A Different Kind of Mathematical Mind

Brian Parkes, PhD student in Mathematics and alum of the VERSE program, is getting a preview of what could lie ahead professionally as he pursues his dream of becoming a mathematics professor.
Brian Parkes

By Dan O'Sullivan

Growing up, Brian Parkes, PhD Candidate in Mathematics, didn't consider himself a math whiz. But thanks to some supportive math teachers in high school, he developed a solid backbone in the discipline and eventually an interest in teaching it.

At first, Parkes imagined teaching math in high school. That changed after he was accepted to Penn State's Millennial Scholars Program, whose mission is to increase the diversity of professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. (Parkes is Puerto Rican and nonbinary.)

"I had a big group of people at Penn State who supported me and encouraged me to focus more on research and pursuing a PhD," Parkes said. "They gave me a much better understanding of what my future could look like, so I decided to shoot a little higher and aim to teach college-level math."

Parkes is now in his first year of the doctoral mathematics program at Tufts University.

An Intimate Environment

In summer 2020, Parkes took part in Visiting and Early Research Scholars’ Experiences (VERSE), a research program at Tufts that provides culturally competent mentoring for underrepresented undergraduate students.

"My research project's goal was to draw well-defined top-down images of objects by using data on how radio waves bounce off of said object — similar to how sonar waves bounce off of objects," he said. "In turn, we could then tell how far away that object is."

Parkes worked with math professor Todd Quinto on this research, which he later made the subject of his senior honors thesis at Penn State.

In looking into graduate schools, Tufts was one of the schools that stood out to Parkes. After being a student in an enormous math department at Penn State, he liked the idea of studying in the more intimate environment of the Tufts Department of Mathematics.

"I remember going to Accepted Students Day and seeing how excited the professors were to see the students, and that kind of atmosphere was a big part of my decision to come to Tufts," Parkes said. "It's a very communal experience here — a small department where the students and faculty all know each other."

In addition to his coursework, Parkes is doing research in the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab, a joint initiative of the Math and Psychology departments. The lab conducts research to enhance the understanding of memory fallibility and how to minimize those failings.

"Getting a chance to work in a lab that is mathematical and focused on the betterment of teaching math is really important to me," he said. "It supports my interest in math education, and I think it will be a good jumping-off point for my studies."

Finding Humor in the Mundane

Parkes shares an apartment with one member of his program cohort, and they regularly join their seven other cohort mates for concerts, dinners, and other social activities. When time permits, he enjoys doing stand-up comedy, a long-time interest.

"I write stand-up all the time and perform on occasion. I do a lot of storytelling and observational humor," he said. "Any time something happens in life, I like to see if I can turn it into a joke. Even if I'm struggling through an exam and pulling out my hair, I'll write a joke about how ridiculous I look. Math isn't always fun, so writing comedy is a great break from it."

While Parkes is at least four years away from earning that "PhD" after his name, he does have a sense of his desired career path: After Tufts, he hopes to enter a post-doctoral program and eventually become a tenure-track professor at a large university.

Parkes is now getting a preview of what could lie ahead for him professionally. He teaches six weekly sections of an opt-in calculus workshop for undergraduate students, planning lectures and assignments and tailoring the coursework based on evolving student needs.

"The experience is giving me a really good view into what my future could hold," he said. "It's been a great opportunity to explore teaching."