Professor shares work with underrepresented students


Since the early 1990s, Robert Griess Jr. has worked to bring math to marginalized students around Michigan.

Griess, the John Griggs Thompson Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics, wants to inspire kids to find an interest in math, and to understand the importance of the discipline.

“They meet mathematicians who explain some ideas that are remotely connected with what they’ve seen, and that stretch their minds. The minimum is a sense of the big world out there,” he said.

Robert GriessĀ helps inspire marginalized students around Michigan to study mathematics. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Griess was greatly involved with the King/Chavez/Parks program administered through the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, and in 2003 was honored with the Harold R. Johnson Award for his commitment to the development of a more culturally and ethnically diverse campus community.

While the KCP program ended a decade ago, Griess remains dedicated to diversity and got involved with the Center for Educational Outreach. For this work, in May he received the Lester P. Monts Award for Outstanding Service from the center, which highlights efforts at U-M that promote K-12 educational outreach.

Griess was born in Savannah, Georgia, at the end of WWII and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father helped teach him fractions and his teachers at school noticed his math savvy early on.

He attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics, although he was initially attracted to the school for its broad liberal arts education.

“I was open for anything going into undergrad. I was interested in any number of things from science to languages to art. I eventually was attracted to a mathematics Ph.D. because I was strong in abstract algebra. I went and studied finite group theory,” he said.

Upon graduating in 1971, he accepted a brief stint as a T. H. Hildebrandt Research Instructor at U-M, the equivalent of a postdoctoral position, and became an assistant professor in 1973.

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Griess’ early work focused on finite simple group theory, a part of algebra. In 1980, Griess constructed a finite simple group called the Monster, named for its large size. To help prove existence of the Monster, he created the so-called Griess algebra. This result helped complete the classification of finite simple groups, an important theorem in algebra. His current research involves finite groups acting on vertex operator algebras.

Griess continues youth outreach through the Wolverine Express and Future U. The Wolverine Express program buses faculty and grad students to various high schools around the state to give middle schoolers math presentations and advice about college planning. Future U is similar, except that it brings students to campus.

His role as program liaison is to recruit and train presenters on how to best engage the kids. “You can’t lecture at them. You have to show something that’s within their grasp. We like to stress hands-on experience.”

Past projects include explaining wallpaper symmetries, theory of knots, counting, mathematical imaging and statistics. On a quick visit to the grad library, kids were invited to look over academic journals from many different countries to show that the math is the same across languages.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

Enlightenment, students’ or mine.

Books recently read:

“Anything is Possible,” by Elizabeth Strout; “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,” by Alexandra Fuller; “The Party at Jack’s,” by Thomas Wolfe; “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” by Annick Lemoine (Author), Keith Christiansen (author), Patrizia Cavazzini (contributor), Jean-Pierre Cuzin (contributor), Gianni Papi (contributor).

What inspires me?

Great performance.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Many teachers persuaded me that I had talent for mathematics. A grade school math teacher looked and talked like Dave Garroway (first host of “The Today Show”). In class, he dryly posed math problems set in the most bizarre imaginary situations. We students had a good laugh as we started to work under his unsmiling gaze. Humor and receptivity to the unexpected energized my research.


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