Remarks by Robert Devaney from his 2003 Frame Lecture

From an email to Robert Sefton Smith from Professor Devaney sent on July 5, 2004.

Hi Robert,

Here is a rough sketch of my remarks…

At the beginning of my career in mathematics, Pi Mu Epsilon played a very
significant role, including some of the high and low points I encountered
in those early days.

As an undergraduate math major at Holy Cross College, I was fortunate to
receive a fellowship in my senior year which freed me up from much of my
coursework and allowed me to embark upon a “significant research project.”
In the late 1960’s, long before REUs were around, getting undergraduates
involved in mathematical research was no  easy task for a faculty member.
Luckily, I had an excellent advisor, Prof. Patrick Shanahan, who guided me
toward combining some of the mathematical ideas I had learned in topology
and abstract algebra to study the structure of Lens spaces.

This research was a formative experience for me, and when graduation
neared, Prof. Shanahan suggested that I write up my results for
publication.  As a novice, I had no idea where to submit such a paper, but
Prof. Shanahan suggested the Pi Mu Epsilon journal, since Holy Cross had
recently initiated their PME chapter.  And so I sent off the paper and went
off to graduate school.

I had nearly forgotten about this paper when a letter arrived about a year
later telling me that my paper had been accepted for publication, and I was
thrilled to see the paper appear a short time thereafter — my first
publication!    But then disaster struck.  About a year or so later a
fellow graduate student stopped by to tell me that he had seen my paper
reviewed  in Math Reviews!  I hurried off to read the review and was
devastated.  In a two sentence review, the reviewer basically said that all
of my research had already been done in the 1930s,  that the author paid no
attention to the topological details.  (Of course, I completely missed the
fact that the people who had originally proved these results were such
eminent mathematicians as Seifert and Threlfall, and that it took them
about 100 pages or so to do so.)

Reading stuff like this made me think about my choice of career, but
luckily, Pi Mu Epsilon came to the rescue.  Just after reading the review,
I received  another letter from the PME editor, this time telling me that
my paper had been selelcted as “Best Paper of the Year,” and enclosed I
found a check for $250.  Now $250 may not seem like a lot these days, but
back then, with one child at home and another on the way, and living in an
apartment that cost $62 per month (all utilities included!), $250 sure
looked good.  But the financial boost that the award gave me pales in
comparison to the boost in confidence that I received;  as I look back on
things now, there is no question in my mind that that award gave me the
confidence I needed to complete my thesis and become a research

As it has for countless other young mathematicians, Pi Mu Epsilon provided
me with just the support I needed exactly when I needed it.  I am extremely
grateful for all that Pi Mu Epsilon has done for me and for so many other
mathematicians at the beginning of their careers.  Thank you so much for a
job well done!

Bob Devaney