From Mailman to Mathematician
REAL student Matt Weiser's path to Tufts was almost as circuitous as the advanced math he studies—and just as enriching.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.17.10] In his former life as a letter carrier in Brockton, Mass., Matt Weiser really didn't see himself becoming a mathematics scholar.
But at Commencement, Weiser, a student in the Resumed Education for Adult Learners (REAL) program, will graduate with the Class of 2010 as the top senior in the mathematics department in the School of Arts and Sciences. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he's also the recipient of the Ralph S. Kaye Memorial Prize from the math department, the Benjamin Brown Prize Scholarship for excellence in research, the REAL Prize Scholarship and a Tufts University Alumni Association Senior Award. He's starting a Ph.D. program in computational biology this fall.
Despite his achievements, the mailman turned mathematician is exceedingly modest about his accomplishments, attributing them more to a perfectionist streak than the talent repeatedly cited by his professors.
"Yeah, it's pretty shocking that I'm here," he says. "I do definitely think of that sometimes."
An Unlikely Route
A native of Hull, Mass., Weiser graduated from high school in 1999, but admits to not really applying himself. He worked at a restaurant before delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. College was not in the cards.
"I never really had a desire to go to college. I didn't have the money, and I didn't have the motivation, either," says Weiser. "I probably would've flunked out if I had gone at that point."
After a few years, Weiser enlisted in the U.S. Army and was working to become an EMT with the Army Rangers, before he was injured during a training exercise. He returned to his mail route, but was itching for more.
After taking a few classes, Weiser soon realized he was ready for college.
"I wanted to do something meaningful and something that I enjoyed a little more," he says.
Weiser came to Tufts through the REAL program, which serves adults at least 25 years of age who are returning to or beginning their college education after taking a few classes. With his EMT training, he planned on majoring in biology with an eye on attending medical or veterinary school. But when he unexpectedly found himself reveling in an introductory calculus class, he switched his major.
For Weiser, the lure of math is in the challenge.
"You spend a really long time on this problem that's really hard, and then you solve it. Or maybe you don't solve it, and just spending the time itself on it is a lot of fun-for me, I guess," he says.
"None of the other sciences really has that level of purity where it's just concrete and very rigorous," he adds. "In that sense, it's beautiful. It's a beautiful subject."
Weiser also participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, studying a fractal called the Sierpinski triangle, which has applications in the field of computational biology. He'll continue that work this fall when he begins a doctoral program in computational biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"He could be the only person who in the space of four years has gone from Math 11 [Calculus I] to graduate courses," says Todd Quinto, the Robinson Professor of Mathematics at Tufts.
"Sometimes, when you have a superstar like that in the class, everyone knows they're the superstar," says Kim Ruane, an associate professor of mathematics. "He just wasn't like that. He has such incredible analytical skills, it wouldn't matter what he went to graduate school in, to be honest. He's going to be successful."
The REAL Deal
While the mathematics department has been his academic home at Tufts, Weiser found his community among his classmates in the REAL program.
"It's a great community because we gel together pretty well," he says. "We've been outside the bubble, and we understand a little more about the larger world," says Weiser, who is vice president of the Returning Student Organization and was voted by his peers to receive the REAL Award. "It's nice to have other students who are in the same position you are."
Weiser has put his math skills to work tutoring other REAL students, some of whom are several years removed from their last math class.
"He is so giving of his time and expertise," says Jean Herbert, associate dean of undergraduate education and director of the REAL program. "Math seems to be one of the real hurdles the adults have to face when they get here. Matt has been instrumental in helping so many of the students understand math."
"One of the teachers for Math 4, our lowest level course, came into my office one day and told me he was so terrific with her REAL students because he was so kind and gentle and so encouraging of them," says Quinto. "There was never a bad question, and he never got impatient."
"I like being able to help people be able to understand things, and it's the challenge of [teaching], too," says Weiser, who says he is considering becoming a professor down the line. "It's a similar challenge to just learning it yourself, but getting someone else to that level and being able to break down a concept for someone and have them say 'Oh yeah, I get it now.' "
Tufts has been full of discoveries for Weiser-an aptitude for math, a talent for teaching-but his goals, like his attitude, are humble.
"I've always just wanted to find something that I enjoy doing, to feel that my life is being productive," says Weiser. "And I think I'm, so far, hopefully succeeding or making it there."
Story by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications
Photos by Joanie Tobin, Tufts Photo