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Mathematics master

Rugby native Nathan Axvig begins a teaching career in Virginia

November 19, 2010
By Edie Wurgler

When he was in eighth grade, Nathan Axvig was asked to tutor a fellow student in mathematics. "It was by no means a success," he says, and he remembers thinking to himself afterwards, 'Well, at least I know that I won't be a math teacher.'

Fast forward fifteen years and Dr. Nathan Axvig is beginning a career at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) teaching math to cadets. "I'm teaching three courses," Nathan said. "Two sections of calculus and one of probability and statistics. It's super busy but it's going really well."

Located in Lexington, Va., VMI is an undergraduate institution, offering degrees in the sciences, engineering and humanities. It was founded as the nation's first state-supported military college in 1839. Most of the faculty are commissioned officers in the Virginia Militia. As an assistant professor, Nathan holds the rank of Major and wears the Army Service Uniform, modified slightly to distinguish professors from officers in the federal system. There are no combat duties in his position, Nathan says, and he doesn't have to carry a gun, but, technically, the Virginia Militia can still be called upon by the governor to aid the state in a crisis.

Enrollment at VMI is capped at 1500 cadets, both male and female, who live in barracks on Post. "Everyone calls the campus 'Post'", Nathan said. Cadets come from 47 states and 12 foreign countries. They are not required to serve in the armed forces after graduation, but about half do. While they are at VMI they must always wear some sort of uniform, depending on what duties they are performing. All students are very well behaved and polite according to Nathan. "The worst thing you have to tolerate from your students is that they sometimes fall asleep in class from sheer exhaustion," he said.

Nathan started his own educational journey in Rugby, where he was born to Kathy and Dave Axvig on March 30, 1983. After graduating from Rugby High School in 2001 he went to the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks where he started a major in chemical engineering. Later he shifted to chemistry and math, but eventually dropped chemistry to focus solely on mathematics. In 2005 he headed for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a master of science degree, which he earned in 2007. He received a Ph. D degree this past August.

With unemployment sky high, Nathan sent out scores of resumes. "Ninety-five was the final count, I believe," he said. "One of the first responses I got back was from the head of the math department at VMI. It was an email expressing genuine interest in me and what I could contribute to the department. Things just kept falling into place after that and after my Post interview, I knew it was a good fit."

In addition to his classroom duties, Nathan works in coding theory, a research area which mixes ideas from mathematics and electrical engineering in order to find new ways of providing reliable digital communications. "It's pretty specialized," he says, "with possibly only 2000 to 3000 active researchers in the world. It's not a field that many math guys are in, but it has very practical applications." According to Nathan, whenever information is broadcast or stored in a real-world system there is a possibility of error, and what you get out isn't necessarily what you put in. An example of this is storing music on a compact disc. If the disc gets scratched all the information that the scratch went over would be lost. But coding allows the system to tolerate small scratches without losing some of the music. On Mariner missions to Mars and Voyager 1 and 2 missions to Jupiter and Saturn, codes were used to protect pictures broadcast back to earth. "Coding helps us protect informtion even though it might be sent through an unreliable channel," Nathan says. He isn't sure, but he thinks his interest in coding theory along with the research he had done with some electrical engineers at the University of Nebraska played a role in his hiring by VMI.

Growing up in Rugby, Nathan participated in school activities including music and athletics. "My time at RHS was made far richer by the friends I made on the speech team and in the drama club," he said. "My one regret is that I waited until my senior year to join the cross country team."

Nathan has one sister, Kara Ruhland, a pharmacist in Alexandria, Minn. His parents were a big influence on him, he says. His mother retired from teaching a few years ago, and his dad is a small-business owner in Rugby. Aside from his family, Dr. Metzger, a professor of mathematics at UND, made a lasting impression. "His encouragement and example were two of the reasons I chose to pursue a career in math," Nathan said. "And growing up in North Dakota instilled a commitment to high quality work."

In grad school Nathan kept busy in his chosen field. He did some teaching and published several papers on his coding research. In addition he was a presenter at coding conferences in such far-flung places as Auckland, New Zealand, Banff, Alberta, Canada, and Nordfjordeid, Norway. "The scenery in New Zealand is inspiring," he said, but the Norway trip was his favorite. "It was a good conference and a good trip. Afterwards I roamed around the country and visited some relatives."

Starting a career doesn't leave much free time but Nathan hopes he will be able to return to North Dakota during school breaks. He also hopes to have a few hours here and there to pursue the hobby of brewing beer that he and his friends in Lincoln, Neb., enjoyed. Although making the beverage sounds intimidating, Nathan says it's easy. "If you can boil water and do dishes, you can make beer."

Nathan has always enjoyed the outdoors, and the Blue Ridge Mountains offer a lot of opportunities for hiking. He hopes to get in some hunting also, but thinks his quest for a deer, a favorite activity in his younger days, might have to wait until next year when he's more comfortable in his work. "But I may go out rabbit hunting with a colleague," he said with a laugh.

He is settling into his job, the Lexington area, and the southern life, but he has noticed some cultural differences. "Things tend to move slower in the south," he said. "Depending on the day, I'm either impatient or amused by it. People are very polite, though, and helpful."

In his brief time at VMI the military discipline and order have made a big impression. "I usually bike to work," he said, "and I was just headed home when I heard a bugle. I dismounted so I could face the colors as they were being retired for the day. All around the parade grounds I saw officers, cadets and those in plain clothes who had stopped what they were doing, as well, to face the flag. Those in vehicles stopped them in the streets. It was quiet and short, with regular life resuming quickly after, but it was a moment I won't soon forget."

Clearly the VMI lifestyle agrees with Nathan's sensibilites. And it would seem that this teaching experience is going much better than the tutoring attempt back in eighth grade. "Absolutely," he said. "I'm having a blast."



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