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Embracing infinity: Mathematics alum wins national dissertation award

Heather Wilber

When asked what she finds so appealing about mathematics, Boise State alum Heather Wilber laughs and replies, “I could talk a lot about this.” And she does. Mathematics and the way in which it embraces the complicated reality of infinity is something Wilber is passionate about. It definitely shows.

Wilber is one of the 2022 winners of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) Dissertation Prize for her dissertation titled “Computing numerically with rational functions,” published at Cornell.

But long before Wilber felt the pull of mathematics, she thought she would be a poet or a writer. Despite performing well in STEM classes at her Caldwell High School, she enjoyed writing and language, and the positive reinforcement she received in those areas made her believe that English and writing were her real strengths.

“I think that we cement these ideas in children’s heads very early on, especially with girls. There have been studies that show a lot of girls are good at math, but they’re really good at English and writing at a young age. So they tend to get a lot of praise in that area, and think ‘Well, this is what I’m really good at’ and they drop off the other side [of their talents].”

Fast-forward to undergrad. Wilber took an undergraduate class at the University of Idaho that piqued her interest in mathematics, colloquially called “Math for Poets”. When she transferred to Boise State to be closer to her family, she signed up for a calculus class with Professor Otis Kenny. It was a pivotal moment for Wilber.

“It was the most fun, amazing, beautiful class I’ve ever taken,” Wilber said.

“What I really appreciate about calculus is that when we try to understand the real world, a lot of what we do is we break it up into simple segments and chunks, right? If I want to understand the area under a curve, I can break that space into a bunch of little rectangles because rectangles are easy to work with. What calculus says is, ‘If you want to know the exact answer, the true answer, you have to consider what happens at infinity.’”

“This image is a phase plot of a rational function I used in my dissertation research. It tells us interesting things about how to compute solutions to certain matrix equations and how to construct digital filters,” Wilber said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in both mathematics and English, Wilber took a suggestion from an advisor and traveled the world with her husband, Daniel, also a Boise State alum. They lived in South Korea, then Istanbul, where Wilber gave birth to her first son, James.

When they returned to Idaho, Wilber joined her husband at Rimrock High School, in Owyhee County, Idaho and taught math to rural Idaho students. Wilber loved it.

“I got to be really active in designing curriculum and the students were just incredible, I deeply enjoyed spending my time with them.”

Wilber then chose to pursue her masters in applied mathematics at Boise State. Alongside Professor Grady Wright, Wilber dove into developing algorithms and software that allows non-experts to more easily perform advanced computations, such as those taught in calculus, in spherical and cylindrical geometries. This research caught the attention of NASA, and Wilber scooped up an NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium fellowship in 2015.

​​Upon graduating with her masters, her thesis won the Boise State 2017 Distinguished Thesis in STEM award, and she also earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. With this paid fellowship, Wilber advanced her education at Cornell University, where she continued tackling the patterns, paradoxes and problems that for her, make math enticing.

She earned her doctorate in applied mathematics in May 2021 from Cornell University, supervised by Professor Alex Townsend. While completing her doctorate, Wilber’s family also grew with the addition of a son named Owen.

“Heather is the quintessential model of an applied mathematician: one with a strong foundation in theory, a propensity for analysis, a talent for computing, and an unquenchable curiosity,” said Wright. “I couldn’t be more proud of the many accomplishments she’s made since finishing her master’s thesis at Boise State. This latest award from the AWM further solidifies Heather as one of the top scholars in her field and illustrates the bright future she has ahead.”

Wilber is now a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Oden Institute, University of Texas at Austin, and winner of multiple prestigious awards. She conducts mathematical research with a group that is interested in studying and modeling the physics of waves and electric fields.

Her advice to current students? Be audacious.

“Even now, I am deeply committed to constantly learning new things. After I got my doctorate, the first thing I did was sign up for an improv theater class because I want to be learning new things all the time and I want to be uncomfortable,” Wilber said. “You know what I mean? I feel like discomfort is something you need in order to learn.”