Alumni Notes

Sungju Moon (’13 BS Mathematics). I recently had the chance to dig up my college admissions essay while organizing my childhood bedroom. The essay discusses in-cloud raindrop formations and describes turbulent motions of water as “chaotic.” Though it may seem that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to study—because I did end up studying cloud microphysics and atmospheric chaos for my PhD—the reality was quite different. I changed majors multiple times, from physics to computer science, and then to economics, before realizing that math was the common denominator. Towards the end of my junior year at Wake, I ultimately decided to switch my major to math. Oh, but I did not want to just major in math; I also wanted to write my honors thesis and go on studying math at graduate level.

My professors, particularly Dr. Jason Parsley, Dr. Sarah Raynor, and Dr. Brian Pigott (who was a teacher scholar fellow at the time) welcomed my sudden passion for math with caution but also with encouragement. With their help, I loaded up my schedule with more math courses, applied to graduate programs, and continued my research project on infectious disease modeling jointly supervised by Dr. Miaohua Jiang in the math department and Dr. Fred Chen in the econ department. I was able to graduate with honors in mathematics and somehow still managed to double major in classics.

After receiving my master’s degree in mathematics from Syracuse University, I returned to South Korea to fulfill mandatory military service requirements. One thing led to another serendipitously, however, and I was given the chance to serve as a “technical research personnel”, which allowed me to concurrently pursue a PhD degree at Seoul National University. After defending my PhD, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship through the Fields Institute, hosted by McMaster University in Canada. My postdoc focused on developing mathematical models for communicable diseases like COVID and flu, a topic that is closely related to my honors project at Wake. This is no coincidence; I would not have pursued this postdoc opportunity had I not spoken with Dr. Chen about my career after PhD. Throughout my academic journey, as a graduate student and even as a postdoc, I kept in touch with many of my professors at Wake who became my mentors and biggest supporters ‘back home’. After all, Wake Forest will always be my first academic home.

Now, I have joined Nevada State College as an assistant professor of mathematics. Nevada State is a small college near Las Vegas, whose school colors happen to match Wake Forest’s (Old) Gold & Black. It is a primarily undergraduate and teaching-oriented institution, and I find myself often thinking back to my time at Wake as I strive to provide the kind of quality learning and individualized undergraduate research experience that I got to have as a Wake Forest math major.

Panpan Zhang (2012, MA Mathematics). I am currently a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I joined the Department of Mathematics at Wake Forest University as a master’s student in 2010. Like many international students, the language barrier created a lot of challenges for my study in the first couple of months. I was extremely grateful to Dr. Kirkman (Abstract Algebra), Dr. Jim Norris (Mathematical Statistics), and Dr. Miaohua Jiang (Dynamical Systems) for helping me get through those difficult times. I was also thankful to my office mates who have become lifetime friends now. Frankly, I never thought about a career in academia until I took a course on dynamical systems with Dr. Miaohua Jiang. Even though the course itself was quite challenging, it indeed motivated me to pursue advanced studies in stochastic processes and randomized algorithms, which later became my Ph.D. dissertation topic at George Washington University (2012 – 1016). At Wake Forest, I took all the probability and statistics coursed offered by the department, which prepared me well for my Ph.D. study afterward. In fact, the non-statistics courses that I took at Wake Forest, like real analysis, topology, abstract algebra, and combinatorics, were also helpful in my Ph.D. training. For instance, my Ph.D. dissertation research heavily relied on combinatorial probability (involving Stirling numbers of the first and second kind) and the material that I learned in the real analysis course greatly helped me better understand advanced probability concepts like Cauchy convergence and Jensen’s inequality, etc. The fundamental mathematics courses at Wake Forest actually built a very solid theoretical foundation for me and allowed me to start carrying out in-depth research much earlier than those students with pure statistics backgrounds during my Ph.D. training. Last but not least, I would like to send a special “thank you” message to Dr. Sarah Raynor for creating a measure theory class for me after she knew that I was going to apply for a Ph.D. program in statistics. To the best of my knowledge, this class was never offered by the department before. I would say I am really lucky to be a part of Wake Forest. Go Deacs!