Obituary: Peter Smereka


Peter Smereka, professor of mathematics, died Sept. 15 after suffering an unexpected heart attack.

Considered one of the leading applied and computational mathematicians of his generation, Smereka worked on a wide variety of problems, ranging from fluid dynamics to materials science. His early work had great effect on problems in “bubbly liquid flow” and he was widely regarded as the leading authority on this subject.

Peter Smereka

His work on algorithms for multiphase flow — for example, for simulating the motion of two immiscible fluids and the surface that separates them — has been particularly influential. In that field, and more generally in the topic of interfacial motion, Smereka made fundamental contributions, and the algorithms he invented and helped develop are used in many branches of science and engineering.

Many of his more than 60 research articles and numerous conference proceedings have had tremendous impact, and some are considered classics in their respective fields.

In addition to being a leading authority in computational mathematics, applying his extensive knowledge of physics and engineering to mathematical modeling and computational simulation of physical problems, Smereka also excelled as an applied analyst, exploring the associated mathematical problems in great depth.

In 2009 he was part of a team that received a patent for “a method for designing aerosol spray dispensers.” During his career he supervised six Ph.D. students and acted as a co-adviser for many others.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to Virginia and Edward Smereka, Peter Smereka was the first of four children. He attended Aurora High School in Aurora, Ontario, where he was class valedictorian. He participated actively in Ontario science fairs, winning the Canada science fair competition for three consecutive years.

Smereka received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Waterloo, Canada, in 1983. He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1989.

After visiting the Courant Institute of Math at New York University, and the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, Smereka joined the faculty of the Department of Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1991 on a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship.

He came to the U-M Department of Mathematics in 1994 as an assistant professor, and was promoted to associate professor in 1997 and professor in 2003. He also was active as a member of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics.

Smereka was an early and integral member of the department’s Applied and Interdisciplinary Mathematics (AIM) program, providing an important link with the areas of engineering and the natural sciences. He served as director of the AIM program for several years.

He received a prestigious NSF Career Award in 1996, and an Excellence in Education Award from LSA in 1997. Smereka was one of the original developers and instructors of a new honors sequence for first-year science and engineering students. He served the department through numerous committee assignments, undergraduate counseling and research coordination.

Smereka was always inquisitive and provided a lot of humor, insight and thought-provoking questions for his family over the years. He was an incredibly sensitive and kind person often running to help his family members when in need.

He loved to surf, hike, listen to jazz and eat street food, and play games. He also enjoyed golfing and swimming, and loved watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart with his son, Aidan.

Smereka is survived by his wife, Brenda; son, Aidan; parents Ed and Virginia, sisters Karen and Susan, brother Robert and Aunt Joan, as well as many friends and colleagues from all over the world. He will be greatly missed by all.

A memorial gathering will be planned for the spring of 2016.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Peter Smereka Memorial Graduate Student Fund, c/o the U-M Department of Mathematics, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI  48109-1043, or online at

(The fund constitutes a gift for endowment, and distributions from it shall be made in accordance with the university’s then existing endowment distribution policy. Any surplus distributions during any period may be accumulated for later use for the above purposes or may be added to the principal of the fund, in the University’s discretion. If the university’s minimum threshold of $25,000 to establish an endowment is not met by Dec. 31, 2016, the endowment will be terminated and the funds will be used on an expendable basis for the stated purpose of the fund.)

— Submitted by the Smereka family and Department of Mathematics



  1. Charlie Doering
    on September 23, 2015 at 4:29 am

    Peter was a wonderful friend and I will miss him dearly.

  2. Joanna Millunchick
    on September 23, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Peter was the best collaborator and friend anyone could ask for. He was the smartest person I know, and the most fun to argue with. I will miss him.

  3. Paula Doering
    on September 23, 2015 at 9:30 am

    So many fond memories of good times and good laughs with Peter through the years. He was truly one of a kind and such a proud father.

  4. Brenda Gunderson
    on September 23, 2015 at 11:33 am

    First met Peter and family as neighbors – with chats as he was walking their dog or taking Aidan to the playground. He had a connection and impact on my son Lee’s life at UM as he studied Nuclear Engineering with Math; and continued to have great conversations with Lee after graduating. He will be missed and his family will be in my thoughts and prayers.

  5. Dan Burns
    on September 23, 2015 at 11:53 am

    So sad that Peter has been taken from us so soon. He was a lively, original, refreshing and generous man whom we will all miss greatly. Condolences to his family: it is difficult to imagine what a shock this must be for them.

  6. Mark Sussman
    on September 23, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    Peter will always be an excellent role model for doing scientific research and otherwise. Also, it was a transcendent experience being introduced to surfing by Peter, at night in Malibu.

  7. Brittan Farmer
    on September 23, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    I have many fond memories of working with Peter during my last few years of graduate school. He always asked great questions, and he had a great sense of humor. I will miss him. My condolences to his family.

  8. Giovanni Russo
    on September 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Peter was a dearest friend and my best colleague. To work with him has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Very dedicated to science, with an extraordinary good taste for interesting problems, he was an extremely sensitive, scrupulous, and kind man with highest intellectual honesty. I always admired him, and I will miss him forever.

  9. Tim Schulze
    on September 23, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Irreplaceable friend and collaborator. Peter’s intensity, curiosity, and good humor made him a welcome addition to any conversation. I feel fortunate to have known him and will miss him terribly.

  10. Carmine Schulze
    on September 23, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Peter and my husband, Tim, collaborated for over a decade. I so much enjoyed the many times spent in Ann Arbor with Peter and his family. Peter was always welcoming, and I will miss his kindness. I’m very appreciative to his wife, Brenda, who graciously spent many afternoons with me, while our husbands “coded away”. My thoughts are with her and their son, Aidan.

  11. Yann Bernard
    on September 23, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    I owe much of the mathematician I have become to Peter’s kind mentoring and wonderful personality. An insightful and brilliant scientist, a humorous and generous man; he will be sorely missed by many. What a great privilege it is to have known him. I extend my sincere condolences to his family.

  12. Christian Pauchon
    on September 24, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Despite time and distance, Peter remained my best friend. He introduced me to some fascinating aspects of my own research work. I will miss his sense of humor, musical taste and uncompromising intellectual honesty. I will miss him a lot.

  13. Xingquan Li
    on September 24, 2015 at 10:02 am

    So shocked and extremely sad to learn Prof. Smereka passed away. I was so fortunate to have him as one of my advisors while I was doing research at UM.
    He was a great mentor and a wonderful man. I will always miss him and the countless hours spent with him discussing our fascinating research project.

  14. David Srolovitz
    on September 25, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    I was so shocked to hear of Peter’s untimely passing. I had the privilege to work with him in the early part of his career while he was becoming expert in materials – a passion that has carried him through much of the rest of his career. I have learned much from him. I was enjoying reconnecting with him in recent months as we planned for the upcoming SIAM Materials meeting. I will miss you as a collaborator, a co-organizer and, most of all, as a friend.

  15. Peter Neushul
    on September 27, 2015 at 1:23 am

    I met Peter during his years at UC Santa Barbara. Peter would surf and consult with my brother Stephen for the next twenty years. They rode waves together and talked optics and engineering all over the world. Peter’s love for surfing was remarkable as was his willingness to paddle out anywhere–including big Sunset on Oahu’s North Shore. I spent many hours talking politics and history with Peter. The breadth and depth of his knowledge always impressed me. He was a kind, gentle, person for whom I had the utmost respect. His loss is heartbreaking to my family. Our hearts go out to Brenda, Aidan, and the Smereka family.

  16. Robin Macqueen
    on September 28, 2015 at 2:02 am

    I got to know Peter when we were both physics students together at Waterloo. He quickly became my best friend. We first shared an apartment during a work term in 1979, when we both had jobs at the Xerox research centre in Mississauga. At the time, Peter was playing around with calculating the path of a coin rolling on a rotating turntable. In his spare time sometimes he would sit at the kitchen table and fill pages of a yellow lined pad with calculations. This was not related to his work, it was curiosity-driven and It was pure enjoyment for him. But he was no nerd. We went out to discos and punk rock shows. He was popular with women. Later on, we travelled together: once took a greyhound bus from Toronto to Key West, Florida, stopping in New York along the way. Traveled in Europe together when we both got European co-op jobs: me in Holland, Peter in Denmark. The year we graduated, we both applied for summer scholarships to work at UBC, and so we drove Peter’s big boat of a car, a Ford LTD III all the way out to Vancouver via the northern states. Later I visited Peter in Santa Barbara, where he introduced me to surfing (I never got the hang of it) and motorcycle riding (which I have never done since). Peter came up to Vancouver a few years later, and I introduced him to ocean kayaking, and we kayaked with orca whales. Our contacts became much less frequent after Peter moved to Michigan. It came as a shock to learn of his passing. He was a once-in-a-lifetime friend. I am so sorry for Brenda and Aidan, and for Peter’s siblings and parents. This is a great loss.

    • kare Smereka
      on September 28, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      Hi Rob!
      Susan and I have been trying to find you! It is so great to read about your memories of Peter. Thank you so much for writing. This is a great loss indeed.
      Karen Smereka

      • Robin Macqueen
        on September 28, 2015 at 7:37 pm


        Please write me at [email protected]

        I’d like to come to the memorial. Lots more memories to share. So very sad for all of you.


  17. Diane Smereka
    on October 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Dear peters family, you are so rewarded by cherishing Peter and his astounding accomplishments too. Our Smereka family too explores bath and tinkers with inventing. Wish I knew you. Loving future!!!!! Diane. U of m grad

  18. Diane Smereka
    on October 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Dear peters family, you are so rewarded by cherishing Peter and his astounding accomplishments too. Our Smereka family too explores bath and tinkers with inventing. Wish I knew you. Loving future!!!!! Diane. U of m grad

  19. Bob Pego
    on October 1, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    I just heard and am stunned by this news. Peter was a dear friend and collaborator. We met at the IMA and I learned so much from him. He was my second-favorite Canadian, after my wife Eleanor! His lively curiosity and keen scientific insight pushed my work in fruitful directions. For Brenda and his family, I am so sorry – there are no words.

  20. Kevin Vels
    on October 13, 2015 at 4:08 am

    I am sad to hear this news. I had no contact with Dr. Smereka while I was a student, but he spent almost an entire afternoon advising me when I was applying for graduate school. I will always remember that.

  21. Divakar Viswanath
    on October 14, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    It is very sad that Peter is not with us any more. I admired Peter for his love of science, intuition, courage, and personal warmth. I will miss his friendship greatly.

  22. Anna Vainchtein
    on October 16, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    It was incredibly sad to learn about Peter’s passing. He was such a wonderful person, with an excellent sense of humor and a genuine interest in other people and their ideas. And of course, he was a great scientist, with many significant contributions. Peter will be sorely missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

  23. Jean-Pierre DAVERIO
    on November 12, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Quelle tristesse. I have been sharing a house during one year with Peter in Santa-Barbara when we were both graduate students (’83-84). His curiosity extended beyond his original field. I remember that he was fascinated by chaotic behaviours, a relatively recent field at that time. I remember him telling me about the Lorentz attractor and drawing it.
    We had great motocycle ridings with friends (even down to Baja California) and often went dancing on Sundays in a mountain hut where Harleys bikers used to go. We had diner in Paris at my home in the 90s’. Then, time and distance…
    Peter was relaxed, cool, easy going but very sharp. I remember his great intellectual rigor, his humanistic values. Une belle personnalité. I present my condoleances to his family. Jean-Pierre.

    • susan smereka
      on December 8, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      I was fortunate to be along on some of those motorcycling rides – they are sweet memories. Thanks for your kind words Jean-Pierre.

  24. Bjorn Birnir
    on December 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Peter was my first Ph.D. student, he was co-advised by Sanjoy Banerjee in Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, but I think I was the main advisor. He took my Dynamical Systems class the first time I taught it and what a lively class it was, with Peter asking questions, and frequently not accepting the answer without further discussion. One day he brought me a paper on the Rayleigh-Plesset equation on the dynamics of an air bubble in water and the rest is history. Peter wrote his thesis on the dynamics of a cloud of bubbles in water and guiding his Ph.D. research was more similar to collaborating with a fully developed researcher than working with a graduate student. He gave me a completely unrealistic impression of what graduate student can do.

    Peter was an extremely lively person and fun to be around. He had very broad interests and left an impression on my daughter who was around five years old when he used to visit. She told me recently that she used to watch Peter, probably during his lively discussions, and wander how graduate students supported themselves, who payed for their food etc. She obviously thought that Peter needed a lot of energy.

    Peter was extremely quick and fast, be in on the surfboard, the motorcycle or in his research. He is a great loss to all of us but especially to his family, Brenda and Aidan. But he lives in our memory.

  25. Martin Vandenbroek
    on January 9, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    I just now heard of Peters much too early passing. As a member of Prof. Banerjees staff I worked with Peter at UCSB on some of his unusual experiments, his mind was always faster than the slow progress of the data. I also fondly remember the weeklong trek on the John Muir trail with Peter and four others. He showed me the fast way down a mountain by jumping into the scree of a landslide, (was it 1000 ft in one minute?) Since moving back to Ontario I had planned to visit Ann Arbor just 2 hours away but now will sadly visit his memorial in the spring.

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