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The following piece appeared in the Spring, 2002 issue of Research and Creative Activity magazine, a publication from Indiana University.
"You give me anything, any area, from the stock market to biology, and I’ll show you where partial differential equations appear."
The voice of Jacob "Koby" Rubinstein, professor of mathematics at IU Bloomington, bursts with enthusiasm as he points at the door to his office and launches into an explanation of how math figures in door manufacturing. And that’s just the beginning. Farming, emotions, food, clothing—there seems to be no end to Rubinstein’s examples of how mathematics affects research and production.
After explaining how math has helped makers of garage doors understand why a certain bar tended to break in the same place over and over again, he moves on to economics. "In the stock market, the main tool for the options market is partial differential equations," he says. "Now, every main brokerage firm is employing mathematicians and physicists to solve partial differential equations arising in the stock market."
Rubinstein, who came to Bloomington from Technion Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, has made a career out of connecting the ethereal world of higher math to the concrete world in which we live. An applied mathematician, Rubinstein has analyzed problems ranging from the behavior of superconductors at extremely low temperatures to the behavior of human beings in highly complex situations. (One example of his work in the latter area concerns auction theory, a subset of a field known as game theory). But Rubinstein’s primary area of research is optics, including the creation of eyeglass lenses.
Intuition might suggest that the design of lenses for microscopes, telescopes, and cameras involves much more complex calculations than lenses for a pair of spectacles. But Rubinstein counters this presumption.
"Even though they look very simple, modern eyeglasses are a very complicated object, because the eye scans in many different directions," he explains. "With a camera, there’s one lens, and you look straight through it."
Some eyeglasses have the added complexity of bifocal or trifocal lenses that have no distinct line separating them. Designing and manufacturing such lenses requires the use of partial differential equations, an area of math frequently employed in the optimizing process.
The surface curves of a lens determine how light is refracted through that lens. The goal in designing a multifocal lens is to provide eyeglasses that give the wearer a clear view of all depths—a book, a computer screen, the house next door, or a distant mountain.
Solving partial differential equations reveals the complex curves needed in the surface of the lens for producing the optimal refraction of light for this purpose. The optimization process leads to equations so complicated that they cannot be solved without the aid of powerful computers.
To get an idea of how these equations work in an optimization process, imagine an irregularly shaped loop of wire—what might result from bending a coat hanger so that it was clearly no longer all in one plane. When that loop is dipped into soapy water and removed slowly, a film will stretch across the space bounded by the closed loop of wire, and this film will naturally form a surface that exhibits the optimal curves for using the least amount of soap film. This optimization process happens spontaneously in nature, but for humans to artificially construct a complex surface of this type in the optimal shape requires the use of partial differential equations.
Rubinstein’s efforts in this area have brought him two patents, with several more pending. One patent concerns measuring lenses, the other is related to the design of multi-focal progressive lenses.
Optics research today remains largely within the domain of industry, but Rubinstein points out that the IU School of Optometry in Bloomington provides an exception to the rule. "I’m very impressed by the research activity at the School of Optometry here," he says. "These people are undoubtedly one of the leading groups in the world."
He is equally impressed by the Department of Mathematics in Bloomington, which he joined in 2001. "It’s a really good group of people," he says, "and they have a very strong tradition of work in applied math. In fluid mechanics, for example, which is one of the most difficult areas in science, Indiana University is one of the strongest places on earth."
For Rubinstein, the distinction between applied and theoretical research often becomes blurred. "It is very difficult to predict what kind of mathematical work is going to be applied," he says. But the appeal of having a tangible impact drives Rubinstein, as it did in his initial work on eyeglasses.
"It was, for me, very attractive," he says. "I do some mathematics, maybe write some software, and then I will have something I can feel, that I can hold in my hand, that will provide a cure for some eyesight problems."
Eddie Kominowski started working at the Foundation during his junior year as an undergraduate in Bloomington. Now, just over a decade later, he is stepping into the position of Regional Director of Development in Major Gifts. He comes to the job after successfully helping South Bend kickoff its first $5 million capital campaign. Major gifts—donations of $25,000 or more—come from "people who have the means to support us and the interest in doing so," Eddie explains. "It’s my job to continue the relationships we have and to build new ones."
This Hoosier native comes from a family
that values education—both his parents, who are IU alums, and his brother
are schoolteachers—and his work allows him to have an impact on the education
of others. Plus, for Eddie, working at the Foundation means "you
get to work with the best—you’re surrounded by people at one of the top
foundations in the country." For the full story go to the new ground
When Eddie Kominowski greets you, he beams—a huge, warm smile spreads across his face and his eyes twinkle. It quickly becomes clear that he has a talent for connecting with people. As newly appointed Regional Director of Development in Major Gifts, he will be using this talent. "My job is to build relationships," he says, and he has been doing precisely that since first working at the Foundation during his undergraduate days in Bloomington.
Eddie’s first project with the Foundation, which came during his junior year in 1990, was to update the Directory of Services. By the time he was done, he knew the Foundation inside and out. (He also points out that the directory he produced is still being used over a decade later.) After earning a Master’s Degree in Higher Education Administration, he began working fulltime on capital campaigns in Bloomington. In recognition of his abilities in this area, he was later tapped to work on the kickoff of South Bend’s first $5 million capital campaign.
Now, Eddie has returned to Bloomington to work on major gifts, which are donations that exceed $25,000. "It’s my job to go out and find the people here in Indiana who have the means to support us and the interest in doing so," the lifelong Hoosier explains. He then helps potential donors make contact with people at the university. "Every case is unique," he says, "because it’s personal."
Raising money for the university has tangible results for Eddie, and the framed photo in his office of South Bend students who received scholarships makes it all very real and present for him. "Something I did actually had an impact on them," he says.
Eddie intends to continue having an impact on people through generating support for IU. "Higher education in the United States provides opportunities for people to break out of whatever is holding them back," he says, "and that’s the value of education."
“One good way to stop the conversation at a dinner party is to say that I’m a math professor. If anyone responds at all, it’s simply to say, ‘I hated math.’ Then silence follows until someone changes the subject.” Dr. Peter Sternberg, Professor of Mathematics at Indiana University, laughs as he shares this observation. He goes on to stress that he loves his work—both teaching and conducting research—despite the frustration he encounters when he tries to discuss it with friends. Discussing it with students is another matter, and he strives to stay “aware of which points in a discussion are going to be hard for the students to understand.”
Prof. Sternberg brought an impressive educational history with him when he joined the IU faculty in 1988. After graduating as valedictorian from his southern California high school, he attended the University of California at Berkeley. Before graduating with honors from Berkeley, he was accepted to the Courant Institute at New York University, the foremost place in the world for research into Prof. Sternberg’s area of interest: partial differential equations. Here he worked under the tutelage of the eminent mathematician, Prof. Robert Kohn. After obtaining his Ph.D. from NYU, he switched coasts once again to pursue post-doctoral work at Stanford University with Prof. Joe Keller, a world-renowned applied mathematician.
use mathematical models that correspond to real problems from another discipline,
such as physics, while theoretical mathematicians explore concepts that
do not necessarily have any connection to the physical world. Prof.
Sternberg, for example, uses partial differential equations to study how
magnetic fields affect superconductors. Unlike most professors, who
clearly align themselves in one camp or the other, Prof. Sternberg “straddles
the fence” between applied work and theory. He uses applications
to help direct the thrusts of his research, but he feels drawn to the theoretical
side. “For me, the aesthetic is important. I put a really high
premium on elegance.”
Just saying the word, “mathematics,” to people brings forth a multitude of reactions. In many cases, memories of the emotional trauma caused by high school algebra and trigonometry instantly produces shudders. Others, some of whom were born with a natural talent for math, remember it as the easy part of college entrance exams. Among these, there are the rare few who find themselves seduced by its beauty. They spend their lives exploring the far reaches of this always unfolding universe, which spans the range from the solidly concrete and utterly pragmatic to the purely theoretical and entirely ethereal. Dr. Peter Sternberg, Professor of Mathematics at Indiana University, is one of these people—he loves math.
In Prof. Sternberg’s case, an aptitude for mathematics runs through his veins. His father, Dr. Eli Sternberg was an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology. Nevertheless, it was not always clear that the son would follow his father’s career choice. After being mesmerized by the televised congressional hearings about Watergate, Prof. Sternberg had found his idols: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters credited with unearthing so much of the scandal. During high school, as editor of the school paper, Prof. Sternberg was ever diligent in his efforts to expose any wrongdoing at the school. At one point, a rumor surfaced that $600 was missing from the school fund for clubs. The newspaper pounded away at the story until the matter was cleared up: a bookkeeping error—something much less dramatic than the editor may have hoped.
After graduating as his high school’s valedictorian, Prof. Sternberg began his undergraduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. Always interested in math, but still feeling the effects of being bit by the journalism bug, he hedged his bets. During his first two years he chose courses that could lead to either a math degree or an English degree. In the end, math won out, due in part to a professor whose style was reminiscent of the law professor played by John Houseman in the movie, The Paper Chase. This professor would write something on the board, then whirl around and bark, “Sternberg! What’s the answer to this?” “I loved going there,” Prof. Sternberg recalls, “even though it was terrifying.” This class joined with others to make what Prof. Sternberg regarded as a “spectacular, just phenomenal program.” Before graduating from Berkeley with honors, he was accepted into the doctoral program at the Courant Institute of New York University, the foremost place in the world for research into Prof. Sternberg’s area of interest: partial differential equations. Here he worked under the tutelage of the eminent mathematician, Prof. Robert Kohn. After obtaining his Ph.D. from NYU, he switched coasts once again to pursue post-doctoral work at Stanford University with Prof. Joe Keller, a world-renowned applied mathematician. Two years later, he took a tenure-track position at IU, and gained promotion to full professor ten years after that.
Simply stating that the field of mathematics involves highly specialized areas of study fails miserably to convey the isolated nature of research into higher math. Every department at a university has professors working on “highly specialized areas of study,” but in almost any other field, all the members of a department can easily follow any paper presented. Not so in math. Many of the professors in a math department cannot comprehend the work of their peers, because the branches of study can lead in extremely disparate and secluded directions. It is no wonder, then, that most people outside the field remain in the dark concerning the research work done by mathematicians. One result of this, comments Prof. Sternberg is that announcing his profession at a dinner party is “one good way to stop the conversation. If anyone responds at all, it’s simply to say, ‘I hated math.’ Then silence follows until someone changes the subject.”
So, what does it mean to do mathematical research? Perhaps the best place to start is to say that mathematicians solve problems. Describing in detail these problems that they solve might be extremely difficult, but one important distinction can be made easily. The field is generally broken into applied mathematics and theoretical mathematics. Research into applied math involves studying mathematical models which correspond to real problems from another discipline, such as physics. Prof. Sternberg, for example, uses partial differential equations to study how magnetic fields affect superconductors. Strictly theoretical research, in contrast, focuses on mathematical concepts without any concern for a connection to something in the physical world. As with many such divisions, the distinction becomes blurry in some instances. Work done in applied math sometimes stimulates new research that is strictly theoretical; likewise, some theoretical discoveries have practical applications never foreseen by the researchers involved. Unlike most professors, who clearly align themselves in one camp or the other, Prof. Sternberg “straddles the fence” between applied work and theory. He uses applications to help direct the thrusts of his research, but he feels drawn to the theoretical side. “For me, the aesthetic is important. I put a really high premium on elegance. It’s got to be something very clean.”
Conducting research is only part of the job, of course; there are classroom duties as well. Teaching has been particularly rewarding and satisfying to Prof. Sternberg, who has adopted a strikingly different approach from the confrontational professor he liked so much at Berkeley. By focusing his efforts on finding the areas in any subject that are most likely to cause problems for students, he makes the process of learning math as user-friendly as possible. “I think a lot of teaching has to do with being able to be aware of which points in a discussion are going to be hard for the students to understand. It sounds obvious, but I think most people can’t do that. Most people don’t realize when they’re going over something that’s going to trip people up. They just fly right through it.” His appreciation of the difficulty many people have with math was fostered in part by his work directing an experimental program at NYU that taught remedial math to students with very weak math backgrounds.
as a professor has the added benefit of allowing Prof. Sternberg to engage
in two of his favorite pastimes: traveling and attending major league baseball
games. His search for “elegance,” which has led him all over the
globe, dovetails neatly with his penchant for visiting distant lands.
Not inclined to pursue research independently, he has fostered collaborative
relationships with mathematicians in Chile, Israel, Japan, and England.
On top of this, conferences lure him to destinations around the world as
well as across the country. It is on these trips within the U.S.
that he sometimes has the opportunity to indulge in his passion for baseball.
Originally a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team closest to
his childhood home in southern California, Prof. Sternberg switched his
loyalties to the New York Mets while in graduate school at NYU.
When he came to New York, they were the worst team in all of baseball,
but as he was finishing his dissertation, they were in the last leg of
a season that would culminate with winning the World Series. Caught
up in the excitement of their success, Prof. Sternberg mentioned the Mets
in the acknowledgements for his dissertation and thanked them for “providing
inspiration with their many victories this season.”
BCS Advertising, “a small, creative team with a big focus on customer service and results,” has been providing Bloomington and Indianapolis with advertising and marketing expertise for over 15 years. Run by Paul Smedberg and Jeannette Brown, BCS can claim credit for some of the sharpest and most effective web sites for local companies and organizations. A visit to their site (www.bcs-advertising.com) leads into a portfolio of sites they have created. It becomes clear rather quickly that this creative team is not just another one of the thousands of web site design companies that have sprung into existence in recent years. The sites are invariably crisp, clear, easy to use, and engaging. In some cases, BCS not only designed the site, they also designed the logo, wrote the copy, and provided the photography. Beyond being Internet specialists, they also work in other media and offer public relations services. Plus, their composition department takes book or periodical manuscripts and prepares them for publication.
This last service harks back to the company’s origins. BCS stands for Brown Composition Systems, a company started by Ms. Brown in the early 1980’s. A native Virginian, her family moved to Bloomington when she was young. Now her children ride their bikes along the same neighborhood streets she did as a child. In the 1970’s, after graduating from IU with a liberal arts degree and pursuing graduate work in graphic design, she took a job with a typesetting company and came to be responsible for quality control. Prior to the proliferation of word processing and desktop publishing, a huge and steady market existed for professional typesetting. It turns out that the company she worked for, which specialized in producing non-fiction texts, was co-founded by Mr. Smedberg.
Young companies that grow fast cannot avoid taking risks. In the case of this typesetting company, the risk was depending excessively on one client. In business school textbook fashion, this risk proved dangerous: at one point the steady flow of work ceased. Chaos ensued. In the aftermath, Ms. Brown and Mr. Smedberg each decided to start out on their own. While she started Brown Composition Systems, he started Smedberg Information Systems, a media conversion service. Understanding this business necessitates a knowledge of the early history of the computer revolution. Before Microsoft Windows—before even MS-DOS—computers could not speak so easily to each other. Media conversion was the business of providing the expertise and equipment to bridge the gap between computers from different companies or from different sections within the same company. As the need for this service receded, Mr. Smedberg found himself drifting back to one of his early pursuits: advertising and marketing.
A native of the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Mr. Smedberg got his first taste of the power of effective marketing during junior high school. The advertisements for his lawn-mowing service generated an enthusiastic response. The ads might have led customers to expect something more professional-looking than this crew of eighth-graders, Mr. Smedberg recalls, but no one complained about the results. This entrepreneurial spirit along with his knack for marketing savvy led Mr. Smedberg to find ways to fund himself while a student at IU in the 1970’s. A friend invented a small rear-view mirror that would attach to a cyclist’s glasses, and Mr. Smedberg successfully managed the marketing. Later, he founded the Nashville and Brown County Guide. “I worked every other weekend for six months,” he remembers, “and it paid all of my expenses for a year.”
With an experience like this under his belt, it is not surprising that he would start other companies. “The longest job I ever had was nine months,” he reveals. “I got fired from it, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can’t say I was happy at the time, but at some point I realized that I was never going to work for anyone ever again.” Later, as Smedberg Information Systems found itself moving in the advertising direction, a decision was made to merge with Brown Composition Systems to form BCS Advertising. Ultimately, the merger extended beyond business boundaries, and Mr. Smedberg and Ms. Brown got married.
It has been a fruitful partnership. “Our talents dovetail perfectly,” Mr. Smedberg explains, “she’s left brain dominant, and I’m right brain.” Ms. Brown handles much of the nuts and bolts administrative duties and all of the composition work. Mr. Smedberg is the master of computer-generated graphics and marketing theory, and he does most of the writing. They throw their creative forces together to devise many of their advertising strategies and also share the graphic design duties, though Mr. Smedberg handles this task for most of their clients. Whenever he produces the initial design, Ms. Brown provides criticism and in all cases she uses her quality control skills to make sure everything is in proper order. If the creation of a web site requires programming work, that duty also falls to Ms. Brown. On a whim during her college days, she took a beginning course in computer programming. Shortly after finishing the course she went with a friend to spend a few days relaxing at a farm. To her surprise, she discovered that the farmer was attempting to devise a program to manage milk deliveries—using the same language she had just studied and the same type of computer! (Remember, this was two decades ago, before Microsoft was ubiquitous.) Unable to resist the opportunity to help debug the program, Ms. Brown spent two solid days working on the computer with the farmer. “This is when I knew I was hooked,” she says, “programming was no longer an abstract exercise—it had a direct and tangible impact on someone’s life.”
Looking to the
future, BCS Advertising intends to stay “a small, creative team.”
Their formula has worked well and there are no plans to change it.
As with any small business, the flow of work arrives in waves, but manageable
ones—“Never really feast, and never really famine,” says Mr. Smedberg.
The rhythm is fine with him. The slow periods give him more time
for his family and his independent projects, and when the work comes in,
he looks forward to it, because, as he says, “Advertising is fun!”
Given how many small businesses fail, there is always something to be learned from those that succeed. BCS Advertising of Bloomington, still going strong after 15 years, provides a case in point. The basic formula for this company’s success can be stated rather succinctly: Provide a high quality product at a reasonable price and back it up with exemplary service. Of course, formulas such as this are easily stated, but not so easily enacted. Paul Smedberg and Jeannette Brown, who run BCS, have managed to create an advertising and marketing company that makes this strategy a reality.
One characteristic that they use to their advantage is their size. Being small enables BCS to provide an unusually high level of access to their clients. Communication between a customer and the creative team never gets filtered through an account executive, because BCS has no account executives. Mr. Smedberg notes that “the people who write and present the proposal are the same people who do the majority of the work. Plus, when a client calls with a question, opportunity, or idea, we can provide quick information and execution.” This means that their clients have what Mr. Smedberg calls “a marketing brain on a leash.” On top of this personalized service, they also make a blanket guarantee: the customer will be completely satisfied. Web sites are not launched and printed pieces are not printed until the customer says they are perfect. Mr. Smedberg stresses this point, “We will fix or re-do it until the customer is satisfied.”
Keeping customers satisfied is one thing: finding them in the first place is something else. In an effort to attract new clients, BCS charges nothing for an initial meeting. Some of these meetings result in no further contact, but when the client expresses interest in their services, they seize the opportunity. After laboring diligently to prepare a thorough proposal, they meet the client again to present an outline of the project along with the anticipated costs. Experience has shown that this is an investment that pays off. Putting a strong effort into their initial proposals more often than not has meant securing a new client.
A large part of what BCS offers their customers is electronic media and Internet marketing. In fact, this accounts for about half of their sales, the other half being mostly printed materials, magazine ads, and direct mail campaigns. A visit to their web site (www.bcs-advertising.com) leads into a portfolio of sites they have created. It becomes clear rather quickly that this creative team is not just another one of the thousands of web site design companies that have sprung into existence in recent years. The sites are invariably crisp, clear, easy to use, and engaging. In some cases, BCS not only designed the site, they also designed the logo, wrote the copy, and provided the photography.
Having skills in print media as well as electronic media enables BCS to help clients save money by producing both simultaneously. Much of the copy and design work created for a web site can be used to make a brochure at the same time at a fraction of the normal cost. But that is only one of the ways BCS tries to control costs for their customers. They also keep their prices down by refusing to follow the standard advertising agency practice of marking up printing and media purchases. Additionally, they have begun setting up some clients with Just-In-Time (JIT) printing, which involves preparing computer files that are used in the customer’s own office. This approach changes the economics of producing multi-colored materials in small quantities. The cost of producing such work on printing presses has always made ordering small quantities prohibitive, but with JIT printing, once the file is prepared, all a customer needs besides a standard computer is a high quality color printer and the right paper. Furthermore, BCS can train a client’s staff to make simple changes to existing pieces—a brochure could be continuously updated or customized for a specific purpose each time before it is printed. Companies of all sizes can save money with this approach.
The services already mentioned are only a part of what BCS offers their wide array of clients. Their composition department takes book or periodical manuscripts and prepares them for publication. They have experience producing videos and recently completed a series of three 15-minute videos on teachers’ professional development programs in Texas, Ohio, and Kansas. They also can provide a full range of public relations services and work both in business-to-consumer and business-to-business advertising. Clients, who are all from within Indiana and are mainly from Bloomington and Indianapolis, include not-for-profit and public sector organizations in addition to businesses. Though BCS does not target a particular industry, a significant portion of their work has come from real estate companies, who have needed brochures and web sites for developments, apartment complexes, and commercial properties.
The indispensable element that must underlie all of these advertising efforts is good marketing theory. Mr. Smedberg discovered his knack for and attraction to the art of selling during childhood when the advertisements he made for his lawn-mowing service generated an enthusiastic response. Over the years he has developed the following basic orientation as a starting place for most clients: “We usually look at advertising from the point of view of increasing sales. We look at the channels an organization takes to reach potential customers. We look at which channels are most cost-effective. Which types of advertising have worked in the past? How are customers retained, or how can they become bigger customers?” The next step depends on the individual circumstances. For example, he says, “In many cases, a campaign of press releases to trade publications is a highly cost-effective method of generating interest in a new product or service.”
By combining their
talents with a commitment to service and to keeping costs down, Paul Smedberg
and Jeannette Brown have made BCS Advertising into a successful small business.
Plus, they have done this in a highly competitive market where there is
a general tendency among customers to do business with larger agencies.
These two show us that bigger is not always better, and they aptly describe
themselves as “a small, creative team with a big focus on customer service