“I like teaching because it forces me to constantly learn new things”
Professor Victor Panaretos, an EPFL faculty member since 2007, has been named this year’s best teacher in mathematics.
Upon hearing that he won his section’s best teacher award, Panaretos was happy but a little skeptical. He jokes by saying that, after all, since he’d been at EPFL for 12 years and the awards are given out every year – and given the number of teachers in his section – he figured that his winning the award could be a question of probability. Understandable reasoning for someone who holds the chair in mathematical statistics. But Panaretos is being much too modest; the truth is, he won the award because he is indeed an excellent teacher.
Originally from Greece, Panaretos likes to compare mathematics to art. And behind his smiling demeanor lies someone who is constantly looking for ways to improve. He believes that mathematics is all about the interplay between rigor and intuition, citing French mathematician Jacques Hadamard: “The object of mathematical rigor is to sanction and legitimize the conquests of intuition.”
Panaretos teaches two classes for Bachelor’s students in mathematics – one on the fundamentals of statistics and another on linear models – as well as a statistics class he developed specifically for Master’s students in data science coming from different sections. He also co-teaches a PhD class on data analysis for science and engineering. “After you see a good movie, you want to share your excitement with others. That’s how I feel about mathematics.”
Teaching the essence of mathematics
Panaretos got the mathematics bug when he was 14 and came across a book that his parents – both mathematicians – had in their library: Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos. That may be a young age to begin studying non-Euclidean geometry, but it put him on track to obtain a PhD from Berkeley when was just 24. He joined EPFL the same year. “that was not the only option at the time, but EPFL offered me the most freedom and the widest range of opportunities. I’m really happy I decided to come here.”
Long accustomed to public speaking – he was a member of the Greek chapter of the European Youth Parliament – Panaretos enjoys his role as a teacher. “I like teaching because it forces me to constantly learn new things and find simple, elegant ways to explain them.” In his view, the fundamentals classes are the hardest to teach. He takes an approach that entails walking students back through the history and development of the topic. “I think it’s important for them to know how the concepts were developed and how they evolved over time. It’s also good for them to see that mistakes were made along the way and that sometimes mathematicians had to start over from scratch, to give a feel of what research is like.”
Panaretos says he likes to teach “the old-fashioned way” – on a chalkboard – because it forces you to limit yourself to what’s really important, “the essence of mathematics.” Compared to when he started teaching, he now aims to cover fewer topics in his classes but in more depth. This is something his students appreciate. While his main teaching tool is the chalkboard, he also uses slides and videos and even developed a MOOC as part of EPFL’s MOOCs for Development program (formerly MOOCs Africa).
Considering a lecture as a performance, Panaretos also tries to inject a bit of humor. He’s an ardent Monty Python fan, and – using the same rigorous approach as when he explains how two ostensibly disparate structures are in fact related, or how statistics can help him shorten his commute to EPFL – he put together a Top 25. Guess the first one, it is a matter of probability.