Tuesday, January 24th, 2017
Love of math adds up to a prestigious award for area native
By Ed Gebert
A Fort Recovery native has been awarded a prize considered by many to be second in importance to only the Nobel Prize.
Richard Schoen, 66, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, and valedictorian of the 1968 graduating class of Fort Recovery High School won the 2017 Wolf Prize in Mathematics.
"It's quite an honor," Schoen said.
Awards in six categories are awarded annually. The Wolf Award is presented by Israel's Wolf Foundation to winners worldwide and this year's laureates are from the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
Schoen serves as excellence in teaching chair at UCI. He is being honored for geometric analysis and the understanding of the interconnectedness of partial differential equations and differential geometry.
As a student, as a teacher and as a researcher, mathematics has been Schoen's lifelong work.
"Pretty much since I was 13 or 14, it was my big subject," he said. "My two two older brothers are both mathematicians. Hal, who is about 10 years older than I am, was in college when I was in middle school. Jim, who is about five years older, was in college when I was in high school. They were certainly role models for me at a young age."
Schoen grew up as the 10th of 13 siblings on a farm on Mercer-Darke County Road. His parents, Arnold and Rose Schoen, raised several very good students, despite the fact they themselves had had little schooling. Rose Schoen had been forced to quit school at age 16 to work at home.
"My mother was quite interested in learning. She really encouraged the children a lot in school," Schoen remembered. "My father was not so much interested in school but was a very creative guy. He enjoyed inventing things on the farm. He had a lot of practical ideas, so he provided some kind of intellectual curiosity too, which probably stimulated the kids."
The family remained on the farm until Arnold Schoen decided to give up the profession.
"When I was 16, we moved off the farm," Richard Schoen said. "My father retired and we moved into Sharpsburg, about a mile and a half away. I spent my last two years of high school in that little town."
Despite moving into town, Schoen didn't give up farm work, helping out instead at a neighbor's farm.
"I actually kind of enjoyed that work. Living on the farm. I liked being outdoors because you have a lot of freedom, in a way," he said. "It's great for thinking. You're sitting on the tractor all day plowing the field, you have a lot of time to think your thoughts. I think focus is really important for people who are going to do sort of academic work, and farming gives you the opportunity to do that, so I think that's a good background."
Leaving the Fort Recovery area after graduation, Schoen studied mathematics at the University of Dayton, as his older brothers had done. He was the third in the family to receive a doctorate in math.
"I certainly learned a lot (at UD). That was important in my development," he said. "I sort of learned what math research was about, which of course, I didn't really know in high school. I started to realize you could actually make a living doing math research and teaching, which I also enjoyed, so I just went on with it from there."
In the following years, Schoen taught and did research at Stanford, California-Berkeley, NYU and Princeton before taking a position at UCI.
"My role here has evolved a little bit over the years," he said. "I was department chair for a while. I do more administrative work than I used to do. I'll probably continue with that. What I enjoy most is the mathematics, the research and also my Ph.D. students. I enjoy working with them. I've had quite a number of very successful ones. That's another contribution that I seem to be able to make."
Aside from his older brothers, Schoen said he had quite a few local influences during his early education. Because of his early interest in math, teachers went out of their way to help.
"I also had a high school teacher in my freshman and sophomore years who took a lot of interest in me. His name was Ray Garver. In my last two years, there was a new young teacher, Ron Shoemaker, at Fort Recovery who was a great help to me," he said.
Schoen will receive the Wolf Prize in a June 11 ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem.