Face of Cooper: Leonid Vulakh

Caroline Yu (EE ‘15)

Meet Professor Leonid Vulakh – the mathematics professor who everyone from electrical engineering students to physics professors and alumni go to for mathematical clarifications and discussion. Many students love him for his teaching style and quotable statements.

Professor Vulakh is originally from the former Soviet Union in the region that is now Ukraine. He spent most of his time in Moscow where he earned a master’s degree in control science engineering from the Moscow State University. While getting this degree, Professor Vulakh was also pursuing a master’s degree in mathematics at an institute of automation in Moscow. After spending two years in industry after graduation, Vulakh went back into academia at the same institution where he pursued graduate studies. After successfully earning a Ph.D., Professor Vulakh then went to teach at an institution similar to Moscow State University. It was extremely difficult to find a teaching position at a university during this time because of competition – being a professor was a very well-respected occupation.

After immigrating to the United States, Professor Vulakh started teaching at Brooklyn College and Baruch College in 1985. However, he was so disappointed with the student bodies at both colleges that he almost gave up teaching entirely. In 1986, Professor Vulakh came to The Cooper Union as a visiting professor. Professor Vulakh knew Harold Shapiro, a professor at New York University at the time, who in turn knew a professor at Cooper. When Professor Vulakh was offered another year as a visiting professor, he decided to go to St. Johns as a visiting professor first. Professor Vulakh reminisced about this point in his life with a laugh: “Cooper called me back. Students had started asking ‘Where is Professor Vulakh?!’” In 1988, Professor Vulakh became an associate professor at Cooper. He is very happy with his decision. He believes that his students are – and have been – perfect.

Through the years, Professor Vulakh has taught almost all the mathematics courses offered at Cooper. Regarding the importance of teaching students mathematics, Professor Vulakh believes that “[students] need a strong foundation. They need to learn how to work properly.”

Other than Calculus I and II, Professor Vulakh most regularly teaches the discrete mathematics course at Cooper. Back in the Soviet Union, Professor Vulakh wrote a book on discrete mathematics – as well as one on linear algebra. He talked to the mathematics chairmen a few years ago about adding the course. With a smile again, Professor Vulakh commented by saying “since I created the course – I am teaching it.”

Because Cooper is an engineering school, Professor Vulakh strongly believes that the mathematics department has to closely work with other departments in the school. He was involved with updating and revising the calculus curriculum to better coordinate the material taught in Calculus II with other courses such as mechanics.

Other than teaching, Professor Vulakh also leads research. Selected research publications can be seen at http://engfac.cooper.edu/vulakh. Although Professor Vulakh used to be more active in the research field in past years when he attended science conferences every year, he still corresponds with other mathematicians about number theory – his area of expertise. In 2010 alone, he published three papers.

Outside of Cooper and number theory research, Professor Vulakh likes to play chess – as many people do in Russia he says. During the summer, Professor Vulakh very much enjoys swimming and biking – activities he has enjoyed since childhood. Being passionate about everything he does seems to be the trend; Professor Vulakh takes pride in always being there for professors and students: “I help students who need help. I am always available! I give them advice when I teach them. They need to spend a lot of time working. If you want to succeed you have to work – no matter how talented you are.”

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