Chancellors Club Professor, Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, helps students overcome fear of math

Helping students overcome anxieties about math, Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, professor of mathematics and courtesy professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has been awarded the 2015-16 Chancellors Club Professorship by KU Endowment. These professorships are held by outstanding faculty who are chosen by students and colleagues. Teaching professors retain the title as long as they teach at KU. 

Bozenna and her daughter at Yale Commencement in 2013

We asked Bozenna about her favorite KU memories, why she became a professor and her love of Polish pastries.

Hometown: Radom, Poland

Undergraduate major: Mathematics

What’s your favorite course to teach? Probability and Statistics, and Honors Calculus

Why did you become a professor? I think that the best way to learn is to teach and that research and teaching pair perfectly. I am always pleasantly surprised by how my research improves my teaching and how my teaching improves my research. It’s the most rich and satisfying work in the world that I can imagine.

“My favorite KU memory is…” When I asked students to stand up and introduce themselves in the first class of the semester, and Sasha Kaun, a basketball player, stood up. I couldn’t believe how tall he was and I asked him, “you must be a basketball player?” Everyone laughed. The KU Basketball Team won the NCAA Championship that season! We had a terrific time while learning and following all the games with Sasha!

Bozenna during Mathematics Awareness Month with elementary school student prize winners

or another one: When I was a finalist for HOPE award, I proved in the probability class that the probability of me winning the award as the first mathematician was zero but this does not mean that the event is impossible and… I won! That was a cool application of the theoretical result! Students remember it!

“I’m most proud of…” After nearly 45 years of teaching (with over 30 of them at KU) I’ve had the opportunity to play a role in many students’ lives at a very formative moment in their lives. Of course, like any educator, I love inspiring the next generation with a love of the subject to which I have dedicated my life. And so, I’m most proud of the accomplishments of students I know I am personally responsible for inspiring.

The best advice I ever got: Never, ever give up

My 140-character soapbox: Math is the foundation of everything nowadays. To not know math in the 21st Century is as much as not being able to read was in the 20th Century.

My guilty pleasure: Polish pastries

My super power would be: It currently takes me a whole day to get back to Poland to see my family and friends. I’d love to be able to teleport myself anywhere so I could pop over to Warsaw for a quick lunch. (Although I do love 715 [restaurant in Lawrence].) And since I could teleport anywhere I could go travel a lot of places for quick trips.

What was the last thing you read for fun? “The Promise of a Pencil”

Bozenna and her family on a trip to Paris

What inspires you? In America, there is this very strong idea that math is scary or too hard for some people. Many students come into classes I teach very intimidated and worried that this will be the math class that finally is too much for them. I wish they didn’t have these anxieties. Math is a skill like any other. If you stick with it, put in the time and look always at the things you don’t know then you can master it. However, very few students have total confidence in that fact and so most of the work is not even the math; it’s dealing with their intimidation and bringing themselves face-to-face with something that scares them. Seeing them face that, push themselves and ultimately beating that fear and conquering the material is constantly inspiring

What’s at the top of your bucket list? One of the many benefits of a career in academia is that I’ve gotten to travel to many places in the world for conferences. However, there are still a lot of places I haven’t gotten to see yet. I’ve been to Cambodia and Thailand but I’ve never been to Vietnam and would really love to see it. From the pictures I’ve seen, it is a truly beautiful place and the cuisine is delicious.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? A mathematician and a writer

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? If I could invite anyone to a dinner party, it would be Marie Sklodowska Curie. As a girl growing up in Poland she was such a huge inspiration because she was a Polish scientist in a time when very few women were able to have a career in science. Maria Sklodowska not only had a great career but was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes.