By Colleen Bemis F’05
Football schemes in a playbook may look like complicated math formulas, but that’s not the connection between sports and mathematics for Jonathon Peterson ’03, Ph.D. It is the lessons of faith and community he learned from teammates, coaches and teachers at University of Northwestern that influenced Peterson as he worked to become the highly successful mathematician he is today.
After earning his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Minnesota, Peterson is currently a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and H.C. Wang Assistant Professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
At Northwestern, Peterson played football and ran on the track team from 2000 to 2003. The teams practiced hard and played to win, but it was the “off-the-field” friendships among the players that meant the most to Peterson.
“It wasn’t through playing sports itself,” admitted Peterson, “it was through the relationships that made such an impact. Most of my friends were on the football team and we had a Bible study and discussed hard questions and complex theological issues. We were completely free to disagree and discuss doubts. I don’t think that would have been the case if we didn’t have the camaraderie of playing together. I think that was a really unique experience.”
Perfect Score Opened Door
It was not the score of a football game, but a perfect score on a math test that changed the trajectory of Peterson’s career. During his sophomore year, Peterson “accidentally” took a graduate-level test written by Don Corliss, recently retired mathematics instructor and institutional researcher, when another instructor administered the exam to an Abstract Algebra class by mistake.
Peterson’s performance was anything but a mistake, however, and Corliss was so impressed that he wrote Peterson a note advising him to change his degree focus from education to mathematics. Corliss believed Peterson could make a significant contribution in mathematics research and encouraged him to complete his Ph.D.
Peterson took the words of that four-sentence note to heart—so much so, that in 2008 when he defended his doctoral dissertation in probability theory, he invited Corliss to attend the presentation. Corliss remembers that day as one of the best in his teaching career. “He [Peterson] led off by acknowledging God’s enablement throughout his five years of graduate study. Then he acknowledged the support of his wife, Jana (Berglund ’03), and then my role in encouraging him to pursue graduate study in mathematics.” Corliss added, “I didn’t mind being third to God and Jon’s wife.” (The Petersons met on the track team and are parents of 4-year-old Anja.)
Whether in sports or academics, Northwestern’s Christ-centered approach is a winning formula for Peterson. “I really liked that there were Christian coaches and teachers I could go to. It’s one of the things I’ve thought a lot about. When I started teaching, I wanted to be a positive influence on my students like the UNW professors were for me.”
Some of those same professors now have another Peterson in class. Peterson’s brother, Joe Peterson ’12, is a current UNW math/engineering major.