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Professor wins prestigious national math research award

Professor Balant Virag of UTSC has won the Coxeter-James Prize from the Canadian Mathematical Society.

by Mary Ann Gratton

The Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) has named mathematics professor Balint Virag of the University of Toronto Scarborough the recipient of this year’s Coxeter-James Prize.

The national prize recognizes an outstanding research contribution by a young mathematician, and will be presented at a ceremony during the annual CMS meeting, to be held this year in Fredericton, New Brunswick. As the prize recipient, Virag will be invited to deliver a lecture at the event, held June 4 to 6.

“I was very happy, but they asked me to keep it a secret until the official announcement, so I could not jump around in the hallway or openly celebrate it in any way,” Virag laughs. “What makes me happiest is that I am in very good company, since many of the past recipients are great mathematicians whose work I admire.”

Virag is a Canada Research Chair in Probability, and his area of expertise lies in the field of mathematical probability – the likelihood or chance that something will happen. Probability theory is used extensively in statistics, mathematics, science and philosophy to draw conclusions about the likelihood of potential events and the underlying mechanics of complex systems.

Virag has also been recognized for his contributions to Random Matrix Theory, an area of probability theory and statistics dealing with matrices that have random entries. Many important properties of physical systems and nature can be represented mathematically as matrix problems. In 2008, Virag was named the recipient of the prestigious Rollo Davidson Prize, a global award presented to a probabilist from the University of Cambridge.

The Coxeter-James Prize is named after Donald Coxeter, the seventh CMS president, considered one of the great geometers of the 20th Century, and Ralph Duncan James, the fifth CMS president, who diligently promoted the development of mathematics.

“We studied a lot of planar geometry in high school, and it is one of the most beautiful parts of mathematics,” Virag says. “Coxeter was perhaps the last giant in this area, and I’ve had his book since I was 15 years old. Planar geometry is still a great inspiration for my current research.”

“Balint Virag is a prime example of a young mathematician who is making a real impact on mathematics,’ noted David Brydges, chair of the CMS research committee. “Even as a graduate student, he produced important work in probability theory in the domain of random walks. Today he is part of an active and notable probability and statistics research group at the University of Toronto.”

Originally from Hungary, he earned his BA in mathematics from Harvard in 1996 and his PhD from Berkeley, focusing on random walks on graphs of exponential growth. He has been with UTSC since 2003, and is also appointed to the graduate departments of Mathematics and Statistics on the St. George campus.

Virag says his favorite part of UTSC is “the students – they are very hard working and conscientious. I always feel that the effort I put into teaching does not go wasted.”

Professor Vassos Hadzilacos, chair of the computer and mathematical sciences department at UTSC, notes that the Coxeter-James Prize has been awarded nine times to mathematicians with a current or past U of T affiliation since its inception in 1978.

“That’s remarkable,” says Hadzilacos. “Even more remarkable, however, is the fact that three of these are UTSC mathematicians.” Virag joins professors Lisa Jeffrey and Paul Selick – recipients of the 2002 and 1985 Coxeter-James Prize, respectively. “I’m delighted to congratulate Professor Virag for this award, which is one more feather in his cap, and transitively, another one for our department as well.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough