A logical legacy

CATEGORIES: Alumni, News
Scott Hanna's business card

Scott Hanna (’77 metallurgy) had a trio of eclectic interests. Exotic curries, vinyl records and, mostly, math.

It’s the latter that is permanently transforming Iowa State University’s Department of Mathematics. Hanna died in June 2019 after a long illness, but through a generous, seven-figure planned gift, his love of mathematics lives on.

Finding joy in philanthropy
When Hal Schenck, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, visited Hanna last spring, he met a man with a mile-a-minute mind and major enthusiasm for discussing one topic.

“He had three logic books on his table, and it was clear he was more than a hobbyist,” Schenck recalled. “That was all he wanted to talk about. My first mathematical passion was logic, so we had a lively discussion.”

Hanna’s gift bequeathed the department six new named faculty positions, with three endowed Hanna professorships and three Hanna faculty fellowships. Iowa State mathematics now has a total of eight named positions, which vaults its profile alongside institutions with larger, more widely-recognized mathematics departments.

Hanna, though not a mathematics alumnus, carefully planned his estate gift to advance his favorite areas of mathematical studies—logic, algebra and discrete mathematics.

“[Scott] was examining how to improve scholarship and teaching of areas he was interested in,” Joe Nolte, Iowa State University Foundation senior director of development, said. “It was a joy for him to create those professorships.”

Wide-reaching impact
The Hanna professorships have already put Iowa State mathematics on the radar of globally recognized faculty. Shlomo Gelaki, the first Hanna professorship recipient, is a world leader in representation theory. Previously a faculty member at Technion, a top Israeli research university, Gelaki arrived at Iowa State this summer.

Left to right: Shlomo Gelaki, the first Hanna professorship recipient, and Michael Young, recipient of a Hanna faculty fellowship.

The Hanna faculty fellowships will help recognize and reward talented junior math faculty, such as Michael Young, associate professor of mathematics. Young, an expert in combinatorics and graph theory and the first Hanna fellowship recipient, also recently secured a $1.5 million National Science Foundation award for research that aims to increase the success of underrepresented students in mathematics graduate programs.

“It is an honor to receive this fellowship,” Young said. “It certainly provides me more of an opportunity to build on my research in discrete math. More importantly, it gives me more space to better help our students accomplish their goals of being successful and effective mathematicians.”

In helping recruit and retain top faculty members, Hanna’s generosity is impacting the department at its core, generating wide-reaching consequences for everything from enhanced classroom curriculum to innovative graduate programs to new research.

“These endowed positions give us the chance to attract great scholars who can improve the experiences for our students, to improve the quality of the research that we do and to change the whole direction and trajectory of the department and university as a whole,” Schenck said.

Pursuing a passion
Not long after their spring visit, Schenck wrote Hanna a note and packaged up a copy of his first textbook to accompany it. The book, “Computational Algebraic Geometry,” isn’t about logic, but he knew Hanna would enjoy it anyway.

The gift, unfortunately, didn’t arrive before Hanna’s death. However, during their brief acquaintance, Hanna gave Schenck something instead. A reminder about what it means to pursue a passion.

“Scott was a man who loved mathematics, and he spent his whole life doing something different than that,” Schenck said. “In academia, we often take for granted that we get to pursue what we’re passionate about for a living. I want to make sure that even though he’s gone his contributions are recognized. His connection with Iowa State was important to him.”

Schenck now keeps Hanna’s business card in his desk drawer. It doesn’t list a job title, workplace or degree, rather just a few words in crisp black letters on a plain white background.

“Scott D. Hanna. General Logician. Theoretical Computer Scientist. (Self Trained).”

Hanna’s passions were succinct. His impact, well, now that’s infinite.

Read all the 2019 Math Matters stories