Matt Ondrus (2021)
The recipient of the John S. Hinckley award, Matt Ondrus, has found math and tennis have a lot in common. He studied mathematics at Ripon College in Wisconsin where he played tennis for the college team.
“I have a friend I've played, probably 20 times, in tennis. He is better than I am, and I've never beaten him. I came close — once, I was a point away,” Ondrus said. “I try to tell myself that someday I can solve that problem and figure out how to beat him. I want students to feel that way about math (though preferably with more success than I have in my tennis). It might be hard, but math problems can be solved with enough work. And the feeling you get when you solve a problem is pretty great.”
As a student, Ondus said he had the gift of caring professors who gave him “countless hours” and supported his interests in mathematics all the way from Ripon as an undergraduate to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a Ph.D. to a postdoctoral teaching position at the University of Arizona, Tucson. In his postdoctoral position, he helped with a large National Science Foundation grant addressing mathematical teaching and learning for Latino/a students.
“It gave me chances to work with teachers, students, faculty and others who helped me to see that mathematical learning was much more than I thought it was,” Ondrus said.
When Ondrus joined the Weber State faculty in 2007, he brought a strong commitment to make math accessible and achievable for all students.
He serves as the advisor to math majors, but also co-chairs the Quantitative Literacy Task Force, which is focused on the math requirements for non-majors. The task force has helped identify concerns, challenges and successes to make improvements in general math education. Thanks in part to the recommendations of the committee, the math completion rate for first-year students has increased by 20% in the past six years. That’s important because students who complete math in their first year stay in school and graduate at a higher rate than those who do not.
To help improve the chance for student success in the university’s core math class, 1050, Ondrus also offers a one-week course before fall and spring semesters for students who took the prerequisite, but feel they need a refresher. He also assists with various aspects of Concurrent Enrollment math courses, which provide college-level credit to high school students. At the same time, he’s helped create a calculus curriculum that meets the needs of engineering and computer science students.
Associate Provost Eric Amsel co-chairs the Quantitative Literacy Task Force with Ondrus. “Matt’s impact on student success at the department, college and institutional levels cannot be understated,” he wrote in a nomination letter. “Dr. Ondrus is exceptionally talented, deeply committed and has brought significant change to the department, college and university.”
In his research, Ondrus focuses on the area of “Lie algebra representation theory,” which studies symmetry, using an algebraic lens. He and research colleague Emilie Wiesner from Ithaca College in New York have written a number of papers on the topic, including “Whittaker modules for the Virasoso algebra,” which was published in the “Journal of Algebra,” in 2018. Their work generalized results known since the 1970s and is cited by other researchers.
Ondrus tells students, math is a gateway to interesting topics and rewarding careers. He wants to make sure they are ready to compete.
The John S. Hinckley Fellow Fund was established in November 1990 to honor a faculty member who has excelled in teaching, scholarship and service. John Hinckley was president of the Dodge dealership in Ogden. He also was president of the Utah Automobile Dealers Association in 1962 and served as president of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1973. Hinckley chaired the Weber State College Centennial Gift Campaign from 1986-1989 and received an honorary degree from Weber State in 1989.