Ira Gessel celebrated as teacher and mathematician

Patient and generous — that is how friends, colleagues and former and current students described Ira Gessel, the Theodore W. and Evelyn G. Berenson Professor of Mathematics, who is retiring after more than 30 years at Brandeis University.

Gessel’s career and significant contributions to mathematics and the field of combinatorics were honored at a conference and dinner on Friday May 8, 2015.

Wessel with students
Gessel, fourth from left, with current and former students 
photo/Jordan Tirrell 

“It’s hard to imagine the department without Ira,” said Daniel Ruberman, chair of the mathematics department. “Not only is Ira a great mathematician but he’s also been a great citizen of the department. He is always willing to sit down with students and colleagues. Every time I walked by his office, there was also someone in there with him.”

“Ira was an incredibly patient teacher,” said Matthew Moynihan, PhD’12. “He would give me a problem to solve and suggest a few ways to solve it. Then, I would work on it for a month, finally figure it out and realize that Ira had suggested the right solution weeks ago but he wanted me to figure it out on my own.”

Andrew Gainer-Dewar, PhD’12, had the same experience.

“He never pushed you toward one solution. He always wanted you to discover the solution on your own — even if he already figured it out,” Gainer-Dewar said.

Gessel had his own way of gently correcting or pushing his students toward the right answer, said Yan Zhuang, PhD’16.

“I know I’ve said something totally wrong when Ira says, ‘Did you mean to say that?’ or ‘Something like that might be true,’” Zhuang recounted, with a laugh.

“If he said, ‘I don’t know what you mean by that, can you explain it,’ I knew I said something really wrong,” said Jordan Tirrell, PhD’16.

That patience extended to undergraduate students as well.

“He treats undergraduates with the same respect and kindness as he treats graduate students,” Jiaqi Gu ’16 said. “He has spent a lot of time with me, going over problems and concepts.”

The mathematics department honored Gessel’s commitment to his students with a framed genealogy poster — an academic family tree — of all of Gessel’s mathematical decedents.

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