The featured professor this week is Dr. Drew Ash, who is currently serving as an adjunct assistant professor in Albion College’s mathematics department. Ash graduated from Ithaca College with a B.A. in mathematics and continued on to the University of Denver, receiving a M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics.
Ash and I met in his office before 8 a.m. classes for a brief conversation. The early morning meeting was scheduled so that Ash could make it back home right after classes to spend time with his wife, Dr. Brade, and their first child, who was born over the summer. The early morning meeting was guided by the flavorful donuts Ash brought from the Foundry Bakehouse and Deli.
Jessica Behrman: What is the large framed photo on the wall? It looks like a family tree.
Drew Ash: This is my family tree of my academic grandparents. It goes back to about the 1200s. This was a gift from my adviser at my graduation party. It was supposed to steal the show, but I proposed to my now wife at that party before he gave it to me. So, he was like, “Wow, this sucks,” and he didn’t know how to top that. I also brought donuts. You are welcome to more than one. This is a no shame zone. You do you.
JB: Where did you decide to go for your undergrad?
DA: So, I got my Bachelor’s degree in math at a small school called Ithaca College in upstate New York.
JB: Did you plan on going into math when you first started college?
DA: No, no. I originally went to be an athletic trainer. So, I played baseball there. That was my primary purpose of life up until, like, 20 or 21 – to play baseball. And, so, I went there to play baseball, and I had it set in my mind that I was going to be an athletic trainer at a high school and become a high school baseball coach. But then I got to college and realized that no one would ever hire me to do that because who is going to higher an athletic trainer who would only be there half the year and then be coaching? That seems silly.
So, I got to campus and started talking to people about wanting to change my major. And I really wanted to be a history major, but I was terrible at reading growing up, the worst, a really, really poor reader. So, I chose the subject that I literally didn’t have to do any reading for, and that was math. Literally I chose it because it had the least amount of reading I could get away with. And then there was this whole bait and switch, because then you had to do a lot of reading in math. Like, you do your first two years and you do barely any reading, I mean you should be reading, but you can usually get away with not reading and just paying close attention. But then your junior and senior years, you have to do all this reading and writing, and I was like, “Well no. I signed up to do the thing were I didn’t have to read and write because that’s really hard.” And then of course my advisers were like, “I know nothing of math so you are on your own.” And so I made my own schedule. I took calculus, which I took in high school.
I almost quit my math major a couple of times, but I had a professor, Dr. Martin Sternstein, who just told me one day that he thought I could do it and that was enough. So, I stayed with it and eventually graduated four years later. But yes, my prior purpose of life and school was to play baseball, and I was hoping to play afterwards.
JB: Did you ever see yourself becoming a professor once you were in the math field?
DA: Oh god no. Absolutely not. No, I had no idea. If you would have told me I would be a college professor right now, I would not have believed you. There was no way in my mind that was even remotely possible for me.
And so I had a tryout with the Reds my junior year because that’s what I wanted to do, and I was fortunate enough to get a tryout. I was told I would be drafted my senior year as I was coming off a shoulder surgery. I went with a friend, and he was drafted. And so I played on a decent summer team and I was doing well. And then I had a pretty cool knee surgery which ended my career senior year. My senior year was 2008-09, which was when the financial markets collapsed. So, there weren’t very many jobs to be had because the global economy was going [down]. I think the bottom was March 2009, which we didn’t know it was the bottom at that point. Also, I had no clue what I wanted to do and the idea of getting a job, whatever that meant, seemed unlikely.
This was in the fall, and I had a couple friends of mine applying to graduate school. So, I said, “Well, I have no idea what I want to do so I guess I’ll apply to graduate school.” And then I bombed my math subject GRE and did fine on my regular GRE. I barely got any applications in, and luckily I was accepted to two schools with teacher assistance ships: The University of Denver and the University of Kansas. But Kansas came in, like, August and Denver came in April, so I chose to go to Denver, Colorado. It was a lot of fun. I was very fortunate and very lucky. I had some strong letters because my grades weren’t anything spectacular. But I think I had a lot of strong letters from my professors. I had a lot of close relationships with them, so I think that’s what, hopefully and must have set me apart, because it wasn’t my stellar grades.
JB: Did you go straight from undergrad to graduate school? If you didn’t, what is your opinion on students taking a gap year?
DA: I did not take a gap year. I went straight from my undergrad to my grad. I think it depends. I think that my advice would be to travel, whether it be outside or in the United States, which I couldn’t because baseball was too big of a part of my life to actually make this possible. But obviously this takes money, so students unfortunately can’t afford it when there is no programming to support it. That’s unfortunately a different issue. But if you can scrape by doing it, then I think traveling is really important to see a different part of the world or even the United States, because it’s so large. I’ve lived in the Northeast as I grew up in a city suburb, 35 miles outside of Manhattan. Being so close to the big city and the densely populated state of New Jersey and then moving to upstate New York, which was much more rural, was amazing. And then I had a postdoc in North Carolina and so that was back to a very small town. And then here to Albion, which is even a smaller town but with very different feels. Seeing each part of the United States that I have been to is drastically different.
Also, my wife, Dr. Brade, took a gap year before she went to grad school, and I think that helped her. I think that’s because she decided to go to grad school a little later than I did, which meant she had to wait a year. And I think that helped her, but really, I think it just depends on the person, depends on the situation. But I think travel is really really important. And I think seeing just how different cultures are and seeing how people live in different areas is important.
JB: What brought you to Albion?
DA: My wife. She has a ten year track job here, and I have a visiting position here. The academic job market is miserable, it’s very, very difficult. There are not a lot of jobs. Unfortunately, the academic job market is difficult, but luckily my wife is brillant. Typically, you have hundreds of people applying for one position, and fortunately my wife, Dr. Brade, and I wanted to both be at a liberal arts school. So, I was at a postdoc at Davidson, and there is something between ten year track professor and grad students called postdoc. And the postdoc program in math is very robust. I had a postdoc at Davidson in North Carolina which was great because Dr. Brade was at North Carolina, Chapel Hill. So, we were able to live together for the first time since we had been dating for a couple years. I had been living in Colorado and she was in North Carolina, which is a bit of a distance. So, she got the job here and I was at a two year position just finishing year one of two, and I asked – well, I resigned. I didn’t really ask, so that I could follow her here. I didn’t want to do another year of distance after finally being in the same place and not one weekend every six weeks were we’re both working to see each other. It was more important, for me at least, to be together, and whatever happened with my career happened.
JB: Were you drawn towards a small liberal arts school because it was similar to your undergraduate school?
DA: I would certainly say so. [Ithaca] is a bit bigger because there are graduate programs there. I think there were 4,000 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate when I went there. I like to think it had a very liberal arts feel, at least my department did. A lot of the colleges, the professors, were more than colleges. I would do dinner at some professors houses. Like, when I was applying for grad school I would go out to dinner or drive to their houses for advice. So there was a big family. At least that’s what it felt like to me, and that’s what I consider and imagine a liberal arts school as. I did have to take lots of courses outside of math, which I think was great.
JB: What are a few things that you like about Albion with the college and the community?
DA: I think these two go hand in hand. I think there is a really big community feel to the town and the college. The combination of the two, moving from Denver, this big city, to Davidson North Carolina, which is a small town – it was a little bit of a shock. And I was a little bit worried moving to an even smaller town. Albion felt much more like home. We would walk down main street, Superior Street, and people would just generally want to say hi and hello, and ask who you are, if you were new in town and if you needed anything. It even carried over to the campus. Every department I’ve been to has been very open and very welcoming, in particular the history department to me. And so I think that has set Albion apart from most other institutions I have been in. For me, there is a lot of openness and wanting to talk. When we first moved here, we didn’t know anybody, and Dr. Lewis, part of the chemistry department, had us over for Thanksgiving. And there were people from the chemistry, English, math and history departments. There was this commingling between colleagues, which I found really beautiful.
Albion has a far more diverse campus than other small schools I have been at, which I think is a really wonderful thing. It felt much more like home than I was anticipating. I was quite quickly relieved of my fears of living in a small town, so much that Dr. Brade and I bought a house in Albion this past May. We are just trying to get all the very big life changing events out in a one year time period. So, it’s been a really wonderful experience so far. Obviously, the midwest has been hit in general very hard since 2008, and Albion in particular. So, I think the idea of helping a town make a bit of a come back really excites me. And to help continue the process of rebuilding, really bringing Albion back to a whole, excites me. I mean, in the last two years, we have the bakery and the [brewery]. There is a lot of positive movement with the town and college going hand in hand, which is really exciting. Dr. Brade and I are wanting to be more involved in the community than we have been. There are just really wonderful people around here.
JB: Are you currently involved in anything else on campus or in the community?
DA: Not yet. In part because I’m trying to make sure I can have a permanent job somewhere at some point. So, for example, my wife is really trying to help out [with] The Holocaust Studies Learning Project, so I tried to help out whenever I could. I certainly can foresee myself becoming a bigger part of the Alboin community. I try to go to sporting events, my student’s games, matches, meets whenever I can. It is a little difficult at the moment to get out with an eight week old, but so I can imagine not this year or next year because of our child, but soon. I have been asking around about different clubs and programs for our students, something I would like to do and have the opportunity to do.