Jianfeng Lu Awarded the 2017 IMA Prize in Mathematics and its Applications

Jianfeng Lu standing by blackboard

The 2017 IMA Prize in Mathematics and its Applications has been awarded to Jianfeng Lu, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics at Duke University, with secondary appointments in the departments of chemistry and physics.

Lu received this recognition for his many contributions in applied analysis, computational mathematics, and applied probability, in particular for problems from physics, chemistry, and material sciences. The unique strength of his research is to combine advanced mathematical analysis and algorithmic tools with a deep understanding of problems from science and engineering.

“More specifically, I am interested in understanding essential mathematical tools and ideas behind the approximation and numerical methods developed to deal with complex chemical and materials systems modeled at physical levels ranging from quantum mechanics to atomistic models to continuum mechanics,” Lu explained.

Going back and forth between mathematics and frontiers in other areas has turned out to be quite fruitful for him. Some of Lu’s major research achievements include ground-breaking contributions to electronic structure models, multiscale methods, rare events, and quantum molecular dynamics. His most recent contribution on the mathematical understanding of surface hopping algorithms has generated enormous excitement in the quantum chemistry community.

“I have always been curious about the latest scientific breakthroughs in other science and engineering disciplines,” Lu said. “Most of my research is driven by curiosity in trying to understand the models and numerical tools that physicists, chemists, and materials scientists have developed and trying to develop a mathematical understanding that helps improve the existing approaches.”

Lu credits his Ph.D. advisor, Weinan E (Princeton University) for teaching him to always look for challenges outside the existing boundaries of applied mathematics and to never be afraid of learning and working in unfamiliar territories.

“My research and career paths have also been majorly influenced by other mentors and collaborators, including Ingrid Daubechies (Duke University), Shi Jin (University of Wisonsin, Madison), Robert Kohn (New York University), Jonathan Mattingly (Duke University), Felix Otto (Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences), Eric Vanden-Eijnden (New York University), Michael Weinstein (Columbia University), and Lexing Ying (Stanford University),” Lu added. “They taught me various aspects of applied and computational mathematics.”

His Duke colleagues outside the math department, including Thomas Barthel (physics), Volker Blum (materials science), David Dunson (statistics), Jungsang Kim (electrical engineering), Henry Pfister (electrical engineering), and Weitao Yang (chemistry), are always bringing him new challenges and opportunities to research.

“It has been my long-term goal to help build stronger and tighter connections between applied mathematics with theoretical chemistry and materials science,” Lu noted. “Oftentimes this leads to fascinating challenges from the mathematical point of view and calls for new development on the math side.”

Since receiving his Ph.D. eight years ago, Lu’s list of about 100 peer-reviewed publications demonstrates his broad expertise in terms of models, computational tools, and rigorous techniques. Going forward, Lu has been currently focusing on numerical algorithms for high dimensional problems (either classical or quantum) arising from these areas by drawing and further developing tools from other areas of applied mathematics.

“I hope this research direction will lead to fruitful interactions and cross-fertilization between various disciplines,” he said.

The IMA Prize in Mathematics and its Applications is awarded annually to a mathematical scientist who is within 10 years of having received his or her Ph.D. degree. The award recognizes an individual who has made a transformative impact on the mathematical sciences and their applications. The prize can recognize either a single notable achievement or acknowledge a body of work. The prize consists of a certificate and a cash award of $3,000. Funding for the IMA Prize in Mathematics and its Applications is made possible by generous donations of friends of the IMA.