Heading to England


by Monte Basgall

When senior Robert Schneck attends England's Cambridge University next fall as Duke's latest winner of a prestigious, all-expense-paid Churchill Scholarship, he anticipates some feelings of déjà vu.

In his junior year, the mathematics major also spent six months visiting Beijing and Nanjing as a participant in the Duke Study in China Program. That adventure capped two years of intensive Chinese language, art and philosophy courses as well as a stint in the Duke Chinese Folk Dance Club.

Despite his long captivation with math, he even thought for a while about majoring in Asian studies. Schneck loved the contrasts between Western and Eastern languages and cultures. "They have a totally different mythology," he recalled in an interview. "Everything is unrelated to the way history developed over here. And I found that just fascinating."

But the trip changed his perspective.

"While I definitely enjoyed my time there, a lot of what was very old was destroyed in the upheavals of the past 50 years," he said. Another big discovery during his China visit was that "I missed mathematics and I really wanted to get back to it." he added.

"The excitement that I felt getting back into mathematics really convinced me that was what I was supposed to be doing."

At Cambridge University, Schneck expects he will also encounter "a culture that's very different from what we have in the United States," he added. "But there is also a lot of similarity." And, this time, he will also concentrate on mathematics.

Since 1989, a Duke senior or recent graduate has won a Winston Churchill Foundation Scholarship in Engineering, Mathematics and Science every year except 1993, and four of those recipients have been math majors.

The foundation awards only about 10 annually in the entire United States for a year of study at Cambridge leading to a master of philosophy degree, a certificate of post graduate study or a diploma.

"I see it as a way to broaden my mathematical background before getting into graduate school," Schneck said. "Right now, the job market in mathematics is quite bad. There are too many mathematics Ph.D.s out there wanting jobs in colleges and universities.

"But I feel it's what I really want to do," he repeated.

Richard Hodel, a Duke associate math professor who works closely with Schneck, said: "I am confident that he has a promising career as a research mathematician. Robert is a pleasure to work with, He is curious and excited about mathematics, and absorbs abstract ideas quickly and easily. In addition, he has a wide range of intellectual interests."

Carl Posy, a Duke associate philosophy professor with whom Schneck is exploring logic, agreed. "He has the sort of clarity that can make difficult things seem almost natural," Posy said of Schneck. "He also has a well-developed curiosity and the ambition needed to pursue topics of interest."

The son of a Charlotte pet store owner, Schneck has been math crazy since elementary school, when he remembers devouring a book called How to Count Like a Martian, which described the various ways that different cultures handle numbers.

Beginning in junior high, he participated in Duke Talent Identification and Precollege Programs summer courses. When he "exhausted the offerings of the public school I attended in Charlotte," Schneck manage to switch to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.

After his junior year at the state-supported school for gifted students, he spent the summer living in an MIT dorm and working at a Cambridge, Mass., software development firm under the Research Science Institute program. The following spring, he won Duke's North Carolina Mathematics Contest Scholarship, which provided him full tuition for four years.

Schneck's plaudits at Duke include the mathematics department's 1994 Julia Dale Prize for excellence in mathematics, a Phi Beta Kappa, and a 1996 Duke Faculty Scholar Award.

In 1994. he was on the first place team in the Association for Computing Machinery Regional Programming Contest. Last summer, he was at Michigan Technological University working on random graph theory and algebraic graph theory under the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Fellowship program.

Last week, as he approached the end of a Duke career that he said "really meant a lot to me," Schneck learned he and two teammates won first place in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, which is to math students what the NCAA tournament is to basketball players.

He also found he had scored in the top 15 percent in the national 1997 Mathematical Contest in Modeling organized by the Consortium on Mathematics and It's Applications. "You're given from Friday morning at midnight until Monday evening to work on one problem," Schneck said of the modeling contest.

This year's modeling challenge? Devise an "optimal hunting strategy" for velociraptors - the brainy carnivorous dinosaurs that preyed on occupants of Jurassic Park.