Graber Earns Math Department's First NSF CAREER Award

Baylor professor bridges the theoretical and practical in math research by applying theory popularized in A Beautiful Mind

Graber Earns Math Department's First NSF CAREER Award

Jameson Graber, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics, earned a Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award provides nearly $430,000 in funding over five years to support his research at the intersection of partial differential equations, game theory, economics and political science.

“I’m asking questions that are related to economics and large population dynamics and using game theory as a tool to create manageable mathematical models,” Graber says. “What really interests me is responding to real needs and using mathematical concepts to answer big questions like economic growth, wealth distribution and more. I feel very blessed to have won.”

Graber’s award is the first of its kind earned by a faculty member in Baylor’s Department of Mathematics. The NSF describes recipients as “early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”

Game Theory and Economics

The NSF award further advances Graber’s research in the mathematical analysis of partial differential equations (PDEs), which feature multiple independent variables and account for how these variables interact with one another when another changes. PDEs are a common mathematical tool in interdisciplinary research and are used to construct models with the potential to answer questions beyond the realm of physical science.

“The idea behind game theory is this: Take somebody at random from a population and ask the question, ‘What would this person do strategically to maximize his utility?’ Then, you can actually figure out from there what the entire population will do,” Graber says. “And that leads to a manageable mathematical model for which there’s a great deal of deep mathematical analysis.”

Game theory grew from the concepts of many mathematicians including John Nash, whose story was made famous in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. Graber describes game theory as the study of a set of agents, making decisions simultaneously, whose decisions impact one another. As it relates to the economy, game theory can provide a framework to apply human behavior to answer questions about wealth distribution or the economic growth, as two examples.

“Let’s say you look at a phenomenon like economic growth. There are a ton of variables to take into consideration — time, the amount of wealth each individual has or how they allocate their money in investments versus consumption,” Graber says. “With these variables, you have to ask, ‘As one of these changes, how do the others change?’ And that’s how you start to construct mathematical models with enough simplifying assumptions so you can get a model that’s reasonable to work with.”

Richard Jordan, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, and Wilson Law, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics, will collaborate with Graber in the research. All three joined the Baylor faculty in 2016 and met at orientation, where they discovered similar interests across their different disciplines.

Graber will begin the project with a list of mathematical models from literature and seek to prove those theorems with the hope of pursuing new models that uncover bigger principals.

“Research should always be self-reinforcing in the sense that, as soon as you answer a question, it’s going to lead to new questions because we can’t discover everything,” Graber says. “I’m hoping that over the course of these five years, I’ll start to see the emergence of a new concept that can tackle tough economics problems.”

A Growing Research Profile

Graber’s award is a milestone for Baylor’s math department and demonstrates the growth of Baylor research across the disciplines.

“It’s very exciting to see Jameson win this award — both for him and for the department as we in mathematics work to support the University’s push towards R1 research recognition,” Baylor mathematics professor and department chair Dorina Mitrea, Ph.D., said.

Baylor’s pursuit of R1 research recognition through Illuminate, the strategic plan, is enhanced through external research funding and projects that address significant societal challenges. Grants such as Graber’s CAREER award accomplish both goals, while serving notice of the University’s growing research profile.

Baylor Vice Provost for Research Kevin Chambliss, Ph.D., says the impact of early career grants for a university with R1 aspirations cannot be understated.

“It is critical that we secure significant external investment in our faculty’s research, but the benefits extend far beyond these specific recipients and their departments,” Chambliss says. “Career development grants raise the profile of the entire institution, helping us to attract even more top faculty, graduate and undergraduate students.”