Professor of economics Joel Slemrod speaks at the 2022 distinguished professors for the University lecture series at the Alexander G. Ruthven Building Tuesday afternoon. Alyssa Shea Mulligan/Daily. Buy this photo.

Three University of Michigan professors — Karen Smith, Joel Slemrod and Lutgarde Raskin — were honored with the Distinguished University Professorship and each delivered an address at the lecture series Tuesday afternoon at the Alexander G. Ruthven Building. The newly appointed Distinguished University Professors have the opportunity to name their own Professorship after a person of distinction in their field.

To recognize the University of Michigan’s exceptional scholars and faculty, the Board of Regents established the Distinguished University Professorships in 1947. Those who receive the Professorship must be nominated by colleagues or their deans. U-M President Santa Ono opened the event and introduced the Professorship recipients. He said though the three faculty members come from diverse fields of mathematics, economics and engineering, they are all united by shared values.

“(These members have) a deep and restless curiosity, a relentless pursuit of excellence and an unwavering commitment to integrity,” Ono said. “These professors are dedicated to shaping our future through innovation and discovery. And just as importantly, they’re committed to our students, to teaching, developing and mentoring our next outstanding generation of scholars, servants and leaders.”

Smith, an LSA professor, received the William Fulton Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics, named after U-M Professor Emeritus William Fulton, a fellow algebraic geometer. Smith, whose lecture was titled “Singularities in Algebraic Geometry,” said geometry is one of the oldest forms of mathematics and defined mathematical terms such as algebraic variety while explaining their practical applications.

“Algebraic variety is a shape that is defined as polynomial equations,” Smith said. “Pixar uses things like that too … There’s no one polynomial function for (Woody from Toy Story), but maybe (a) piecewise (function). Maybe the boots are from one (piecewise) and so forth.”

Smith said one big question regarding singularities is if they can be “separated out,” “smoothed out” or “unfolded.” To answer this question, Smith said to imagine a wire on the floor in the shape of the Greek letter alpha and then imagine lifting it up so that the wire unravels.

“I can easily resolve that singularity because I can pick that piece of wire up into 3D and stretch it out into a nice smooth wire,” Smith said. “This is a theorem that won a Fields Medal. The theorem (states) that (for) every variety no matter how singular it is, there’s a smooth variety that looks like it’s mapping onto it … This is my favorite theorem in math.”

Slemrod, David Bradford Distinguished Professor of Economics, delivered his lecture titled “Life and Taxes.” Slemrod chose to honor David Bradford, a professor of economics at Princeton University, who Slemrod described as a “true scholar dedicated to pursuing the right answer regardless of where that took him.” Slemrod said he named his talk after a well-known quote and went on to discuss some of his personal research relating to death and taxes.

“In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes,” Slemrod said.

Slemrod said taxes have the ability to change behavior, which is typically an unwanted side effect of changing tax laws. For example, this phenomenon can be seen through the British tax on windows, Slemrod said. 

“(The British) were looking for a tax where the liability would be related to how grand houses were,” Slemrod said. “So there was a tax on windows. Well, we can see the effect on behavior in the United Kingdom still today. People bricked up their windows in order to reduce their tax liability.”

Raskin, Vernon L. Snoeyink Distinguished University Professor of Environmental Engineering focused her address on “Managing Microbiomes in Urban Water Systems.” Raskin dedicated her Professorship to her mentor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Vernon L. Snoeyink, who was in attendance at the event. Raskin said the urban water cycle is very important to making sure clean drinking water is easily accessible in cities and she said microorganisms play a critical role in that.

“We’re starting to reuse treated wastewater as a source of drinking water production,” Raskin said. “We use microorganisms to treat drinking water, to treat wastewater for example. We’ve started to use the term water infrastructure microbiomes to reflect that.”

Raskin said she worked on developing molecular biology tools to study anaerobic microorganisms in natural environments. Raskin also said Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) is present in 80% of our drinking water across the U.S., and she has personally worked on research with NTM presence in showers.

“We used different techniques to quantify the NTM concentrations before and during showering,” Raskin said. “So you would inhale about 30 cells per minute of showering, (but) we don’t know if these organisms are alive … We use a technique called flow cytometry for visual … and (we saw) a substantial fraction of live cells in shower water, but for shower air collected during (a) shower, you see that there’s no life. So that’s good news.” 

U-M alum Alex Song, a member of Raskin’s research team, came to the lecture series in support of Raskin. Song said she loves working with Raskin in her lab and enjoyed hearing from all the speakers at the lecture series.

“I was on the nitrification project, which uses similar technology as the anaerobic studies,” Song said. “We cooperate, different Ph.D. students have their different roles … The series has been very engaging. I really like it.”

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