The Thrill Of The Chase

October 18, 2004

He was a Baylor decathlete and a math-lete -- two factors usually not seen in the same equation. Whether he's at the track or at the chalkboard, Jeff DaCunha loves the challenge. "Math never came easy. I had to put my time in to study it," says DaCunha, a math postdoctoral Fellow who successfully defended his dissertation on dynamic equations on time scales at Baylor last spring. "I enjoy mathematics. It takes you away for a while when you get really caught up in it." 
DaCunha completed a bachelor's degree in math with a minor in computer science at Baylor in 2000. He earned a master's degree with a concentration in abstract algebra and then stayed for his doctoral work, becoming the first person to take and complete at Baylor the doctoral program in mathematics, which began in 2001. He received his PhD in mathematics with a specialization in differential equations in August. 
It was more than academics that convinced John Davis, assistant professor of mathematics, that DaCunha would be a good fit for the program. "He was a decathlete at Baylor; he was very disciplined and not afraid to try new and difficult things. You often have to do that in research. I saw that in him, that enthusiasm and the thrill of the chase when you're onto a big theorem," says Davis, who was DaCunha's PhD adviser.
Since the new program started, interest in it has grown each year but as the first to go all the way through it, DaCunha often had undivided attention. "I went through the program alone, so it was kind of tailored. They are making it very challenging, which is good," he says. This year, there are about eight people enrolled. 
DaCunha's dissertation topic evolved from research he began during his first year in the program. He, Davis, Ian Gravagne, assistant professor of engineering, and Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering, studied a new type of math called time scale theory. It tries to unify and extend two existing mathematical theories -- discrete dynamical systems and continuous dynamical systems -- that share some similarities but at other times are vastly different. "There are many important applications -- sometimes neither one theory nor the other will work, but a unified one will," Davis says. He believes that time scale mathematics can help improve medical devices that utilize robotics that work on a mixture of macro and micro scales. This research now is funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for three years.
The team research helped DaCunha gain confidence. "They treated me as a peer ... which allowed me to do better things," he says. "Now when we work, we do group work and projects on our own so we can fall back on each other and say, 'What do you think of this or that?'" 
He attended four conferences and presented papers at three of them while completing his graduate education. He met the authors of books he was studying and interacted with some of the leading mathematicians in the nation. "One of the great things about the Baylor math department is the travel for the grad students. It really exposes you and gets you into that pipeline," he says.
At a conference in Arizona, DaCunha made a connection that led to his receiving the prestigious Davies Fellowship with a teaching component at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., this fall. He had dropped a résumé in the Academy's conference mailbox and the next morning, West Point recruiters asked DaCunha about his area of research. Soon after, he received the offer for the Fellowship, a program started in the mid-1990s and funded by the National Research Council. As part of the contract, he will teach three classes at West Point and conduct research at the Army Research Lab in Maryland, which will lead to future work on military projects such as unmanned autonomous vehicles. "The Army and all the branches of the military are coming out with these robotic planes that are flying themselves. We're trying to use our new mathematical theory to improve on these systems," he says.
DaCunha, who was a part of Baylor's track team for five years and continued to train with them until this summer, also will have a chance to run with the military cadets, an opportunity he looks forward to almost as much as teaching them calculus. Since he graduated with his master's degree, DaCunha has taught 24 classes at Baylor and a community college in Waco. "As far as the lifestyle a professor has," he says, "I don't think it can be beat."