My Winthrop Experience

Name: Zach Abernathy
Position: Associate professor of mathematics
College: Arts and Science
Department: Department of Mathematics


As a child, Zach Abernathy felt comfortable working with numbers.

It was easy for him to follow sports statistics, count Monopoly money, and to work number puzzles in his books and in Highlights magazines.

"In school, I remember highly enjoying the speed quizzes where you'd have to compute about 50 arithmetic problems in a minute or so," said Abernathy, now a Winthrop associate professor of mathematics. "That was probably the first time I realized I had some talent, and I was fortunate to have excellent teachers that helped me shape it from there."

Abernathy didn't attend college intending to teach. It wasn't on his radar until he went to graduate school.

There he stood in front of the classroom as a teaching assistant, started sharing his enthusiasm for mathematics and became addicted to it. "While simply being passionate about the subject is enough to reach most students, I am constantly seeking out new ways to motivate and connect with all types of diverse learners," said Abernathy.

One recent example was the development of a modernized mathematical modeling course that includes a primer on mathematical careers, as well as a unit on modeling using 3D printers.

He uses the lessons learned from excellent mentors along the way, which includes how to bring math alive in the classroom, how to build a vigorous and collaborative research program, and how to dream big and set a high bar for himself and his students.

One great learning experience for him at Winthrop has been the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Only about 50 institutions nationwide are supported by this grant annually, so Abernathy said Winthrop was very fortunate to receive the award.

"It gave me the opportunity to work with talented and enthusiastic undergraduates from around the country," Abernathy said. "These undergraduate research experiences have also allowed me to witness profound transformative impacts on the students who participate in them, and it's one of the times I feel like I'm making the most of a difference in my career."

Another project Abernathy has worked on is data analysis for the Office of Admissions to determine factors that predict students' academic success at Winthrop. "It feels good to use my mathematical training in a way that could directly benefit the university's recruitment and retention efforts, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to share these findings with the administration," he said.

In the classroom, Abernathy is intrigued by the science of motivation, and learning about various ways to foster a deep intrinsic drive for students to want to learn. "I also want to build stronger internship connections for our math majors to assist with job placements after graduation," he said.

For many of these efforts, Abernathy was one of two faculty members named in May as 2018 Outstanding Junior Professor of the Year.

He plans on applying for a Research for Undergraduate Institutions grant through the NSF to continue supporting his undergraduate research program. And Abernathy will seek new collaborators to begin exploring more cross-disciplinary problems in the realm of cancer and infectious disease modeling.

A final goal for Abernathy is to mentor junior faculty members at Winthrop and around the region to support their involvement in various initiatives as they begin their careers.