Meet Sam Gutekunst

ORIE Ph.D. graduate '20 Sam Gutekunst

Sam Gutekunst, Ph.D. student in Cornell’s School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE), knew that he wanted to be a teacher before he knew exactly what it was he wanted to teach. “In high school I thought I might become a high school history teacher,” says Gutekunst. “I was really inspired by one of my teachers--Erin Murphy LeBris--who taught history.” Since then, Gutekunst’s academic interests have grown and now he is on the verge of teaching Data Science at Bucknell University in the fall of 2020.

“I still think back to Ms. Murphy as an example of how to be a great teacher,” says Gutekunst, mere days after his successful remote thesis defense, “and Data Science is what excites me the way that history excited her.”

Gutekunst was a tutor in high school and really enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to present concepts and content in a variety of ways. He says he understood in high school that good teaching involves adapting the methods and examples you use to better reach students who won’t all respond the same way to the same methods of instruction. He is excited to apply these same ideas to the classes he teaches at Bucknell.

Between high school and his soon-to-start tenure track position, Gutekunst earned a B.S. in math at Harvey Mudd College. “Harvey Mudd was such a wonderful place to be a student,” says Gutekunst. “I felt both pushed and supported, which helped me grow and learn so much.” In his first year, Gutekunst took a Linear Algebra class from Professor Michael Orrison. The following year, Orrison approached him about doing research together. “That was huge for me,” says Gutekunst. “It gave me a taste of what it is to do research and of how math could be applied to have an actual effect in the world.” Their project involved looking at various systems for voting and led to a published paper, co-authored by Orrison and fellow ORIE Ph.D. graduate David Lingenbrink ’19.

As a senior at Harvey Mudd, Gutekunst worked with Professor Susan Martonosi on a project that applied graph theory as a method to disrupt terrorist operations. Again, he saw the power of math to have an effect on actual problems in the real world. In addition to undergraduate research, Gutekunst also had several opportunities to teach while at Harvey Mudd.

When it came time to decide what to do after earning his B.S., Gutekunst said the choice was not a hard one. “By then it was clear to me that I really liked doing math research and that I also really enjoyed teaching,” he says. He knew he would need a Ph.D. to do what he wanted to do: teach university students at a liberal arts college. He went to Cambridge University in England and earned the equivalent of a Master’s degree in mathematics before returning to the United States and starting his doctoral studies at Cornell.

“It was so easy to decide to come to Cornell,” says Gutekunst, “especially after my visit. It was clear that people in the department liked each other and treated each other with respect. It felt a lot like Harvey Mudd in that regard. People’s doors are always open and they like to talk about ideas with any student – not just their advisees.”

Gutekunst got to Cornell in 2015 and began work with Professor David Williamson in ORIE and Assistant Professor Karola Mészáros of Cornell’s Mathematics Department. His research has focused on both practical and theoretical topics. The practical topics have included using voter data to test for gerrymandering in Alaska and working with an undergraduate on an algorithm to guide the allocation of hotel rooms. The more general work has focused on vetting new tools that seem to show promise for tackling the “travelling salesman” problem. “Some of these tools work well with small data sets, but we don’t have good mathematical explanations for why they do – and if that performance will scale,” says Gutekunst.

While conducting research at Cornell, Gutekunst twice had the opportunity to teach ENGRI 1101 Engineering Applications of Operations Research. This class is ORIE’s introductory course for first-year students and it is fair to say Gutekunst loved teaching the class. “It’s hard to pick just one thing, but I think teaching this class is the thing I am most proud of from my time at Cornell,” says Gutekunst. The students in the class also really seemed to have enjoyed the class, as evidenced by the stellar instructor ratings they gave him at the end of both semesters he taught the class.

A recurring topic to add levity to the class was a particular Broadway show. Gutekunst used it as a vehicle for teaching some of the basic ideas of the class. When it was time to administer the final exam, Gutekunst used the app Cameo to arrange for the star of the show to address his class with a personal message to the group. He employed Cameo again at his thesis defense--he engaged comedian Colin Mochrie (of Whose Line is it Anyway? fame) to introduce his thesis presentation and start the proceedings. (A link to Mochrie’s short video is below.)

In addition to research and teaching, Gutekunst was also heavily involved in an outreach project that was a huge success.  “Last year, I got to run an outreach project with three undergraduate students,” says Gutekunst.   “My three students worked with Prisoner Express, a non-profit that provides educational materials to prison inmates across the country.  Inmates were looking for resources that bolstered mathematical and critical reasoning skills, and my undergraduates wrote a mini-textbook "Winning with Math" exploring how mathematics can be used to inform decisions.  So far over 600 inmates have requested the mini-textbook, and my undergraduates were able to present on their work at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Denver this January.  An extremely generous $15,000 Engaged Cornell Graduate Student Grant from Cornell funded the entire project, including printing/mailing our mini-textbook and sending my students to present in Denver!”

Gutekunst is thrilled to be starting at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in the fall as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Assistant Professor of Data Science.


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