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When Mathematics Chooses You: Greg Coxson’s MAA Story

Mathematical concepts are fascinating in their own right, but to Greg Coxson, the most interesting part of mathematics comes in its applications. Throughout his education, Coxson found himself constantly asking: where does mathematics show up in the world, and how can it be used to make the world better? Though he would later become chair of the Mathematical Association of America’s (MAA) Business, Industry, and Government Special Interest Group (BIG SIGMAA), as a young mathematician, Coxson often struggled to answer these questions.

When it came time for Coxson to pick a major as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, he found himself torn between passion and practicality. After speaking with a guidance counselor, Coxson realized something about himself that still holds true to this day: above all else, he “wanted to use mathematics to help others make better decisions.” However, fear and uncertainty about whether he could find a job with a mathematics degree took over, and he decided to major in physics instead, which he considered to be the safer option at the time.

I wanted to use mathematics to help others make better decisions.

Greg Coxson

After three years of studying physics, though, Coxson wasn’t satisfied. He hadn’t connected with his physics professors as much as he’d hoped to and he wasn’t excited about his field. However, what had excited him were the math classes he’d taken as part of his degree, particularly a class on combinatorics — a field of mathematics dealing with questions of selection, arrangement, and operation within a finite or discrete system. Although he already had enough credits to graduate after three years, Coxson followed his passion and stayed an extra year to finish an additional major in mathematics. That year, he exclusively took pure and applied mathematics courses. “I loved that last year so much,” he remembers fondly.

This love took Coxson on another leap of faith when he decided to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics. “I quit my job, packed up my Chevy Nova with all my possessions, and drove to Wisconsin.” He didn’t have a place to live or a teaching assistantship lined up, but he was determined to make it work. So determined, in fact, that he sold his car shortly after arriving — a symbolic (and literal) reminder that he couldn’t give up.

After finishing his master’s degree, Coxson decided to stay at the University of Wisconsin to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. On the surface, this transition might have seemed like another turn toward practicality; but in reality, it only solidified his passion for mathematics. As Coxson worked on his dissertation, which took a more mathematical approach to the field, he found himself frequently walking over to the school’s mathematics library, diving deep into journals such as Linear Algebra and Its Applications and Multilinear Algebra. To this day, Coxson loves going to libraries and checking out the latest mathematical journals. Looking back, Coxson recalls his Ph.D. in electrical engineering as a turning point in his mathematical journey — the moment when he truly fell in love with mathematics. He considers this a human phenomenon: “Once the pressure is off; once you don’t have to excel at fall in love with it.”

Coxson crossed another professional threshold a few years later when he attended his first MAA Section meeting. He was initially a little uncertain about his decision to spend a sunny Saturday morning inside a classroom; and as an industry mathematician, he felt slightly out of place. However, one presenter changed his mind. When professor and “mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin began his presentation on the magic and beauty of Fibonacci numbers, Coxson was immediately hooked. He was fascinated by the unique perspective Benjamin brought to mathematics and grateful for the community that introduced him to it. Coxson started attending every MAA meeting after that.

Though Coxson was excited by the community he’d found, he still occasionally felt out of place as an engineer at mathematical meetings among predominantly academic mathematicians. He remembered all of the doubts and struggles he faced throughout his own career and decided he wanted to help make the community better for others. It was a goal born out of love for the math community and concern for younger mathematicians who would need a support system as they navigated the challenges of their own mathematical journeys. 

So, Coxson became increasingly involved in both his local MAA New Jersey Section and MAA’s BIG SIGMAA. He started by leading discussions at New Jersey Section meetings on topics that were relevant to industry mathematicians, such as “How does a Mathematics student find a job in industry?” or “Should Mathematicians in industry continue to publish?” Eventually, he began bringing those questions to wider audiences in MAA’s BIG SIGMAA, starting discussions on the SIGMAA’s listserv and creating an electronic newsletter to explore different niches in applied mathematics. Coxson went on to hold an officer position in BIG SIGMAA and even served on the MAA Board of Governors for three years. Now, Coxson teaches cyber security, principles of radar, and circuit theory as a professor in the electrical engineering department at the U.S. Naval Academy. He remains very active in MAA.

Looking back at his journey, Coxson adds a final note: “My trajectory to mathematics was far from straight. I was good at math in school, but for a long time, I was afraid of choosing math for a number of reasons. In high school, I was afraid it was not ‘cool,’ and later on, I wondered if I could make a living at it. This may seem a bit cliche, but I did not choose mathematics as much as it chose me.”

This may seem a bit cliche, but I did not choose mathematics as much as it chose me.

Greg Coxson

Throughout our conversation, Coxson repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the mathematical community that has enriched his life. We at the MAA are equally grateful to him for spearheading efforts to make our organization and the greater mathematics community more inclusive to all people interested in the beauty of mathematics.