Alumni news: The value of graduate mentors: Emily McMillon

Emily McMillon

Emily McMillon

Husker grad building network of research collaborators in NSF postdoctoral fellowship at Virginia Tech

Emily McMillon is making the most of her postdoctoral years. After a year at Rice University, the Nebraska Ph.D. graduate was selected in 2023 for a prestigious Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MSPRF) at Virginia Tech from the National Science Foundation.

The MSPRF gives an individual two years of full funding or three years of partial funding to work with a specific research mentor. This year, McMillon is not teaching, but in years two and three she will do a small amount of teaching at Virginia Tech.

“Right now, I am enjoying the benefits of being around others in my field and learning from the community,” said McMillon, who graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Mathematics in May 2022.

The purpose of the MSPRF is to support future leaders in mathematics and statistics by facilitating their participation in postdoctoral research environments that will have maximal impact on their future scientific development. Awards support research in the areas of mathematics and statistics, including applications to other disciplines. About 40 MSPRFs are given each year.

Candidates designate on their application someone in their field with whom they would like to work. McMillon selected Virginia Tech and Dr. Gretchen Matthews, describing the work they could do together in her essay.

“Your postdoc years are really important for building a network of research collaborators. I enjoyed my time at Rice, but Virginia Tech is a better research fit for me,” said McMillon, who was given a Virginia Tech Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Currently, with Matthews, McMillon is looking into quasi-cyclic LDPC and MDPC codes, specifically with the goal of understanding iterative decoder failures. “Quasi-cyclic MDPC codes are of interest for use in post-quantum cryptography, but some theoretical research is still needed before they can be used,” McMillon said.

Advised by Dr. Christine Kelley, professor of mathematics at UNL, McMillon’s dissertation was on iterative coding and graph-based codes.

“Christine was a phenomenal advisor and continues to be a good resource and mentor to me today,” McMillon said. “And, of course, I don’t think I would have made it through graduate school without Marilyn Johnson, whom I like to call my ‘Nebraska mom.’”

A native of the Houston area, McMillon is also working on a few projects related to group testing and disjunct matrices with Dr. Katie Haymaker, one of McMillon’s “academic siblings” as she was also one of Kelley’s Ph.D. students, and on a project with a graduate student at Rice.

While McMillon works in coding theory, she also felt like an honorary member of the math education group at UNL.

“That entire group was really influential to my development as a mathematician,” McMillon said. “I’ll specifically name Wendy Smith, Yvonne Lai, Nathan Wakefield, Josh Brummer, and Allan Donsig as being really great supports for me. And during my first two years of graduate school, Alexandra Seceleanu was an incredible support for me.”

In the summer of 2023, McMillon spent three weeks at the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI).

“I was a staff member for the PCMI Teacher Leadership program, in which current middle and high school mathematics teachers get to explore deeper mathematics,” McMillon said. “It was a great experience.”

While McMillon is broadly interested in mathematics education, she is most interested in graduate education.

“I feel like most of what we do in graduate mathematics education is fairly ad-hoc; there’s not a ton of research on the area,” McMillon said. “I hope to have graduate students of my own one day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to best support them, both as an instructor and as a Ph.D. advisor.

There’s not much research out there on this subject, especially specific to mathematics, but I would love to explore this more.”

McMillon deeply values graduate mentoring and advising and looks forward to a position at an R1 school.

“I don’t think I would have gotten through graduate school without all the wonderful people who supported me at UNL,” McMillon said. “I hope to be that type of supporter for my own future graduate students.”

– Lindsay Augustyn | CSMCE