Jones said.
Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93 is the director of development and marketing for the Susquehanna Chorale and is a freelance writer based in Mechanicsburg.