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June 2013

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Faculty Q&A with Dr. Victor W. Brunsden

Victor Brunsden

Victor Brunsden completed his Ph.D. in mathematics at Binghamton University (formerly S.U.N.Y. at Binghamton) in 1995. He was hired by Penn State Altoona in 1997, and is currently an associate professor of mathematics at the college. Brunsden is a topologist whose interests include the study of group actions on manifolds and orbifolds, infinite dimensional manifolds, the differential topology of orbifolds, and the general study of homeomorphism groups of topological spaces. He was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, and now lives very happily in Altoona with his partner Beth and three very pampered, spoiled rotten cats.

Q: As a native of Sydney, Australia, and graduate of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, how did the opportunity to teach and conduct research at Penn State Altoona develop?

A: I’m from the geographic opposite of central Pennsylvania in every way. I grew up near the beach, surfed and swam most of the year, didn’t see my first snowflake until I was 18. The University of New South Wales is less than a mile from Coogee Beach.

I came to the U.S. for graduate school, though I always intended to go back home. Of course, nothing ever goes completely as planned. I met my partner Beth at Binghamton University, where she was working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology while I studied geometric topology. We knew that finding jobs in academia for the two of us was going to be tough and even tougher to find them at the same institution or even ones near to each other, but it was worth trying.

We agreed that whoever finished first would brave the job market and the other would follow when they were done. Mathematics Ph.D.s take five years on average while anthropology Ph.D.s take more like eight to eleven years, so I was done first. Beth still needed to finish her field work, so we decided that I would look in the U.S. while she finished. So after a couple of one-year positions, I finally found the tenure track job at Penn State Altoona.

Q: Did you ever anticipate that your teaching career at Penn State Altoona would span nearly two decades?

A: I thought that I would be here for a few years. I didn’t see myself staying permanently, so I kept on looking, especially for jobs back in Australia. As it happened, the academic job market in Australia was worse than in the U.S., and its universities were preferentially hiring Australian Ph.D.s, so there was no going back unless we left academia.

Q: What role has Penn State’s mission of teaching, research, and service played in your decision to remain on the faculty at Penn State Altoona throughout the years?

A: Penn State Altoona became a college in 1997, and we were just starting the process of carving out our own identity as a stand-alone academic entity. I began a collaboration with another mathematician at Penn State Altoona (which continues to this day), and that provided professional satisfaction. Beth’s defense of her Ph.D. made us ask ourselves about moving to Australia, but my collaboration was going well, so we decided to stick it out for the time being. It wasn’t too long before tenure loomed and even though my collaborator had moved to California, we were still successfully collaborating long distance.

What happened? I had to ask myself that at the time, and it boiled down to this: Penn State Altoona valued both teaching and research, and so did I. By this point, I’d seen enough of other colleges and universities to know that, although a lot of institutions claimed to value both teaching and research equally, they almost always came down much more strongly on one side or the other, so what Penn State Altoona had was rare indeed.

Q: You have openly expressed your passion for teaching, and committed yourself to enhancing the educational experiences of Penn State Altoona students through instruction and specialized skill development. With the benefit of hindsight, have your experiences at Penn State Altoona provided joy and fulfillment?

A: It’s now been sixteen years since I came to Altoona, and I have to say that I really couldn’t be happier. No other institution strikes the same balance at valuing both teaching and research like Penn State Altoona does. So, I don’t want to be anywhere else.