Mathematics professor Erkki Somersalo wins Diekhoff Teaching Award

For some, university-level mathematics can seem daunting. But for professor Erkki Somersalo, math is—and should be—a process that simplifies rather than complicates. Using a straightforward, stripped-down approach, Somersalo teaches students the subject in a way that makes even the most obscure concept accessible.

Somersalo’s teaching style has earned him the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching, which is awarded each year to faculty members who make outstanding contributions to the education and development of graduate students at Case Western Reserve University.

Somersalo breaks down his teaching style like this. “Think of drawing an animal or a person. If you know how the basic skeleton functions—you know what parts go where, which parts are going to bend and which parts cannot bend, etc.—you have a much better understanding of what you’re going to draw,” he explained. “It’s the same in mathematics: You take away the unessential parts and reduce it to the essential—the skeleton. Once you see only the essential parts, you’ll see that mathematics is actually a tool that simplifies rather than complicates.”

Of course, the ability to make complex concepts appear simple requires a complete grasp of the subject. Somersalo achieved his mastery during his studies at University of Helsinki in his native Finland as well as his years as a researcher and professor. Somersalo officially joined the Case Western Reserve faculty four years ago, although he has been involved with the university for about nine years, through projects and a sabbatical visit. In his research, Somersalo loves seeing “mathematics in action”; his latest work is a multidisciplinary project studying how the brain works—for example, how metabolism and consciousness are related—and how mathematics can help make sense of it all.

Much of his research focuses on using math to better understand the body or improve health, such as designing a computational model of the metabolic processes that occur in human cells and developing a way to improve the sensitivity and specificity of mammogram technology.

“It is clear that Dr. Somersalo has a thorough understanding of the material he is presenting—and that his knowledge goes far beyond what he presents in class,” one of his nominators wrote. This, coupled with his ability to communicate his ideas clearly, allows him to “make math look easy, when most of the time it is not,” she noted.

To make these difficult problems seem easy, Somersalo carves out a basic path that leads, through a series of steps, to a simple solution. Mathematicians often hide this path and make their work seem exceedingly difficult and complicated, Somersalo noted, which is why professors must be there to uncover the path.

It helps, too, if professors can explain these difficult problems in a way that piques students’ interest, which Somersalo does with ease, according to his nominators. He peppers his courses with humor and real-life stories, which can be a welcome relief to the students. As one nominator wrote: “Graduate-level mathematics can be intense, and he is always quick to interject anecdotes about mathematicians or his own experiences into his lectures. These small stories interspersed throughout the lecture keep the class interesting and the students engaged.”

Somersalo extends this personal touch beyond the classroom, making an effort to get to know each of his students. Whether seeking out students to congratulate them in person on their achievements or supporting them through a stressful personal situation, Somersalo knows it’s important to get to know students one on one.

“If you have a class where you don’t know students personally, you can only dream of communicating with them well,” he said. “I don’t think I could communicate well as a professor if they don’t know me and I don’t know them, so it works both ways.”

This student-teacher connection is much easier to build with students in the U.S. than it was in Finland, Somersalo noted, because students here are much more eager to express themselves. He is thankful students are willing to build this connection with him and that they appreciated his style enough to nominate him for the Diekhoff award.

“There are so many outstanding teachers at this university, so it was very hard for me to believe I won, knowing what the competition is. Many of my colleagues are first-class teachers, beloved by students and well-respected,” he said. “Plus, we have great students here and that makes my life a lot easier and more enjoyable.”

The university created the Diekhoff Award in 1978 to recognize full-time faculty members who make exemplary contributions to the education and development of graduate students at Case Western Reserve University. The award was created in honor of John Diekhoff, who served at the university from 1956 to 1970 in roles such as professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

Initially, the award recognized two faculty members who excelled in teaching; in 2009, the School of Graduate Studies expanded the award to honor faculty members with strong graduate mentoring skills.

A committee of the Graduate Student Senate conducts the entire process, from nomination to the selection of the winners. Committee members were Ashley Gan, Mark Barnes, Yotam Blech-Hermoni, Greg Chung, Timothy Franke, Jingle Jiang, Brad Lang, Michelle Meredith, Kelsey Potter, Ben Saliwanchik, Joe Volzer and Brian Werry.

Graduate students nominated nearly 30 faculty members for the Diekhoff Award: Anirban Sen Gupta, Anna C. Samia, Arne Rietsch, Catalin Turc, Charis Eng, Chris Cullis, Daniela Calvetti, Erin Lavik, George R. Dubyak, George Stark, Henry Adams, Horst von Recum, Isabel Parraga, John Mieyal, Joseph Mansour, Krzysztof Palcewski, Laura E. Nagy, Robert W. Brown, Xuan Gao, David Rothenberg, Daniel J. Lacks, John Duncan, Mary DeHaan and Roger French.

“Every single one of the mentors and teachers nominated for this year’s awards are great at what they do,” noted committee chair Ashley Gan. “They inspire and lead future researchers, mentors, teachers and industry leaders.”