Watershed moments shaped Professor Bozenna Pasik-Duncan’s love for teaching, mathematics

Kansas University professor of mathematics Bozenna Pasik-Duncan is pictured on Tuesday, June 28, 2011, in Snow Hall. Pasik-Duncan has been teaching at KU for 27 years.

There have been several key events in Bozenna Pasik-Duncan’s life, transitional moments that changed her path and led her to where she is today, to the United States and to Kansas University, where she is one of the most honored professors to ever work in the university’s math department.

The first moment came when she was a teenager in Poland and she was asked by a professor to tutor his daughter in math and science.

“One day when she was taking her oral exam in chemistry, she clutched and was desperate. She looked at me and said, ‘Help me, I cannot do it!’ ” says Pasik-Duncan in remarks she made while accepting one of her several teaching awards. “I answered with the utmost confidence, ‘Yes, you can.’ And she did. From that moment on I knew that I could be a good math teacher who would take good care of all those students who need math and science.”

Pasik-Duncan went on to earn her master’s degree in numerical analysis, her Ph.D. in Stochastic Processes, and her habilitation doctorate, an additional scientific degree beyond a Ph.D.

“It is a European degree, … In Poland, I am listed as Prof. Dr. Hab. Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, a big deal.”

In 1980, she met her husband, KU professor Tyrone Duncan, and four years later joined him in the school’s math department.

Like many university faculty members, she has attended many conferences over the years, but one conference stands out.

“I was in Los Angeles, and out of 700 papers that were presented, only two were from women,” she says. “And both of them were Polish!”

A colleague and friend from Boston University, also at the conference, challenged her and told her that she needed to do something about that.

“This inspired me,” she says. “It took some time but I started inviting women for lunch, informal lunches for women at the conferences.”

Her group evolved into the Women in Control Group Analysis, an offshoot of a professional electrical engineering network.

Since then, she has made it one of her life’s goals to encourage women to enter the fields of math and engineering, always scanning her math courses to see how many women are present and then telling them if any are struggling they should see her.

“I consider it a personal failure if a girl drops this class,” she told her Math 142 class last fall.

Over the past 10 years, she has advised 25 women at KU, mentoring them through their master’s degree programs in mathematics.

Another watershed moment for Pasik-Duncan was when she and her husband were on sabbatical in France and Poland. Their daughter, Dominique, a fourth grader at the time, was with them. Dominique was considered gifted at her elementary school in Lawrence, but the family discovered that in math she was two years behind her European cohorts.

The realization inspired both mother and daughter.

“I’m not a person who complains. I am a person who makes changes,” she says.

Because she believes even the most complex and dynamic social problems can be looked at mathematically, Pasik-Duncan set out to deal with the situation using the principles of stochastic control theory.

“Problems happen when you have incomplete information,” she says. “You have to know the system.”

Knowing the system meant gathering information, and the professor knew that the best way to do that was to get into the classroom. She began volunteering her time working with both teachers and students in her daughter’s school.

The professor’s efforts paid off with the students and teachers in the class, most notably with Dominique who became motivated to learn as much math as she could. Dominique advanced quickly, so much so that she enrolled in her first algebra class at KU when she was a sixth-grader. (By the time she graduated from Free State in 2003, she had earned over 100 credits from KU, including nearly every math class offered by the university.)

“Where others see problems, I see opportunities,” she says, understanding the opportunities that students in American schools and universities have.

“What impresses me most about America’s educational system is that you can do whatever you want,” says the professor. “It’s much more rigid in Poland and these opportunities do not exist.”

Pasik-Duncan has continued her commitment and service to public education, collaborating with teachers and working to improve math instruction in the area’s schools. Her dedication earned her the Don Steeples Service to Kansas Award in March 2011.

“Bozenna is passionate about her love for teaching and for mathematics,” says Distinguished Professor Steeples. “But the best part is her ability to transmit that passion in an infectious way to her students and to excite them to learn in a more effective way.”

Pasik-Duncan added this award to the others she has earned during her tenure at KU including the Kemper Award for Outstanding Teaching, the HOPE Award, the Frank B. Morrison Teaching Award and the Mortar Board Outstanding Educator Award. She was also recognized by the Association for Women in Mathematics in 2004 with the Louise Hay Award.

You can get a feel for the kind of teacher she is in the classroom when you see the gift her Linear Algebra class gave her after the 2010-11 school year. The students, who also had her first semester for honor’s calculus, compiled a list of things their math professor said over the course of the year, comments and advice which demonstrate many of the traits that make her such an exceptional teacher. Traits such as:

Enthusiasm: “I was not born to be lazy.”

Love of her subject matter: “You have to avoid pain, so let us do implicit differentiation.”

A sense of humor: “This exam is an opportunity for you to get 110 points. Take it as a gift!”

And even how students can apply lessons learned in class to other situations: “Sometimes simplification too fast makes your life a little bit complicated.”

“I always say to my students that the most important thing is that you love what you do,” she says.