Faculty Profile: Gerard Venema
August 16, 2010
Calvin mathematics professor Gerard Venema says that the most challenging part of his job is working in dimensions four and above through analogy with the third dimension. Venema studies topological embeddings—the way shapes are situated in space—and how they appear in higher dimensions.
"A specific example of something that falls under my research would be knot theory,” Venema said. “If you have a simple closed curve, it could be round, or it could be knotted. But you still have one closed continuous loop, so the thing itself is still the same whether it’s round or knotted. What’s different is the way it’s situated in space.”
Venema believes that math is one of the liberal arts, something that should be studied for its own sake. “It’s more creative than most people realize when you get to the research part,” he said. “Math is one way to respond to God’s creation, one way in which we work out the cultural mandate of understanding, studying, discovering things about one aspect of creation. One of the things I like most about mathematics is that, in addition to being one of the creative arts, it also has incredibly powerful and useful applications to the real world."
Born in Grand Rapids to a CRC pastor, Venema became a traveler at a very young age. The CRC Missions Board—now Christian Reformed World Missions—stationed his father in New Zealand. “One of the most interesting things about growing up in New Zealand was going to a British school,” he said. “We had to wear a school uniform, and everyone was addressed by their last name. When the headmaster walked in, we would all stand up and say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Headmaster.’”
Even from his earliest school days, Venema was good at math. “I like the visual side of mathematics, so that’s what I pursued in grad school,” he said. “I happened to have an advisor who had ideas about what I should do with my life, and he helped me get started. When I started grad school, I did not intend to become a research mathematician—it just happened.”
After graduating from the University of Utah with his PhD, Venema held post-doctoral positions at both the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the University of Austin in Texas. He planned to pursue a career at a research university. But in 1978 he accepted a position at Calvin. “I ultimately decided to come to Calvin because I wanted to be part of a Christian academic community,” he explained.
Mathematics professor James Turner praised his colleague’s contributions to the college. “I credit Gerard with developing a model of how to both develop as a teacher and scholar at Calvin in a way that is worthy of the demands of a university,” said Turner. Venema’s students appreciate his teaching style, he added: “Several have been inspired to continue their pursuit of mathematical learning beyond Calvin due in no small part to his courses.”
In addition to the teaching and research he does for Calvin, Venema also works as the Associate Secretary for the Mathematical Association of America. He is responsible for organizing the scientific program at the association's two annual meetings, which have as many as 6,000 people in attendance.
When he’s not busy with his professional life, Venema enjoys working on his lawn or walking with his wife Patricia. The couple has three adult children: Sarah, who works at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories; Emily, a graduate student studying seventeenth-century Spanish literature at U.C. Davis; and Dan, an engineer who works at Gentex Corporation in Zeeland.
~ by Amy Surbatovich, communications and marketing