Brendan Hassett

Professor of Mathematics
Brendan Hassett
Professor of Mathematics
Director Designate, ICERM
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Algebraic geometry had a reputation for being impenetrable, obtuse, difficult to learn. Not so, says Brendan Hassett. He has written an introductory textbook.

By any measure, Brendan Hassett’s recent job search went about as well as could be expected. He applied for two jobs at Brown, hoping to land at least one. He wound up getting them both.

This fall, Hassett joins the faculty as professor of mathematics. Next July, he’ll start his second job as director of Brown’s Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM). Hassett comes to Brown from Rice University, where he’s been a faculty member since 2000 and served as chair of the mathematics department from 2009 to 2014.

As a teacher and researcher, Hassett’s interests lie in the field of algebraic geometry, the study of geometric objects that can be defined as solutions to polynomial equations. It’s a field of study that touches many different areas both within the world of pure mathematics and in other disciplines.

“There are contacts with mathematical physics through string theory,” Hassett said. “There are connections to computer graphics; a lot of computer-aided design algorithms use polynomials to render surfaces and curves in space.”

In fact, computers played a major role in getting Hassett interested in algebraic geometry in the first place. He acquired his taste for the subject by reading manuals for symbolic computation software. He’s kept that in mind when thinking about how to introduce his students to the subject.

“For many years algebraic geometry had a reputation for being inaccessible and hard to learn,” Hassett said. “The stereotype is that you have to read 10,000 pages of abstract French just to get started. That’s not the most inviting way to introduce a subject.”

Hassett’s teaching approach relies heavily on concrete examples of computational and algorithmic approaches to questions in algebraic geometry. It’s a means, he says, “to teach big picture concepts while also giving people the opportunity to get their hands dirty.”

He’s found that approach to be quite effective. He published an introductory textbook for algebraic geometry in 2007.

Hassett’s interest in computation also makes him a perfect fit for his role as director at ICERM. The institute, which was established in 2010 with a $15.9-million grant from the National Science Foundation, focuses on the interplay between mathematics, computation, and experimentation.

Hassett believes that the institute model is crucial to moving mathematics forward. Institutes, he says, offer mathematics vital infrastructure.

“Experimental sciences rely on physical infrastructure to move research forward,” he said. “Astronomers need telescopes. Physicists need particle accelerators. But math is a bit different. We’re focused on ideas and the interactions between people, so we don’t need the same physical infrastructure. We need ‘people infrastructure’ and that’s what institutes like ICERM do so well.”

Working with doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows is a top priority for Hassett. At Rice, he supervised 10 doctoral theses and as many postdocs and is excited about the opportunity to interact with young mathematicians at Brown. One of Hassett’s focuses at ICERM will be training young math scholars — early career faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers.

“ICERM is already a leader in mentoring and training young scholars,” he said. “It offers a fantastic research environment and innovative professional development programs. I hope to build on this success.”

In addition to guiding ICERM and continuing his research, Hassett is also excited to work with Brown’s undergraduates. Brown students, he says, have an excellent reputation for their intellectual curiosity and their success in math fields.

“The undergraduate mission of Brown, where students guide their own intellectual course, really resonates with me,” he said. “I think the fact that many Brown students go on to be successful in math research, contributing new and creative ideas, grows out of that culture.”