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Spencer Whitehead recipient of the Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Spencer WhiteheadSpencer Whitehead, a Pure Mathematics major with and a minor in East Asian studies, is the recipient of the prestigious Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.

Spencer Whitehead, a top student in the Pure Math program was nominated by his research supervisor Associate Professor Matthew Satriano. Professor Satriano first met Spencer as his professor in PMath 347 in 2018. In class, Spencer was never one who stole the show rather he sat back, ready to answer the question when no one else knew the answer. Spencer further impressed his professor by sharing alternate and usually slicker solutions to homework problems.

During the Spring 2020 term, Spencer completed a four-month term supervised by Professor Satriano and funded by an NSERC USRA award. The goal of the project was to make progress towards a conjecture connecting certain algebraic properties of representations of reductive groups with geometric properties.

To ready himself for this project, Spencer independently read through Parts II and III of the notoriously difficult book ‘Representation Theory’ by Fulton and Harris. This may be a daunting task for PhD students, but Spencer did this all while doing a co-op internship at Citadel in Chicago.

To get a sense of what Spencer’s research accomplished, it took a big step forward on Popov’s question, answering it for irreducible representations of simple Lie groups. Throughout the research process, Spencer took a leading role, both in terms of theoretical and computational methods. Using his computational wizardry, Spencer was able to reduce numerous exceptional cases down to only two. Furthermore, Spencer single-handedly took care of two of the infinite families of Lie groups as well as the exceptional cases, which is especially notable as the exceptional Lie groups tend to be the most difficult to work with.

Professor Satriano commented about Spencer, “he is independent, insightful, and mathematically mature beyond his years; I felt as if I was working with a collaborator rather than a student.”

This research led Spencer to co-author the paper ‘On a smoothness characterization for good moduli spaces’ with Dan Edidin and Professor Satriano. A preprint of the paper has been submitted to the arXiv and is undergoing review by a journal.

With a bright future ahead of him, Spencer has been accepted to the University of Tokyo, where he plans to complete his master’s degree. He comments, “Moving on in my career, it is my hope that I will continue to be able to collaborate with the excellent mathematicians I have worked with thus far, and that I will continue to output research at a level deserving of this award.”

About the Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Professor Ming Li and his family created this award in honour and memory of his late wife, Jessie Wenhui Zou.

With this award, the family wishes to support research activities at the undergraduate level within the Faculty of Mathematics to carry on Jessie’s passion for education. The spirit of this award is to acknowledge research achieved by students in their final year of any program within the Faculty of Mathematics.

An award, valued at $1,000, is presented annually to an undergraduate that has demonstrated excellence in research and has been nominated by a faculty member who has supervised that research.

Past awardees