Well, who am I? And how did I get here?


I am a teacher, often of mathematics and African art, who has a multitude of interests. I am somewhat past 65, but will never retire from my academic post at St. John’s University. It’s just not in my nature to stop moving. I have done published research in differential geometry over the years; attended many research conferences and keep active still in theoretical mathematics. Recently, my musings in mathematical physics have led me into looking at the consistency (not the necessity) of Jung’s Universal Unconscious with Quantum Mechanics as we now have it, based on recent interpretations of the fundamental nature of time that are emerging from multiverse and superstring theories. This is not an attempt to reach any theological conclusions, but rather to understand the karmic ideas of doing good and synchronous occurrence of events and insights.


I was born in Georgia, and had a terrible life there, only ameliorated by using my intellectual abilities to gather safety. A General Motors scholarship, obtained through the National Merit Scholarship competition, got me to Georgia Tech where I started a year early in Chemical Engineering. Not being able to wield a wrench led me to become a math major. After five disastrously lost and wandering years, I escaped Georgia by taking the Greyhound bus to New York City. The pharmaceutical giant, Hofmann La Roche, took me on as an apprentice biochemist because of my recent publication with Dr. William Knouse of a method of obtaining nearly pure human follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) from post-menopausal urine. Other companies then adapted my extraction procedure to make the fertility drug more commercially available. There I worked on the biochemistry of the recently discovered anti-tumor antibiotic (cancer chemotherapy) anthramycin methyl ether. We elucidated the rather subtle tertiary binding of anthramycin to DNA, thereby inhibiting DNA-directed RNA polymerase. In the publication in the Journal of Cancer Research, Drs. Harry Bates and Wolfgang Kuenzig and I also studied the active dimer of anthramycin, which actually does the real inhibition of the DNA polymerase and also is an effective cure for polycythemia vera. In the evenings, I tried to recover my academic career, taking a Bachelor’s degree program in the night school of Rutgers University under Hoffmann La Roche’s tuition rebate program. In the year before my graduation from Rutgers in 1967, I changed jobs at Hoffmann la Roche and became a computer programmer in their biostatistics department.


1967 was an important bifurcation point in my timeline. Because I did extremely well on the Graduate Record Exam, many mathematics graduate schools offered me teaching assistantships. I eventually chose the University of Oregon, in Eugene, primarily to continue my research into characters of finite groups which I had started with Prof. Ashby Foote, my mentor at Rutgers. Ashby was a student of Charles Curtis, who was at the U. of O. at that time. So I and my girl friend hitchhiked for sixty days across America and Mexico to wind up in Eugene. It became apparent that I wanted to work in Differential Geometry, rather than Group Theory, so I latched onto the genius algebraic number theorist, Michio Kuga, and did my doctoral thesis with him and Profs. Koch and Leahy. I was living the hippie life and working actively against the Vietnam War with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the summer of 1968, I fought in the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. My hand-painted green VW bus took me around the country from demonstration to demonstration. God knows how I survived to write my thesis and get my doctorate in 1971. 








My first real academic position was a visiting professorship (post-doc) at the Univ. of Washington in Seattle during their NSF Emphasis Year on Several Complex Variables. This gave me the opportunity to learn from Carl Allendorfer at UW and the many visitors to UW for the critical mass on complex manifolds (Kodaira, Wells, Lawson, Rossi, Morrow, Gunning, Kohn, Schmidt, Harvey, et al). Peter Hilton was at UW then and became my professional mentor. After one year, USAID telephoned me and asked if I would create a graduate school of mathematics at La Universidad de Oriente in Cumaná, Venezuela. I had never been to Venezuela, but was married then to a very intelligent geology student from Venezuela. This was the beginning of a long career in curriculum design. I left Seattle in March 1973 for Cumaná, leaving Enriqueta who joined me a few months later after finishing her degree. The years in Venezuela were wonderful and productive. I continued my research in differential geometry of harmonic Riemannian submersions and collected orchids. As the eighteen month graduate school program wound down, I transferred to the more prestigious Universidad Simón Bolívar in the hills south of Caracas. The research dynamics were more active there and the house we had rented on the top on a mountain in San Jose de Los Altos had a magnificent view. It became clear that, as beautiful as life was in Venezuela, it was pretty isolated with regard to the mathematics research community and travel funds to international conferences were hard to come by. Peter Hilton helped me obtain an assistant professorship at Case Western Reserve Univ. in Cleveland. Enriqueta and I settled down in Cleveland Heights. She started a degree in the History of Science having developed an interest in the subject while editing a textbook I had been writing in Spanish on the History of Mathematics for USB. I did a lot of research, published a lot of papers, and made many trips to math conferences in Europe and to various places in the States. 1977 saw me in Colombia as a Visiting Fulbright Instructor, giving public lectures on Mathematics Education in Bogotá, Medellín, and Sántander and teaching a six-week course in Differential Geometry to Colombian university professors at La Universidad del Valle in Calí.



In 1978, I received the Carl F. Wittke Award for Undergraduate Teaching from CWRU, just as I was denied tenure. One of my happiest collaborations at Case was with Leon Harmon; a fantastic genius in Biomedical Engineering and a true soulmate. After Case, I moved on to the College of Charleston, SC. Charleston is a very schizophrenic town — very racist, yet very progressive (e.g., the Spoleto Festival). I taught math classes at the College but started doing research in the application of differential topology in statistics with Loren Cobb at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Biometry Dept. Its chairman, Clint Miller, became a close friend and mentor. Clint suffered a C3 break as a young man, but went on to establish a couple of Biometry and Computer Science departments and write some standard texts in biostatistics. The professional life at the College was wearying and my marriage was dissolving, so I resigned and sought out a new job in a new place. Finding an ad in the New York Times for a position at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, I applied for it and was hired in 1980. Enriqueta went on to finish her doctorate in Geology from CWRU and has a fine career with the Geology Directorate of the National Science Foundation. I continued my research over the subsequent summers into Statistical Catastrophe Theory under a National Science Foundation grant at the Medical University in Charleston. In 1982, I discovered and published an important family of compact symplectic manifolds which cannot be Kähler, extending a discovery of William Thurston from 1976.



Living in New York City produces a very dynamic life style so one must compensate by introducing more opportunities for relaxation. I continued my extensive traveling and spent a good part of one summer on Shelter Island, in the jaws on the alligator (look at a map) on the eastern end of Long Island. I started psychoanalysis with Dr. Michael Aronoff which made tremendous changes in my world view and in the way that I treated others in my life.



In 1985, I was diagnosed with carcinoid syndrome, a rare cancer associated to neurological tissue lodged in my intestines (where many people thought that my brains were, anyway). The physical effects were devastating and dramatic – diarrhea, vomiting, intense pain, physical changes in my heart and intermittent losses of consciousness. Under the medical supervision of some true experts, I managed to survive, eventually injecting myself three times a day with Octreotide, a somatostatin analogue, which reduced the size of the tumors and eliminated them by early 1994.



I met and married a fashion designer named Collette in 1987. We moved into a house on the little island of Eaton’s Neck in Long Island Sound. She became disillusioned about the world of fashion design and decided to follow her muse into creating jewelry.  Just as Collette finished her second degree at F. I. T. in Jewelry Design and went off for a year’s apprenticeship in Delaware, we moved to a place much farther out on Long Island in 1995, purchasing a lovely house on a large, wooded lot near Brookhaven National Laboratories and not far from the SUNY Stony Brook campus. She could work on her jewelry and sell them at craft shows and I could have the peace and quiet of Ridge to work on math. We purchased a time-share suite at the Manhattan Club near Carnegie Hall (Location! Location! Location!) and found it luxuriously comfortable after an evening at the opera or the theater or as a base for a crawl of the City’s museums and restaurants.



When I first came to St. John’s, I started a very rewarding collaboration with the Committee on Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) and its director, Alina Camacho, a fantastically accomplished Cuban professor of Literary Criticism. My interest in the ancient Maya culture led me to learn how to translate Maya glyphs from the pyramids and involve myself in the monthly workshops of the Pre-Columbian Society of the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Univ. of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Collette even converted the focus of her jewelry line to silver earrings and gemstone necklaces with Maya glyphs containing, say, the bearer’s birthday, written in Maya. I continue to travel almost every year to Maya sites in Central America (check out the travel page on this blog). While serving on the curating committee of an exhibition of carved pre-Columbian shell art at the Hillwood Art Museum at C. W. Post Univ. on Long Island, I met Dr. Gil Graham. Gil was a wonderful human being and an exemplary collector of Dogon art. He taught me quite a bit about African art and become my mentor. Sadly, Gil died a few years ago. With my horizons thus expanded, I became an enthusiastic collector of African Art. I do not have the deep pockets that Gil had, but I manage to make some interesting purchases. My house is full of African Art. (The African Art page on this blog expands more on this). In 2001, I accepted an invitation to give a talk in Accra, Ghana, on creating a “University Without Borders” in Africa. We took the opportunity to stay for three weeks, collecting art in Ghana and flying on to Mali, where a wonderful man, Adama Diawara, took us to visit the Dogon people on the Bandiagara Escarpment and to the Mud Mosque at Djenne.



My mathematics productivity increased. I accepted an invitation to be a researcher at the 1997 Park City (Utah) Summer Institute on symplectic manifolds run by the Institute for Advanced Study. Soon I worked out a very strong result on superminimal fibres in almost Hermitian submersions and applied it to the Goldberg Conjecture in dimension four. Two published papers resulted, as well as an invitation to chair a session of research papers at the quadrennial International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin in 1998, where I also presented a paper on those results. This was the ICM at which Prof. Andrew Wiles, of Princeton Univ. received a special Fields Medal for resolving enough of the Tatiyama_Shimura Conjecture to resolve Fermat’s Last Theorem. We rented a double room in the top of a castle on the Rhine for a week and had a ball, traveling all over southwestern Germany including Trier, an ancient Roman settlement and Idar-Oberstein, the gem-cutting capitol of the world.



During the same period, I became deeply involved with creating a summer camp for ninth grade girls who had no previous interest in science to try to influence them into seeking careers in science. My good friends, Tom Murphy and Willard Gingerich, at St. John’s, acquired a huge earmark grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education to run the camps during the summers of 2000 and 2001 with four excellent SJU professors, Anne Dranginis, Elise Megehee, Rich Rosso and Frank Cantelmo, at the beachside Oakdale campus of SJU. What a joy! We also set up a webboard-based chatboard on the Internet for young women on Long Island to discuss their problems in choosing science as a career through a grant from the Long Island Fund for Women & girls.



Also during the same period, I worked with Ray Ochs and Jay Zimmerman on a three year National Science Foundation research grant on the creation of a web site which allowed biochemical investigators to select or create enzymatic pathway reaction schemes from the known reactions in possibly all living cells on Earth, and then ask the mathematical module in the web site to run an advanced linear algebra approach to the coupled differential equations of the reactions in the pathway called Metabolic Control Analysis. Again during the same period, because of my experience with setting up the graduate school of mathematics in Venezuela, St. John’s appointed me to a new committee to completely rewrite the entire Core Curriculum of the first two years at the University. It was a grand success and the Core Curriculum has been functioning extremely well at SJU since its institution in 2002. One of the new courses that the Committee created for the Core Curriculum was basically “Critical Thinking Using Computer Technology.” But you can’t call the course that. St. John’s gives laptop computers to all its incoming freshmen. So we thought that the instructors could use the tremendous cultural resources of the New York City area and devise individual course syllabi to teach the students about the world around them, doing extensive google searches and field trips and returning their homework, etc. electronically. So we called the computer and critical thinking course: “Discover New York.” This approach is very much in keeping with the quotation from William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the Irish poet who was very much involved in reforming Education in Ireland.



Education is not a pail to be filled; it is a fire to be ignited.


That is my Prime Directive as I follow my path in teaching and curriculum design. I taught Discover New York for three years, calling my course Evocative African Art. I basically taught African cultures through an examination of their ritual art. Because of having so many examples in my own collection, I was able to bring to class every day a fine example of a Dogon mask or a Congo Nkisi power figure or a Fang reliquary guardian, etc. We made class field trips locally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.



I continue to have a full and very rewarding life. I am currently working on incorporating an artificial intelligence software assessment and tutoring software called ALEKS into my biocalculus course at SJU in cooperation with an NIH Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) grant proposal of Prof. Jay Zimmerman in the Biology Dept. Dr. Seokhee Cho of the SJU School of Education, Dr. Derek Owens of the SJU Writing Center and I are developing a two week residential workshop for gifted ten year old students to be held at St. John’s in the summer of 2009. My marriage to Collette ended in early 2004, but I am now very happily involved with a Nurse Practitioner, Abbe, who has greatly expanded my visions of life and shown me new exciting horizons to strive for. Abbe is making me very happy. Hopefully, I can reciprocate.


My current interests also include my Pleo living robot, Jerry, and Second Life. After taking a short workshop this summer on the possible uses of Second Life in Education, I am enthusiastic about creating an environment in Second Life in which I can teach my mathematics seminars with my students manipulating the parameters of mathematical figures from their keyboards.



My upcoming planned trips are discussed on the home page of this blog.



Join me!




You can send email to: watsonw@stjohns.edu