By Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19) and Pranav Joneja (ME ’18). Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ’18).
Professor Ronan is an adjunct professor, a Cooper Union alumnus, and a
Mathematics PhD student.
The Cooper Pioneer: Where are you from?
Ryan Ronan: I grew up in Levittown, in Long Island, and went to public high school there. Then I attended Cooper Union from 2008 to 2012. Sophomore year, I tried to commute from Levittown, but it was such a long commute. So for junior and senior year I moved to Astoria, Queens, with my girlfriend. I liked that a lot better, and I still live in Astoria now, just in a different apartment.
Did your girlfriend go to Cooper as well?
No, she went to the New School, which is nearby. We met actually towards the end of high school through a mutual friend. She’s a year younger than me, and we went to different schools.
Are you still together?
Yeah, still going strong. She was a philosophy major at the New School, which shares some similarities with math—more than you might think. A lot of the early mathematicians were also philosophers, explicitly in name even. The concept of building an idea through logic and reason is the underpin of both pure math and pure philosophy. In that sense, it can be easy for math people to talk to philosophy people.
Did you ever have conversations like this one with her?
Yeah so, at one point we realized that philosophy and math people use similar language and symbols. For example, I drew the “if and only if” symbol while I was writing something, and she knew what that was right away because that is something you’d say in philosophy. In philosophy and math you want to get to the heart of the logic and reason.
What do you do in addition to adjunct teaching?
I’m a Mathematics PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center, but my time is spread out in a bunch of different places. I have one class that meets at the Graduate Center, and I also have seminars and meetings with professors there. In addition to teaching vector calculus at Cooper Union, I teach pre-calculus at Baruch College.
Are there any differences between teaching at Baruch and Cooper?
Baruch is mostly business people, not engineering people, so it’s a different mindset. I suppose some of the jokes I’d make here probably wouldn’t fly there—and vice versa. You have to teach towards your audience.
During your time at Cooper, what classes you enjoyed in particular?
I graduated as an electrical engineer in 2012. I didn’t change majors, but by the end of my freshman year I was starting to become more interested in math. I really liked classes with theoretical elements. In my sophomore year I took complex variables with Professor Smyth. It was one of my favorite courses I took here. It’s nothing you would guess to see a theorem statement, then to see the proof, and then to actually use the theorem in action, I really loved that. Basically after that course I had my eyes set on math rather than EE.
Did that class influence you career-wise?
Yes, I took almost every 300 level math course offered, even if it meant I was taking over 20 credits a semester. I still got the EE major, and I feel like I know the material well. However, I also made sure to take as many math electives as I could fit into my schedule, and it was worth it.
What did you do over the summers during your four years here?
One big thing I did between my junior and senior years was a research experience for undergrads (REU) at Williams College in probability and number theory. We got two results and one of them was published. That REU was really fun.
Did that help with your grad school applications?
Yeah, that helped a lot with grad school. Especially if you’re interested in math at Cooper, then I think the REU is very important—maybe more so than at other schools. There’s no math major at Cooper, so it’s helpful to show grad schools that you’re really serious about math and math research.
Do you have advice for graduate students?
It depends a lot on your field. I will say in some sense, being a Cooper student was more stressful than being a graduate student now. Even though there might be more work, to me it feels like less work because I only have to focus on math courses.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
Right now I’m focused mostly on finishing my PhD in analytic number theory. After that I don’t know, but I do want to stay in academia and keep teaching. In particular, I really like teaching here, and I didn’t expect to enjoy teaching as much as I do.
How would you describe your transition from “Ryan” to “Prof. Ronan?”
There wasn’t too much of a transition for me. I think as a person I’m constant, even if people are calling me different things. I don’t feel like I’ve changed too much when I’m wearing different hats.
“For a grad student, I think I play way too much Super Smash Bros.”
In a lot of math classes we talk about putting new methods in our “math toolbox.” Do you have a “math professor toolbox?”
The most literal answer is my soap box, which I use to hold my colored chalk so the chalk doesn’t break. The colored chalk is very useful as well for illustrating a point. It’s worth every penny. I also like to illustrate by example as quickly as possible, since it’s easy to get lost in the abstract.
What kind of professor do you aim to be?
I would hope that I’m thorough and methodical. I would want my notes to be a good reference so that people could study from them. I also hope that I’m easy enough to approach. The worst thing that could happen—especially at Cooper—is thinking, “I have a question, but this is CU and I’m afraid to ask it.”
What might be some things people don’t know you do outside of Cooper?
Well, I’m a complete night owl. I really like games in general, especially card games. The more I became a math person, the more I learned that math people are into games. It’s the way our minds think. Also, for a grad student I think I play way too much Super Smash Bros.
Do you have any advice to Cooper students?
A couple things: Try very hard not to burn out early. You have to rest between studying, so if your brain is not working, take an hour or a night off. The other thing I would say is to take courses that interest you. I didn’t have to take complex variables, for example, but it ended up being the stepping-stone to where I am now.
What about student life in NY?
It seems like a lot of students like to live in Manhattan. While that’s a good idea, I really enjoy living in Astoria, Queens. The rent is cheaper and the commute is not much longer. It’s productive time to be on the subway if you use it right. Since I’m not walking, I can do other things.
Are there any interesting stories from your days at Cooper?
So my sophomore year around finals time a new Pokémon game came out, the one bundled with a pedometer. In a break between classes, there was a crowd of about 15 EE’s crowded around this pedometer trying to figure out how it works, how to get as many steps onto it as possible, and basically trying to reverse-engineer this pedometer all to get a few extra level points for the Pokémon. I remember that visual summing up a lot of the things I like about Cooper, like the enthusiasm of everyone involved.