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Fun By the Numbers for Jean Brierly Award Winner

By Robert Emro
April 18, 2007


Donald Hadwin, Photo by Lisa Nugent

If you’ve ever brought small children to campus, you may have run into Don Hadwin. He loves kids and he’s always ready to play. Over his T-shirt—he always wears T-shirts, with a different joke each day—he sports a photographer’s vest with 17 pockets crammed with toys. And there’s a filing cabinet full of toys in his office. He buys them in bulk on the Internet, “just to give them away.”

The playing doesn’t stop when the kids leave. “The most important aspect of both teaching and research is, to me, it’s so much fun,” he says. “I feel in my heart I haven’t worked a day in my life.”

That may explain why Hadwin can always be counted on to pick up an extra course or two when the need arises. “Don loves to teach. He really does,” writes Mathematics and Statistics Chair Eric Grinberg in his nomination letter. “Don asks to teach large lectures.”

Hadwin’s research doesn’t suffer from all his time spent in the classroom. With continuous National Science Foundation funding since 1977, Hadwin is among a “very select category of American mathematicians,” writes Grinberg.

How does he do it? “I do most of my best research from midnight until 4, so teaching during the day doesn’t interfere with that,” he says. “I sleep from 4 to 11. They never give me morning classes.”

Hadwin’s research is in operator theory. It’s “pure math,” with no clear application. But, he points out, applications are often found afterwards. And for the most part, he does the work in his head. “My kind of research you can do in a canoe, on a boat, when you’re stopped at a stoplight,” he says. “Everywhere you go.”

The first in his family to attend college, Hadwin started Michigan State University (MSU) the summer immediately after graduating from high school. “I was sure I was going to flunk out,” he says, “so I wanted to get it over with.”

All through high school, Hadwin wanted to be a lawyer, until he learned lawyers spend very little time in the courtroom. Undecided between math and music—he played the tuba—he took some courses in each. “I decided math was a lot easier than music,” he says.

A freshman-year calculus course opened Hadwin’s eyes to the aesthetics of math. “I just loved it so much. I would go home and read ahead,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”

That’s when Hadwin knew he wanted to be a math professor. Quickly recognized by the other students as excelling in math, he had already been doing a lot of tutoring. As a volunteer in MSU’s Student Educational Project (STEP), he taught incoming freshman at Rust College, the oldest historically black college in Mississippi, during the summer of 1966. More teaching came when he entered the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin, but his Ph.D. studies were interrupted in 1968 by the Vietnam War. He was exempted from service, because he taught at several small colleges until the war was over.

This coming year will be Hadwin’s 30 th at UNH. In that time he has not only taught numerous undergraduate and graduate students—five Ph.D. students in one year alone—he has also worked locally with gifted high school, middle school, and elementary school students. One of Hadwin’s students, Jeremy England, at age twelve was a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Competition. England later graduated from Harvard and became a Rhodes Scholar. He has cited Hadwin as one of the greatest influence on his career. Hadwin has taught algebra to fourth and fifth graders; he even helped a third grader, later diagnosed with a learning disability, to overcome math anxiety.

There are just two or three key elements to successful teaching, according to Hadwin: “You have to really understand the material. You have to have a non-negative IQ,” he says with a smile. “And you have to really want the students to learn—you have to care.”


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