Auburn Alumnus Cherishes the Auburn Family
College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) alumnus Saad El-Zanati continues to credit Auburn mentors for his decades of success in higher education.
El-Zanati received three degrees from Auburn: a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering in 1983, a Master of Science in Mathematics in 1987, and a Doctorate in Mathematics in 1991. Now a professor of mathematics at Illinois State University, El-Zanati is constantly inspiring the next generation of students and teachers, and collaborating with mathematicians worldwide.
“I always loved mathematics and most of my heroes as a child were teachers. Once I recognized I can do and teach mathematics for a living, I knew what the rest of my life would be like,” El-Zanati said.
Some of these heroes include former and current Auburn professors, like William R.R. Transue who introduced El-Zanati to unsolved problems in mathematics and helped him pursue an original research topic for his master’s thesis, leading to his first research publication.
Another role model is professor Chris Rodger. Nearly 30 years after he left Auburn, El-Zanati continues to call up Rodger for guidance, and he is always happy to help.
“My mentors at Auburn deserve a lot of credit for my success. I strive to be like them. Outside of my family, they are the greatest influence that has shaped who I am,” El-Zanati said.
Now, El-Zanati serves as the mentor. He teaches three to four classes each year, ranging anywhere from freshman calculus to graduate courses on advanced topics in discrete math. He also directs a summer research program for current and future high school mathematics teachers – one of the highlights of his career, he said.
On top of this, El-Zanati is constantly conducting research in discrete mathematics, in which he works mainly with graphs and graph design. Graphs are mathematical structures that represent relationships among objects called nodes. Nodes are represented by points, with related nodes represented by line segments called edges. El-Zanati says graphs can represent transportation networks, communication networks, family trees and similar concepts, and graph theorists study these relationships.
“For example, a diagram where people in a group are represented with nodes, and friendships on social media are represented with edges, is called a ‘friendship graph’. We then can ponder questions such as ‘what is the shortest friendship distance between two random people?’, and ‘what is the size of the largest clique of friends among the people in the group?’,” El-Zanati said.
Some of his favorite graph theory research problems are extremely challenging and can take years to solve, if ever. However, that is what makes them all the more interesting and addictive to work on, he said. El-Zanati deals with these difficult challenges by seeking out new approaches and being persistent in putting these discoveries into action.
In his career, El-Zanati has received numerous awards and accolades including being named a distinguished professor, the highest academic rank at his institution. He has published over 100 research articles in mathematics, including numerous articles co-authored with dozens of current and future high school teachers. Since 2007, he has received nearly $4 million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which aids in his work with undergraduate researchers.
El-Zanati encourages current COSAM students to find their passion and pursue it, to get involved in research as early as possible, and to take advantage of the resources faculty can provide.
“Cherish your time at Auburn, there is no experience like the Auburn Family,” he said.