As it provides required courses for all majors, Mathematics is understandably one of the largest departments on campus. The Math faculty, however, out-produce much larger schools. ultoday.com interviewed Department Head Dr. Roger Waggoner recently.

Tell us about yourself.

Believe it or not, I was born on a farm in Iowa. I drove by my birth place a few years ago, and the farm house had been moved. It was in the middle of nowhere, next to a town of about 90 people.

But 3 or 4 miles up the road, there was a town of about 700.

We left the farm when I was very young, and when I was 3 1/2 or so, we moved to Iowa Falls, about 5,500 people at that time, maybe still.

My father was originally a farmer. During the War he went to work for a hemp plant, and hemp still grows wild all over Iowa.

After the war, he went to work for Ralston Purina when they opened a big soybean plant in Iowa Falls.

In school I hunted & fished & golfed & swam. I had older brothers and sisters, and one of my brothers is an organist and choir director. When I graduated, he was in New Orleans.

I was thinking about becoming a high school teacher, looking at Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa, about 45 miles down the road. But my brother suggested I give Tulane a try. I got a scholarship, and enrolled as a math major.

I took some upper level stuff at Tulane as an undergrad, which was pretty challenging. I also met my wife, May.

Was she challenging?

No comment. She was singing in my brother's choir, and I had also met her casually on campus.

She did her junior year abroad in France, so we didn't start dating until her senior year. She went into the graduate program in French, I actually moved up the road to Tigerland. There was a general policy in schools at that time that they didn't want to take their own kids into the graduate programs, or I would have stayed at Tulane.

After I had been in Baton Rouge a year, May finished her doctorate coursework in French, so she could commute once a week from Baton Rouge to finish her dissertation.

We were married in 1965, she got her doctorate in '68-- ahead of me, because she skipped 2nd grade-- and I got my PhD in '69.

She was very pregnant when I graduated, and I came over here to UL and interviewed with Zeke Loflin, who was Department Head at that time.

He's the person the UL supercomputer Zeke is named for?

Yeah, I believe he was responsible in large part for getting the first computer on this campus. He'd been Department Head for 23 years when I interviewed.

He hired me, and then he quit.

You head up one of the largest departments on campus.

We have about 40 faculty. We also have about 40 graduate students. Most of those, maybe 35 of them, are doctoral students and many of those are teaching. We also have some adjunct faculty.

Last Fall we had 75 people teaching mathematics, but that's not the highest number we've ever had. I think back when the remedial classes were still large, we had maybe 85 people teaching.

In the Fall of 1999, we had about 2600 or 2700 students in remedial or developmental math. When admissions standards were implemented, UL's enrollment dropped by 1500, and developmental math enrollment dropped by 1500.

We've also grown the undergraduate program. I advise the undergraduate math majors; there aren't a lot of them, but when I started about 10 years ago there were maybe 12. Now, including the double majors, we have about 70.

I enjoy working with them because they're some of the best students in the University. We're talking about kids starting in Calculus III or Differential Equations. Some of our graduates have been very successful in graduate school at places like Texas, UGA, Berkeley, Tulane. Some have earned MBAs, some work as actuaries, some are in the military, one is in pharmacy school, and one is working on a PhD at Baylor in cancer research-- and leading his classes, by the way.

Mathematics is one of the 9 doctoral programs at Louisiana. Talk about that.

The doctoral program is amazingly productive considering our size. One year we produced more PhDs in mathematics than the states of Kansas and Oklahoma combined.

In the last rankings for external funding we made the top 100 nationally, right behind Cal Tech. Those rankings are independent of the size of the department, and there are a lot of departments larger than we are. In addition, those were based on either 2004 or 2005 numbers, so we expect to jump up significantly this year, and with future data.

Tell us about your faculty.

We have some very strong research faculty, several with well over a hundred research publications.

Last year Azmy Ackleh was named to the Authément Chair for Computational Mathematics. He and Keng Deng are doing research in mathematical biology. They work in the area of population dynamics, which is adapted to studying invasive species, epidemics, terrorist attacks. The neat thing is that Azmy has a big NSF grant with Susan Mopper in Biology and Jacoby Carter from the National Wetlands Research Center for undergraduate research. The students involved are either math or biology majors, so they get field work and theoretical work. Using sophisticated mathematical ideas to attack biological problems is a new tack, that I don't think is a passing fad. There are so many possibilities with biology and math, they're both huge fields and we're just scratching the surface. Azmy has also gotten a fair amount of National Science Foundation funding for his own research.

Kalimuthu Krishnamoorthy has a large grant from the National Institutes of Health to check the reliability of the methods of analysis in drug testing.

Vic Schneider and Kathleen Lopez have received numerous large grants, from the Board of Regents and others, working with in-service math teachers and also curriculum development for pre-service teachers.

Gary Birkenmeier is an algebraist, internationally known for his work in the theory of algebraic rings and modules.

Christo Christov is doing numerical analysis. At one time, he was in Spain working to predict weather. He's also doing some collaboration with the Physics Department. One of his PhD students used an interesting interdisciplinary approach to fluid mechanics.

UL has new leadership, growing enrollments, increased funding, and selective admissions. Talk about the future.

I want to get bigger and better. People always say we need a mission statement, and I always say, "We wanna get bigger and better."

Better is more important.

How do you define better?

First, we're always working to improve instructional quality, at all levels. You can always improve the quality of your graduates: undergrads, Master's, and PhDs.

We have a very good research faculty, but we can always upgrade in terms of quality and quantity, and the amount of external funding.

There's often a trade-off between research and instruction, particularly undergraduate instruction.

I think many of our researchers are excellent undergraduate teachers. Of course as researchers, they don't teach a lot of courses at any level, but they do teach some undergraduate courses. About half of our regular faculty are devoted mostly to teaching.

Sometimes I think we get a bad rap for our undergraduate teaching because to a certain bit there's an attitude of resistance to mathematics. But I read every evaluation the UL students write about our faculty, and the comments for the great majority of our faculty are positive.

As Department Head, I've tried to emphasize the importance of good undergraduate teaching-- well, teaching at all levels-- and I've tried to recognize and reward good teachers. But sometimes I'm limited.

Why should a student study at Louisiana instead of elsewhere?

In general, we have small classes in mathematics, so it's easy for students to interact with faculty. I know of several institutions where, for example, in college algebra students go to a computer lab 3 times a week, and only meet with a person maybe 50 minutes a week. Those schools will brag about how successful they are, but they're only successful in teaching rote skills. If all you learn to do is run the equations-- well a computer can do that, better, faster, and cheaper.

On the other hand, here at UL we stress conceptual and verbal analysis, and explanation. And in general, we have a faculty who cares about serious students.

You don't find that everywhere.