FLCC to Ph.D. Part 2: This thing called math

About two years into his career teaching mathematics at FLCC, Charles Hoffman ’01 set in motion a chain of events that has advanced the development of cloaking technology.

All he did was answer a student’s question. That student, Ryan Vogt, had signed up for Charles’ class to fulfill a requirement for computer science. Ryan had hated math in high school.

Male student in front of NC State sign
Ryan Vogt ’13 is on track to earn his doctorate in mathematics from North Carolina State University this spring./Photo by Ken Martin

“He took the time to tell me a story about why math was important,” Ryan explained. “He spent a great amount of time with me.”

Ryan is now finishing up his Ph.D. in mathematics at North Carolina State University and has spent the last two summers working at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. His research has included solving problems in the development of binary electromagnetic cloaking, the science of manipulating the paths of light to make an object optically invisible.

Ryan is among the alumni who credit FLCC as the springboard for careers in research. In each case a person or program at the college was just what they needed at just the right moment.

Cover of The Laker magazine
Ryan’s story is one of several in the Winter/Spring edition of The Laker magazine. Click this image to read the electronic version.

Nationally, community colleges get attention for their agility in developing applied programs to meet local needs. Think of courses for wind turbine technicians at two-year schools in the Midwest and FLCC’s viticulture and wine technology degree.

It is not uncommon, however, for students who got their start at community college to pursue doctoral degrees. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 11 percent of those who earned doctoral degrees in 2016-17 entered higher education at a community college. The proportion was highest in the health and clinical sciences in which 21.5 percent of all those who earned doctoral research degrees started at a two-year school.

Ryan did not set out to get a doctorate, but a mix of persistence, curiosity and the encouragement from the people in his life led him down one path, then another. “I just kept coming back day after day, and somehow I got there,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he and his colleagues at the Argonne lab have the same story: Math was something they needed to get out of high school. “When our teachers explained math to us, it wasn’t about the purpose of math. We thought we hated this thing called math, and we didn’t even know what this thing was,” he said.

That changed as he took classes with Ronald Metzger, Timothy Biehler and in particular, Charles Hoffman. “He was really engaging and I liked listening to him. If I had a question, he would have a conversation about it,” Ryan said, adding, “I really felt like it didn’t matter if you were the best in the class or barely had a pulse, he would help you. It’s amazing how just making a small amount of effort can just massively affect a kid down the line.”

FLCC gave Ryan the confidence and maturity to transfer to Rochester Institute of Technology. “If I had started with college at RIT, I don’t think I would have survived,” he said.

As a graduate student at North Carolina State University, he has spent the last two summers at Argonne where his focus has been solving problems by combining his expertise in optimization theory, partial differential equations and numerical analysis. He has applied his work to problems associated with the development of binary electromagnetic cloaks.

Ryan has had the opportunity to teach as well. “I see it as some sort of pay-it-forward system. Others invested in me, so I invest in my students. I am willing to spend time to talk to someone, regardless of where they are in the math adventure.”

Tomorrow, Part 3: studying chernobyl

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Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the community affairs director at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.