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Sharing the beauty of math

[Kevser Aktas]
Kevser Aktas, a post-doctoral fellow in mathematics, believes that mathematical methods, games and applications can be used to develop creativity and artistic skills, as well as promote an active lifestyle of outdoor activity and sport. (University Communications)

Although her domain of number theory is among the more abstract reaches of maths, Kevser Aktas, a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University, has innovated ways of reaching out to show people “the beauty of mathematics” at the same time as mobilizing the problem-solving skills at the heart of that beauty for an astonishing variety of aims.

Dr. Aktas’ belief is that mathematical methods, games and applications can be used to develop creativity and artistic skills, as well as promote an active lifestyle of outdoor activity and sport. In March 2014 she set out to realize this ideal by working with the EU initiative Erasmus+ to host the first offering of “Mathematics for All!!!” This weeklong program in her native Turkey united people between the ages of 18 and 25 from Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, Spain and UK.

It was a natural step for Dr. Aktas to work with the Erasmus+ Programme, which aims to boost skills and employability for EU youth, as well as modernising education, training, and youth work. During her master’s studies at Turkey’s Selcuk University, she worked as a mathematics teacher in an elementary school. In her PhD at Gazi University in the Turkish capital Ankara, her teaching expanded to undergraduate courses and she also began volunteering with a program for teachers in training who were blind or had visual impairment.

Dr. Aktas’ internationalizing ambitions brought her next to Queen’s University to work with the world-renowned number theorist Ram Murty. Since there’s no learning quite like teaching – in a second language, no less – Dr. Aktas quickly became the first post-doctoral researcher to present at the 3MT competition in March of this year.  Her talk, entitled “The Impact of Powerful Numbers,” was also the first number theoretical research subject to be presented at a 3MT event. The branch of number theory is sometimes called “The Queen of Mathematics” because of its foundational place in the discipline.

“An integer is called a powerful number if a prime number divides it, and then the square of that prime number also divides it,” explains Dr. Aktas. She and Dr. Murty actually made the discovery that pairs of consecutive powerful numbers were predicted by a kind of equation they dubbed the Brahmagupta-Pell Equation. “It is not easy to find all consecutive powerful number pairs, which makes them very special.”

Nor is it known whether there are an infinite or finite number of pairs. But it is worth searching for the answer because of their relationship with prime numbers, which are key to encryption, she says. “The prime factorization of very large integers is used in cryptography,” a practice only becoming more important as digital tech becomes ubiquitous.

“The idea of presenting at 3MT was attractive for me because sometimes when you go deep into your research, it is not easy to see the big picture,” says Dr. Aktas. “3MT gave me the opportunity to look at my research from that perspective.”

On the heels of 3MT, Dr. Aktas traveled to present her research at the Canadian Mathematical Society’s Summer Meeting at the University of Prince Edward Island, where she also showed the video of her 3MT presentation.

“Because most of the conference-goers were also coming from universities in Canada they were a little familiar with the competition, but none had participated,” she says. “They liked the concept so much. I believe that these activities are motivating for people who work on pure mathematics.”

Dr. Aktas has also taken advantage of other training activities arranged by School of Graduate Studies and the Office of Postdoctoral Training to improve her professional skills.

“I attended Career Week just three weeks after I arrived to Queen’s,” she recalls, “and I still use the tips from that training, including effective writing for CVs, resumes, and cover letters.”

She also enrolled in SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education through the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

These activities have been opportunities for building a social community in Kingston, too.

“Kingston is a very nice place to live, with its history and natural beauty,” Dr. Aktas says. “I will never forget these experiences I’ve had here because of Queen’s.”

This article was first published on the website of the School of Graduate Studies.