The word “mathematics” comes from the Greek word “mathema,” which means learning, study and science. Sam Watson doesn’t need to be told the definition of mathematics, though, because his intrinsic knowledge of the subject has already garnered him several accolades.
Watson, a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Mississippi, can add one more award to his resume as recipient of a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
The Gates Cambridge Trust has awarded 37 new Gates Cambridge Scholarships to American students to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees at the University of Cambridge in England. Watson is the first recipient from UM, and one of three from the SEC.
He said winning the Gates scholarship is meaningful to him on many levels.
“It means a lot to me to receive this award as an Ole Miss student,” Watson said. “Several times, when recruiting high school students to Ole Miss, I have been met with skepticism about the opportunities available to students who choose a public school in the South over more prestigious institutions. I think laying the groundwork for more Ole Miss students to get the Gates Cambridge scholarship in the future is a good step, because it really shows that you can take advantage of those opportunities no matter where you come from.”
Watson, an Oxford native, is a graduate of UM as a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, finishing in May 2008 with a B.S. in math and physics, and a B.A. in classics. He is a Taylor Medalist, a 2006 Goldwater Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi.
He graduated high school from the Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus and has taught math at the Regents School of Oxford since he was a college sophomore.
Debra Young, associate dean of the Honors College, said the Gates Cambridge is a relatively new scholarship, but it began as one the most prestigious programs in the world.
“It’s not just modeled on the Rhodes, it is the Rhodes equivalent,” Young said. “I’m delighted for Sam and very proud of him, but I’m equally proud of what the scholarship says about the University of Mississippi: Our students compete with the best of the best.”
Founded by Bill and Melinda Gates to honor Bill Gates’ father, the scholarship program was designed to bring to Cambridge the quality and prestige of the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. For October 2009 entry, 752 U.S. students applied for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
“Gates considers intelligence a privilege, and the Cambridge education a privilege, and they want to be sure they select scholars who feel the same way and who intend to use their privileges to create a better world,” Young said. “Sam’s record and behavior clearly indicate that he feels the same way; he’s a superb choice for the Gates.”
The Gates Cambridge funds two to four years at Cambridge University, the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, for study in any field. Applicants must be under 30 and demonstrate outstanding achievement in academics, service and leadership. The program emphasizes potential to make a lasting contribution to one’s field, and a commitment to use that work toward the betterment of the world. Competition is open to applicants from any country, and roughly 100 scholarships are awarded each year.
The opportunities provided at the SMBHC caused him to think about the world in a real and immediate way, Watson said. Since the honors college requires students to contribute and give back to the community as part of their community action component, it inspired him to be interested in life outside of equations and formulas.
The young mathematician also credits former mathematics professor and department chair Tristan Denley with planting the seeds of interest in Cambridge, since Denley earned his doctorate there.
“Sam has worked tremendously hard to get to this level of mathematical ability,” said Denley, who recently left UM to become provost and vice president of academic and student affairs at Austin Peay State University. “But it has also been wonderful to see the generosity with which Sam has been willing to share his time with young people who too have an interest in mathematics. I am so thrilled about Sam’s well deserved success.”
Denley said the intensity of his own experience at Cambridge left his mathematical career forever transformed.
“The program that Sam will be beginning in Cambridge is one of the premier programs worldwide for young mathematicians,” Denley said. “Looking back on my days as a young graduate student, fresh to Cambridge, I can remember the excitement of seeing the breadth and depth of the courses on offer. It seemed that there was no corner of the mathematical universe left unrepresented.”
Watson said the selling point of his scholarship interview was that he wanted to make a difference in math education. “I want to improve the quality of mathematics education at the university level, by bringing sound pedagogical principles to bear in the university classroom, and, as Dr. Denley has done at this university, by rethinking course format to incorporate technology. Also, I want to influence policy to make math education more effective for students in public schools all across the country.”
Gerard Buskes, professor of mathematics who has been on the UM faculty for 24 years, said Watson is the brightest, most personable and most promising student he has taught.
“Mr. Watson is extraordinarily precise and has an insatiable curiosity as well as a balanced personality,” Buskes said. “He also is very conscientious, frequently asks questions that go beyond what is taught in class or books and, most importantly, makes highly non-trivial connections between the various parts of mathematics that he has an interest in.”
Watson’s enjoyment and enthusiasm for math radiates to his peers and his teachers, and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is an extraordinary first step on the path to success, Buskes said.
Watson said he is interested in seeing how his time in England will affect his Southern accent, and he is excited about student life at a great European center of learning. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the other Gates scholars in England, as well as discovering the ways that this experience will broaden my perspective.”
Watson is the son of Marvin and Jean Watson of Oxford and is married to Nora Watson.