Travis Dillon ’21

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University’s Travis Dillon ’21, a mathematics major who has done significant research both on and off campus, has been named a 2020 Goldwater Scholar.

This marks the second consecutive year a Lawrence student has been among the national honorees in the Goldwater program, which honors the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and was designed to foster and encourage high-achieving students in the fields of math, natural sciences, and engineering. Willa Dworschack ’20, a Lawrence physics major, was named a recipient a year ago after doing extensive research in atomic and molecular optics.

2019 Goldwater recipient earns prestigious National Science Foundation award. Details here.

Dillon is being recognized with the 2020 Goldwater award for his undergraduate research in mathematics, much of it in partnership with his Lawrence math professors.

Claire Kervin, assistant professor of English and director of Fellowships Advising at Lawrence, called Dillon a “motivated and productive” student who turned in thoughtful and well-presented work on the Goldwater application while taking part in a high-level math program in Budapest during fall and winter terms.

“He is one of the best recipients of constructive criticism I’ve seen in 15 years of assisting college writers,” Kervin said. “He is obviously deeply invested in complex research ideas, but is also capable of, even enthusiastic about, conveying these erudite concepts to others with differing levels of expertise.” 

Dillon, now back in his home state of Washington working remotely during spring term, said his research speaks to his deep love of mathematics.

“Although they have all been in mathematics, their focus varies quite a bit,” he said of his research projects. “I think it’s perhaps not widely known, but research mathematics comes in a lot of flavors. At a high level, geometry studies the properties of rigid structures, topology studies what happens when you’re allowed to bend and stretch them, number theory investigates the properties of counting numbers, which contains surprisingly deep questions and interesting questions.”

Much of Dillon’s research has focused in an area known as combinatorics, including developing a new combinatorial theory of Gaussian blur, a commonly used technique in computer science to “filter out noise from data,” and investigating symbolic dynamics. His work has taken him to Texas A&M’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a research program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and, most recently, to Budapest to study in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM) program. He was to be there during spring term as well, but the COVID-19 pandemic rerouted him to his Washington home, where he is finishing the Budapest program online.

“I applied because it was recommended to me as the best mathematics study abroad program, and quite literally everyone I asked about the program had nothing but incredible praise for the program,” Dillon said of BSM.

Two of Dillon’s four undergraduate research projects have led to published papers with his professors. The other two have papers in the works.

He praised Lawrence’s math faculty for challenging and inspiring him, and highlighted his research work with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Elizabeth Sattler. He worked with her on the symbolic dynamics research.

“Our main goal was to answer a question from one of Professor Sattler’s previous projects,” Dillon said. “Over the course of the project, I introduced a much larger class of symbolic dynamical systems and answered the question in this more general setting. This was my favorite research project. I really enjoyed working with Professor Sattler, and my research ended up incorporating combinatorics, algebra, analysis, and even a hint of number theory. This sort of interdisciplinary thinking in mathematics is very exciting to me.”

After graduating from Lawrence next year, Dillon plans to attend graduate school in pursuit of a Ph.D. in mathematics.

The Goldwater honor will do nothing but help as he moves forward. It is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in the math and science fields, and is administered by the Goldwater Foundation, a federally endowed agency established in 1986. Goldwater Scholars have impressive academic and research credentials that garner the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs.

“It’s affirmation that I’m on the right track to accomplish my goals,” Dillon said. “I have also put a lot of work into my mathematical endeavors—taking advanced courses, enrolling in multiple reading courses at Lawrence, conducting research, some of it independently, studying mathematics intensely in Budapest. As with everyone, it’s really nice when these efforts are recognized.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu