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Cameron '14 named Jefferson Prize winner

  • Jefferson Prize
    Jefferson Prize
    Stephen Cameron is the 2014 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Stephen Cameron ’14 will receive one of William & Mary’s highest awards for undergraduates. He has done research work in four subfields of mathematics and was a co-author on his first important paper as a sophomore, but he remembers a time when it was all going over his head.

Cameron is the 2014 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed at Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693.

Cameron began doing mathematical research early, based on a high recommendation from C.R. Johnson, a William & Mary mathematics professor who had Cameron in his freshman seminar.

“I did well in my classes my freshman year, so I applied for a summer research program we have at the college in matrix analysis. I was accepted and I did research with Professor (Vladimir) Bolotnikov on the Nevanlinna–Pick interpolation, which has applications in electrical engineering,” Cameron recalled. “Mostly I spent that summer with everything going over my head. I was working desperately to get some kind of results, until at one point, it clicked. ”

Whatever clicked did so solidly enough to allow Cameron to continue collaboration with Bolotnikov, resulting in a paper published in the Journal of Applied and Computational Mathematics. Bolotnikov said in a letter of nomination that he rated Cameron’s contribution as equivalent to “a very good master’s thesis.” Cameron gave a summary of the work at the poster session of the joint meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, for which he was recognized by the Outstanding Presentation Award.

“Stephen is an ideally reliable co-worker,” Bolotnikov wrote. “He does not leave until the task is clear to him, and he appears next time with this task accomplished.”

Cameron went on to build his research career. He spent summers enrolled in Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) programs, initiatives sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Following a summer REU at SUNY-Potsdam, he was invited to speak at a special session of the Joint Mathematics Meeting—an extremely rare honor for an undergraduate. He met Assistant Professor C. Ryan Vinroot in Vinroot’s Abstract Algebra class. Vinroot agreed to work with Cameron that summer on a problem in algebraic combinatorics.

“It was a challenging problem, and I thought it should keep Stephen busy for most of the summer," Vinroot writes. “It took him about three weeks to come up with the main idea for the solution. I was flabbergasted.”

Vinroot became Cameron’s advisor on this senior Honors Thesis. He noted that Cameron selected to work in Igusa zeta functions—“a topic which was yet again different from his previous projects.”

“This is material I would expect for a Ph.D. student in their second or third year,” Vinroot writes in his nomination letter. “Stephen is already making nice progress and he still impresses me in nearly all of our meetings.”

Cameron intends to continue his work in mathematics and, as Charter Day approaches, he is waiting on responses from graduate schools. His faculty mentors are optimistic. “I expect that Stephen will get into a top five program in mathematics and that he will be extremely successful as a research mathematician,” Vinroot writes.