Student & Faculty Research

The Math Evangelist

Using mathematical models, an Elmhurst math professor tracks the spread of cancers.

Evans Afenya is, as usual, the only person smiling in math class. We’re halfway through another session of roots and cosines, and he’s at the front of the room, chalk in hand, grinning. The rest of the people in the room—Afenya’s 20 students—are looking decidedly less upbeat, displaying the attitudes and expressions one might think are more typical of a math classroom. Some are scribbling equations in notebooks; some are scratching their heads in bewilderment. Some are fidgeting, staring at the clock and silently imploring it to move.

Afenya writes out another series of problems on the chalkboard, and by the time he finishes, his piece of chalk is little more than a nub. Now he steps away from the board to reveal the problems he has written out.

He turns to face his class and waits for solutions to come pouring forward. The room falls silent. One hand begins to go up slowly, then is quickly withdrawn.

“Hello, anybody?” Afenya asks optimistically. “Hello?”

“Goodbye,” one student shoots back dismissively.

Afenya’s expression never changes.

If there is one thing Afenya has learned in a lifetime devoted to math, it is that not everyone shares his love for the subject. Afenya is a math evangelist. He believes that math is a tool, unappreciated and underutilized, but capable of changing lives. He aims to spread that gospel to as many audiences as possible.

The students gathered in his classroom this afternoon make up one of his favorite audiences. They are high school kids—16- and 17-year-olds—enrolled in the Elmhurst College Summer Math and Science Academy, a sort of boot camp devoted to those academic subjects that one academy student aptly describes as “the hard stuff.” The academy aims to give young women and minorities—the groups that tend to be underrepresented in undergraduate math and science courses—a running start on college work in those disciplines.

Afenya has directed the academy since its inception in 1994, and he has come to anticipate the wailing and gnashing of teeth that will accompany the first math test he gives his academy students. “They have come to believe that they cannot do this work,” Afenya explains. “They expect to fail. That’s what we’re up against.”

The professor says he encounters the same fear of math in some of the undergraduates he teaches at Elmhurst—and even in the adult academics weighed down by multiple degrees that he meets at professional conferences. Besides directing the academy and teaching Elmhurst students, Afenya has built an impressive body of research in the ultra-cutting-edge field of biomathematics—the use of mathematical and statistical models to map biological processes, such as the spread of cancers. His work puts Afenya in regular contact with doctors and medical researchers, and he has noticed a surprising parallel between their feelings about math and those of the 16-year-olds in his academy classrooms. Members of both groups, it seems, can approach math with an apprehension verging on phobia.

“Even talking to scientists, the minute you say math, they say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Afenya says. “Math has been a headache for a whole lot of people. Unless they encountered a teacher in grade school or high school who made it exciting, they just want to be done with it.”

When Afenya joined the Elmhurst faculty in 1992, it was his research that impressed his new colleagues more than anything else. Biomathematics was emerging as a hot new field, and Afenya had already begun making inroads. “The kicker for us was that he was doing really first-rate research,” says Jon Johnson, the former chair of the Department of Mathematics, who was involved in hiring Afenya. “He was working in an interesting area, and he had already established connections.”

In the years since, even as his research has advanced impressively, Afenya has been most visible on campus as a teacher. “Evans is doing this really cutting-edge stuff with modeling cancer and helping understand what cancer does, and he is also able to maintain a great rapport with students in the classroom,” says Paul Arriola, an associate professor of biology at Elmhurst and the co-director of the summer academy.

When Afenya talks about teaching math, he sounds less like a dispassionate numbers-cruncher than a kick-ass coach. For him, math is about taking responsibility.

“Students have these anxieties about math, and so they do enough to get by, enough to satisfy the requirements,” he says. “But I say, ‘Do you not want to be a full human being? You will not always be able to run away from your problems or adopt other people’s solutions. You must be ready to solve problems in an original way. Math gives you the discipline to solve problems.’” It’s a pitch he has been making to academy students for more than a decade.

The academy aims to give high school students a short but intense taste of college life. For two weeks, they live on campus and take classes in math, biology, chemistry, computer science, and physics, all taught by some 20 Elmhurst College professors from half a dozen departments. On a typical day, students will spend seven hours in classes, along with study sessions and time spent on homework. The rigorous program has won endorsements from educators and administrators at the Chicago Public Schools, which sent about 45 students to the academy one recent summer, with support from the Associated Colleges of Illinois.

For some of the students, the experience is like being plunged into a strange new world. Some have never before been away from home by themselves. Most have never sat through two-hour-long classes in math or the sciences. For some students from impoverished neighborhoods and dysfunctional schools, just spending two weeks on a leafy and serene campus is a little disorienting.

“Some of these students come from desolate situations. They deserve better than to sit around and think they have no future. They shouldn’t have to take the path of least resistance,” Afenya says. “But first they must realize that they can do the work.”

Back in the classroom, Afenya is still facing 20 or so high school students who, it seems, would like to be done with math. The problems Afenya scrawled on the board 10 minutes ago remain there, unsolved. He calls on a student named Dana to tackle one of the problems, and after a confident start, she stumbles and stops. Afenya prods her once more for a solution, and Dana snaps.

“Y’all making my head hurt,” she says, in a way that would be comical were it not for the panic in her voice. “I quit!”

“No,” Afenya says quietly, “you do not quit so easily.”

He returns to the blackboard and starts again, walking his class through the problem from the beginning. Dana soon catches on, and before long she is helping to explain the problem to a classmate.

Later, Afenya stops teaching when he notices that one of the students, in violation of a class rule, does not have his math book with him. When Afenya asks where the book is, the student blandly tells him that he forgot it.

“Look, in college we do not forget books,” Afenya tells the student, as the rest of the class watches and listens. “You must learn that before you go to college.”

“I ain’t going to college,” the student mutters.

“I have news for you,” says Afenya. “You are going to college. I will make sure of it. I know where you live, and when the time comes, I will come and get you and make sure you go to college.”

The class breaks out in raucous laughter as they consider the unlikely image of Afenya appearing at the student’s door to drag him off to college. “You ain’t coming to the ’hood!” shouts one student from the back of the room.

Afenya smiles at the uproar, but something in his expression suggests that he just might be capable of showing up one morning and dragging students off to study math in college, one by one.

Afenya’s empathy for the math-anxious is all the more remarkable because he seems to have been born immune from the condition. He grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where his father was the chief accountant for a British firm and his mother owned a small business.

“One became very interested in math,” Afenya says of his childhood, displaying his characteristic aversion to using the personal pronoun. “All one had to do was take a problem, sit down with a piece of paper and figure it out.”

At the Mawuli School, a British-style boarding academy, he finished atop his class in a standard math exam. That helped earn him admission to the University of Science and Technology, where he applied himself to his studies and set his sights on a career in the national statistical service.

Instead, Afenya found himself being drawn into the political life on campus. Ghana at the time was ruled by military strongman Jerry Rawlings, who had taken power after a series of coups had shredded the nation’s constitution. The university was a hotbed of opposition to the military regime. As Afenya completed his undergraduate studies, launched his graduate work and began to teach, he found himself invited to speak at political forums. “As a teacher you are invited to make political statements,” Afenya says. “I had a lot of adrenaline. I began mounting platforms, speaking out.” Afenya soon noticed the state security police showing up at his public appearances and trailing him. The implicit threat seemed obvious enough. “One had to either leave or be quiet,” he says matter-of-factly.

Afenya had already begun making contact with professors at universities abroad, seeking a place to continue his graduate studies. He had family in the United States, and eventually found his way to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he continued his work in mathematical biology. Taking residence in rented apartments not far from UIC’s campus on the West Side, Afenya also undertook an education in American-style urban living. He weathered repeated break-ins and burglaries. Even more disturbing to him were his encounters with the aimless young people he saw on neighborhood streets.

“These kids would be standing around, doing nothing, utterly desolate,” he recalls. “I could not understand why they had to think this was the end of their world, the extent of their possibilities.”

While at UIC, Afenya began working in a minority engineering program that, like the summer academy he later would launch at Elmhurst, sought to groom minority students for fields they might consider closed to them. At the same time, he was completing his Ph.D. thesis (search for it under the title “Modeling Granulocytopoiesis, Normal and Leukemic States”), a project that placed him squarely in the midst of a rapidly growing field.

Researchers in recent years have increasingly turned to mathematical models as a useful tool in understanding malignant diseases and plotting treatments. Statistical models allow investigators to get a better understanding of the biological processes involved in cancer and other diseases, and to get it more quickly and cheaply than would be possible if they relied on clinical results alone. The biomathematics conferences where Afenya gives papers attract everyone from biologists to theoretical mathematicians to pharmaceutical researchers. All are banking that the dizzying series of equations constructed by mathematicians like Afenya might hold the keys to mapping and attacking cancers.

It is hard to imagine a more compelling case for appreciating the elegance and utility of mathematical systems. For a teacher like Afenya, who sees it as his job to sell his students on the importance of math, his own research just might be the best exhibit he could put forward.

Afenya launched the summer academy in 1994, two years after he arrived at Elmhurst. In the first season, 10 students enrolled. As enrollment grew, Afenya enlisted the help of Elmhurst undergraduates to serve as chaperones to the high school students. The chaperones help the new kids navigate the campus, make sure everyone gets to the dining hall for breakfast, and provide homework help.

In 2003, the academy introduced an extra week of “College Readiness” classes conducted by staffers from the Associated Colleges of Illinois. On the first day of the classes that summer, the ACI’s Renee Tucker gathered the academy’s students and told them they would be expected to act like responsible scholars for the next three weeks. “You’re in college now,” she declared.

Not every student was ready to accept the challenge. One group convinced their chaperone to carry an appeal to Afenya to ease up on the homework. The professor sent the chaperone back with a blunt message: “Deal with it. This is what college is about.”

It’s hard to know how much of Afenya’s message gets through, especially to students who have to be reminded to take off their headphones and remain seated in class. But Afenya—no surprise—is hopeful. He notes that a few academy graduates have gone on to enroll at Elmhurst College. One has returned to work as a chaperone at the academy.

“I believe just being here makes an impression on them,” he says. “You go by the library at the end of the day and you see them doing their homework there. Or you see them doing extra work in the lab. If we reach only a few of them, we will have accomplished something.”

Later, in class, with just a few minutes left in the period, Afenya returns to the chalkboard to scratch out a new set of problems for his students to solve. Predictably, he is greeted with groans and expressions of dismay. The teacher is nonplussed.

“These problems are invigorating,” he says, even as he continues to write. “They will make you happy.” The students look unconvinced, but Afenya keeps writing. Class is not yet over.

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