PhD graduate blasts new life into the field of mathematics

Mathematician and TU/e PhD graduate Jorn van der Pol has left an indelible mark on the mathematics field when it comes to matroids. His PhD study has generated a number of new, smart methods to tackle problems that had seemed beyond reach for several years, and so he has blasted new life into the field. Yesterday he was awarded his PhD with distinction for his work at the department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

A matroid is a combinatorics mathematical structure that describes linear independence in vector space. The term dates from 1935 when Hassler Whitney first described it. With the emergence of data science and large networks of information, large matroids that contain a lot of data have gained more and more prominence. 

Breakthrough

One of the main issues surrounding large matroids concerns the determination of the theoretical lower and upper bounds for the number of possible matroids of a given number of elements. Already during his Master’s study Van der Pol found evidence of an upper bound, which was then regarded as a breakthrough. For this work, which he did under the supervision of Professor Remco van der Hofstad, Dr. Rudi Pendavingh and Professor Nikhil Bansal, he received a TU/e Academic Award in 2014.

Real impact

He continued this impressive line in his PhD study and developed multiple methods to tackle this and other major issues on the properties of matroids, making, for instance, a considerable contribution to the better understanding of the behavior of a typical matroid and thus taking the field a big step forward. According to his supervisors during the PhD study, Van der Hofstad and Pendavingh, it is seldom that a single thesis has such a great impact on the status of an entire field. 

Nicest compliment

His supervisors praise his ability to connect different disciplines in mathematics, including combinatorics and probability. However, the nicest compliment was mady by James Oxley, one of the founders of the field. Asked about the quality of the work, Oxley stated that in his 35 years as a researcher he did not read one dissertation that could reflect the quality of that of Van der Pol.

Highest average grade for mathematics

Van der Pol graduated at TU Eindhoven in Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2013. In his first year (2008) he achieved the highest average grade for any first-year mathematics student at TU/e. During his study he took a very active role in organizing the International Mathematics Olympics. The ‘distinction’ that has been given to his thesis Large matroids: Enumeration and Typical Properties is quite extraordinary. Only around five percent of all theses qualify, so just ten to fifteen each year.