BA, Mathematics, University of Illinois, 1978
PhD, Mathematics, Harvard University, 1983
Current employer and job title:
Cornell University, professor of mathematics
Dr. Michael Stillman of Ithaca, N.Y, has been named a recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award for his outstanding professional career and significant contributions in computational algebraic geometry and commutative algebra.
In 1983, Stillman began work with David Bayer on the Macaulay computer algebra system. Named after English mathematician Francis Sowerby Macaulay, the Macaulay system showed that it was possible to solve actual problems in algebraic geometry using Gröbner basis techniques. The package became widely used by researchers, and Stillman and Bayer continued to improve the system until 1993. To get beyond several limitations in the design, Stillman began work on the Macaulay2 system with UIUC Professor Emeritus Daniel Grayson in 1993. Macaulay2 remains in active development and has been cited in over 2000 articles. In 2019, Stillman received the Richard D. Jenks Memorial Prize for Excellence in Software Engineering Applied to Computer Algebra for the revolutionary Macaulay and Macaulay2 computer algebra systems.
Additionally, Stillman had a major impact on the understanding of the Hilbert scheme; his paper reputedly is among the top cited papers on the subject. In 2015, he was selected as a fellow of the American Mathematical Society for his work in symbolic computation.
Following two postdoctoral research fellowships at Brandeis University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stillman joined the mathematics faculty at Cornell University in 1987 as an assistant professor, where he currently serves as a professor of mathematics. He has advised 11 PhD dissertations, has published over 55 mathematical papers, and has been involved with numerous workshops and outreach activities targeted at graduate students and postdocs. He was recognized for his teaching as one of the top 10 professors at Cornell by Business Insider in 2013. He received the Stephen and Margery Russell Distinguished Teaching Award from Cornell in 2013 and has twice received the Cornell Department of Mathematics Senior Faculty Teaching Award in 2002 and 2016.
Stillman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UIUC in 1978 before completing his PhD in mathematics from Harvard University in 1983. He was named the recipient of the department’s prestigious H. Roy Brahana Prize in 1978. In Stillman’s nomination letter, the late Professor Emeritus Graham Evans, wrote “I am not aware of any other of our students, especially undergraduates, whose work has had such an effect on their field.”
Why did you choose to attend the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign?
My father was a researcher at Lincoln Labs, associated to MIT, but he took a professorship (in electrical engineering) at Urbana when I was just graduating from high school. At first, I was a bit hesitant because I had planned to go to MIT, but soon after, I loved UIUC: the people I met, the professors I had, the courses I took, and most of all: meeting my eventual mentor Graham Evans (now retired from UIUC). I was able to work with and talk to first rate mathematicians and computer scientists, I made lifelong friends, and I still love coming back to visit.
Why did you choose mathematics as your field of study?
I always loved math since I was in middle school.
What activities did you participate in while a student in the Department of Mathematics?
I obtained a part time job at the Coordinated Science Lab, as a computer operator, while I was a freshman. It was here that I made many friends and learned a lot about interesting new programming languages and computer science in general.
What is your most memorable UIUC/Department of Mathematics experience?
I met Graham Evans serendipitously in my second year. He took me under his wing. Besides teaching me interesting mathematics, I became essentially part of his family as well. He suggested to me to do programming for a research project he was doing (involving "syzygies"). Another researcher from Germany, Winfried Bruns, was visiting and they both used the program I had then started working on, and was continuing to write and improve. It was very exciting being at the forefront of an interesting research program, their excitement was contagious, and I was hooked for life! This project ended up determining my major research directions throughout my life so far.
What UIUC/Department of Mathematics professor or staff member made the greatest impact on you, and why?
I explained this in detail above, but it would be Graham Evans. My first two professors when I was a freshman, Derek Robinson (abstract algebra) and Bruce Berndt (analysis) also had a real impact. They were both fantastic teachers, and especially Derek Robinson who instilled in me a love of (abstract) algebra. I also spoke with Ken Appel quite a lot.
What are some of your accomplishments since graduating?
Perhaps my most well known accomplishments are my computer algebra programs Macaulay (joint with Dave Bayer in the 1980s), and more recently Macaulay2 (joint with Dan Grayson, retired from UIUC), which are used by many researchers in algebraic geometry and related mathematical fields (including myself!).
Apart from supporting UIUC, what is your favorite pastime?
I love skiing, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.
What is one concept you learned from the University of Illinois and/or Department of Mathematics that you use regularly?
A set of mathematical concepts that I learned include free resolutions, Ext, Tor, and their use in commutative algebra. These were not just abstract objects; they were very concrete objects that were investigated by myself, Graham Evans, Winfried Bruns and Phil Griffith. I learned these concepts as friends, each example with a personality of its own, and I still use these concepts on a daily basis in my research to this date.
What advice would you give to current Department of Mathematics students about preparing for life after graduation?
First, I recommend following your heart and enthusiasm. Second, there are an enormous number of ways of using a mathematics degree, so be open to new or unexpected opportunities.