Posted March 7, 2017

Temple mathematician Chelsea Walton named a 2017 Sloan Research Fellow

Walton joins colleagues from Stanford, Princeton and MIT in receiving this prestigious honor.

Chelsea Walton standing in front of a blackboard full of math equations
Photography By: 
Ryan Brandenberg
Chelsea Walton, a 2017 Sloan Foundation Research Fellow, specializes in noncommutative algebra.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named Temple mathematician Chelsea Walton a 2017 Research Fellow, putting her in company with academicians from Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University. The highly competitive and prestigious honor identifies rising scientists who’ve made significant marks on their field and represent the next generation of leaders in the U.S. and Canada.

"Our department knew that Chelsea's research is competitive for a Sloan award," said Irina Mitrea, chair of mathematics at Temple.  "She's a leader in her field. Her mathematical breakthroughs appeared in high quality publications and they had immediate and significant scientific impact, nationally and internationally."

One of those breakthroughs proved a conjecture in the theory of rings that had been unresolved for over 20 years; this was achieved in collaboration with Susan Sierra of the University of Edinburgh.

Walton’s work on such algebraic structures is part of her larger exploration of the field of noncommutative algebra. She explains that in noncommutative algebra, multiplication doesn’t behave as expected. “That is, a x b doesn’t have to be b x a. This occurs more often than one might think because functions are naturally noncommutative,” she says. “Wash your clothes first and then dry them; you’ll get a different result if you dry your clothes first and then wash them. Or consider the order that you put on pieces of clothes— performing this in a different order produces very different appearances!”

Unlike the work of some applied mathematicians and scientists, her discoveries are in the  realm of theory, so her work might not be used for years or even centuries. This used to bother her, but only for a brief period. She soon came to understand its value.

“It’s OK if something doesn’t have an immediate application,” she said. “Take ethics, for instance, and how it has been formalized in various ways and settings (such as workplace codes of ethics) centuries after the original theories were posed. Very important ideas appearing in society and in nature first take root in theory— they could take off in practice later or perhaps just remain in our dreams. I’m perfectly fine with the latter.”

I feel like I’m serving a greater good here.
-- Chelsea Walton, mathematician

Walton has loved math since childhood. When her mother gave her a children’s dictionary, she counted all the As, and then the Bs, eventually marking up the whole book to make a frequency table of letters. She also enjoyed logic puzzles. In high school she learned that she could make math her career and from there worked with a number of renowned mentors and colleagues at universities across the United States and abroad.

A 2011 recipient of a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Walton has presented her research widely, including at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California. She comes to Temple from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral fellow.

Walton joined Temple’s faculty in 2015 as a Selma Lee Bloch Brown Professor of Mathematics. She was drawn by the unusual number of experts in noncommutative algebra at Temple: five including her and a postdoctoral fellow. And she loves Philadelphia. She says the culture and its ‘straight talk’ remind her of her hometown, Detroit.

Of Temple’s campus and student body, Walton said she loves looking around and seeing so many different faces. “I feel like I’m serving a greater good here.”

Diversity and increasing it in her field is a major focus for Walton. She helps organize a mathematical conference for women and teaches in programs designed to interest more young women in pursuing research in mathematics.

Walton is the fourth African-American Sloan Fellow in mathematics since the award’s inception in 1955. She’s the first Sloan Fellow at Temple since 1989, when Lee-Yuan Liu-Chen was honored for neuroscience.

Walton plans to use the $60,000 grant from the fellowship to fund her travel for research  as well as the research expenses of her post-doctoral fellow and her graduate and undergraduate students and mentees.

“We are honored to have Chelsea Walton as a colleague,” said Michael L. Klein, dean of the College of Science and Technology and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Science. “She is a truly gifted scholar who exemplifies the creative brilliance of the college's recent faculty hires. They are all very talented researchers, who, like Chelsea, are recognized as leaders in their fields.”