Dr. Blake Barker loves math and research, which is why he loves mathematical research.
“I recognized that math was something that I really enjoyed at a very young age,” Barker said. “It was when I got back from the mission that I decided I was going to do a straight math major.”
Barker, a new assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, matched that early interest in math with his interest in research, which he discovered as an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University.
“Certainly the thing that impacted me the most in that direction was undergraduate research,” Barker said. “I realized that I loved it, that it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn new things continuously while discovering things that have never been done before.”
The Brigham City-raised Barker knew that he was meant to attend BYU, which he did for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. It was BYU math professor Dr. Jeffrey Humpherys who helped Barker discover mathematical research as an undergraduate through an ORCA Grant proposal. And although Barker did not end up being awarded the ORCA Grant, it was Dr. Humpherys’ continued mentoring that made the most powerful impact on him.
“He gave me a problem to look at, and I worked on it,” Barker said. “I later found out it was an open problem that had never been solved, and although I certainly didn’t solve it, he could see that I made enough progress in doing the right problem-solving activities that he was willing to give me a chance.”
Barker then realized that he wanted to pursue a PhD and become a math professor. His love for research, teaching, and the research experiences that he had as an undergraduate student drove him to become a math professor—and drove him to return to his alma mater.
“We have some fantastic professors that do great work and are really good at mentoring students,” Barker said. “I know that the faculty here are very friendly and encouraging and supportive. I know that the department does a great job supporting faculty, teaching and research efforts.”
Having always been interested in applied mathematics, another draw for Barker to BYU’s mathematics department was the ACME (Applied & Computational Mathematics Emphasis) program, which prepares math students for using what they learn and research in the real world.
“That speaks to me because I like to see how math helps solve real-world problems,” Barker said. “There’s an incredible opportunity to help students with their desire to get fantastic jobs. The program has done really well.”
But his true motivation for returning to BYU as a professor after completing his doctorate at Indiana University Bloomington and a post-doc at Brown University was researching with the students.
“That’s what the undergraduate research program is all about: giving students the opportunity to do research and have that experience that will help them be successful and get positions in graduate school or jobs in industry,” Barker said.
Along with his passion for the BYU math department, Barker loves teaching at BYU because, to him, the university is simply a wonderful place.
“I know that this is where I want to be,” Barker said. “It’s incredible that we have the opportunity to support the mission at BYU of helping students come and learn and go forth and serve. It’s an incredible place where you can listen to apostles speak and other great devotional speakers.”
This semester, Barker will be teaching Math 290, or the Fundamentals of Mathematics, in which the students learn how to prove mathematical theorems.
“We have wonderful students here,” Barker said. “It’s been a real pleasure teaching and learning with them. They love to learn and they contribute, they make comments, they ask incredible questions. It’s just been a great joy.”
Like his mentors, whom he revered during his college years, Barker is excited to mentor his students and get them involved in his research projects in the areas of partial differential equations, numerical analysis, dynamical systems, and the stability of traveling waves.
“One of the projects that I have in mind is to study a numerical method that would be used for computing something called the Evans Function [an analytic function whose zeros tell you whether or not the traveling wave is stable],” Barker said. “One of the projects that I have for an undergraduate researcher is to test a model that’s not been done yet. Graduate students would be involved in studying the stability of traveling waves; they might for example be computing the Evans Function.”
It is Barker’s goal to have all of his students learn from collaborating with him on his research projects and pay it forward to BYU by helping his students achieve success in the future.
“The nice thing about my research program is that it is amenable to undergraduate and graduate research,” Barker said. “I have many collaborators and connections through this research that also provides opportunities for these students, as they go on to graduate programs, to work with wonderful mathematicians at great universities.”