To Ramon van Handel, the mathematics of randomness has the potential to touch on everything, from finding a cure for cancer to creating a better weather prediction system, which is why the Dutch professor dives into this universe with fervor to better understand it.
“What makes me excited is when I understand a basic probabilistic principle,” he said. “Such principles lie at the heart of many phenomena that you see around you, which means you can then understand the foundation of what different phenomena have in common.”
In 2001, as part of his undergraduate career, the mathematician spent a year doing research at Harvard. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 2007 and joined the Princeton faculty in 2009. His core research interests are in probability theory and related fields, and in their applications in science, engineering, and mathematics.
It is almost by coincidence that van Handel, assistant professor in the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) and an associated faculty member for the Program in Applied and Computation Mathematics at the University, found himself studying randomness when he discovered this unexpected passion through a cycle of different subjects.
“My grandfather was a professor, an entomologist studying mosquitoes. So research was familiar to me and since I was always interested in science, it became a natural route to go,” he said.
As an undergraduate van Handel intended to study chemistry. The idea of becoming a chemist was planted during his high school days in Holland, where a poster featuring biochemical reaction pathways in a cell caught his eye.
“I was fascinated by this,” he said. “It gave me the idea that we have the ability learn how life comes about by studying the microscopic mechanism, and to understand how it works.”
Chemistry seemed to be the way to go, but van Handel quickly realized that while chemists are really good at mapping out the chemical reactions in a cell, it is almost impossible to infer from this knowledge how everything works together to yield the behavior of a living cell. In such an incredibly complex system, one can never hope to achieve what he wanted to get at – to understand everything from the ground up.
“As an undergraduate student in Holland, I was working in a chemistry lab three days a week doing experiments, but realized that I was a very bad chemist,” said van Handel with a laugh.
He gradually switched to physics with the hope to understand problems from their roots. However, it did not take long for him to realize physics was not ideal for him either.
“It was a slow evolution for me to find out what I was really passionate about,” said van Handel. “Eventually, I discovered that passion in math.”
“The beauty of math is everything follows a logical path. Mathematicians need to understand everything from the foundation up when they solve the mathematical problem,” he said. “Because you understand it from the ground up, you understand how the microscopic building blocks of the problem give rise to complicated structure.”
The potential of understanding randomness at a mathematical level and to find a common structure between unrelated problems is what van Handel finds the most fascinating.
“Probability theory is the mathematical study of randomness and randomness shows up everywhere,” he said. “Throughout biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and so many other things. It’s a concept that pervades both pure mathematics and applied mathematics.”
“A lot of people think mathematicians work in the abstract. But if you look around you, things that you use every day like your cell phone are based on compression and reliable data transmission - mathematical ideas.”
“You can say the same thing about many breakthroughs that stem from fundamental mathematical understanding of the problem’s structure.” said van Handel. “You have to understand this fundamental structure to make real progress.”
Conveying knowledge is as important as generating knowledge. For van Handel, one of the most important contributions of academics to society is teaching the next generation.
“It is important for students to have an broader education and not just to succeed in the classroom,” said van Handel. “They’re going to go out in the world, to work in many different areas. It’s our responsibility to sharpen their critical thinking and analytical skills.”
For van Handel, learning should be about exploration and intellectual curiosity. Even with several prestigious awards under his belt, including the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a National Science Foundation Career Award, the Princeton University Graduate Mentoring Award, and several other accolades, including being awarded tenure at Princeton this year, it does not change his education outlook.
“Teaching helps me as well,” he said. “It forces me to put things into logical thought and make things interesting. It’s my challenge to make the material compelling to students.”
“I try to encourage students to have intellectual curiosity and not just to feed them facts,” said van Handel. “I care more about them actually learning to think in a way that will be useful for them later on. So I hope I am able to create that environment for my students.”