Where to build it? Ask Dr. Mau Nam Nguyen

Posted: 12/05/2011

A large retail chain has a problem - it is growing fast and adding new stores monthly. Distribution is getting costly because the lone warehouse is located too far away from many of the new stores. Should the company build a new distribution point? If so, where?

Enter The University of Texas-Pan American Math Department's Dr. Mau Nam Nguyen and the arcane mathematical field of Nonsmooth Analysis and Application to Optimization.

"Nonsmooth analysis was first developed in the 1960s as a way of solving facility location problems," said Nguyen, an assistant professor of mathematics and undergraduate adviser at UTPA. "As another example of its use, the (U.S.) Navy may be adding another aircraft carrier to the fleet, but needs to know where to locate the ship so that the cost of providing supplies to the location is minimal. Nonsmooth analysis is a tool to help solve that problem."

Nguyen shows how his recent research in Nonsmooth Analysis could be used to find the most efficient points in facility location problems that involve locations of large locations. But for future applications to particular problems arising in local science, Nguyen has to work with other disciplines, such as computer science and manufacturing engineering. The mathematics of problem solving would not be much use without the computational power to use it and the engineers to put the solution into practice.

With his substantial research accomplishments in the past five years and the help of the staff of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects (ORSP), Nguyen found funding through the Simons Foundation to continue his research. He is among 140 mathematicians in the nation who received Collaborative Grants for Mathematicians from the Simons Foundation to support collaboration and travel for the next five years.

Before the external Simons grant, Nguyen received various grants from UTPA as well as external grants awarded to UTPA that went toward improving graduate and undergraduate mathematics education at the University. Graduate student Juan Salinas and undergraduate student Cynthia Dunzz won awards for their posters at two recent HESTEC competitions - all part of the effort to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the Rio Grande Valley.

"Many of my undergraduate students will go to graduate schools or become high school teachers. To be good math teachers, they need to go far beyond calculus. The research they have done will help them succeed as teachers and graduate students. Much of our program will improve STEM education," Nguyen said.

The Simons grant also has allowed him to share the fruits of his research with colleagues around the world. This past summer, Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, presented his findings to the Vietnam Institute of Mathematics meeting in Hanoi and made another presentation in Berlin, Germany.

He has also been invited to give presentations at the Joint Meeting of the American Mathematical Society in the spring of 2012 and another international conference on Nonsmooth Analysis in Erice, Italy.

While Nguyen modestly refers to the grant as "small," he also recognizes it is very important for a young mathematician like him and the start of something larger for his students and UT Pan American.