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Speedy UWA alumnus is chasing his mathematical dreams

UWA cross-country runner Audrick Pyronneau.

UWA's Audrick Pyronneau qualified for the NCAA Division II South Region Cross Country Championships in 2022.

Former Tiger student-athlete Pyronneau accepted into UT-Austin's Ph.D. program

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Jordan Allison

Speed comes naturally to Audrick Pyronneau, a former distance runner on the University of West Alabama’s track-and-field team. That he’s using that trait to pursue his academic goals shouldn’t be a surprise.

Pyronneau, who graduated from UWA in December 2022 with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics, has been accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin’s prestigious Department of Mathematics.

His classes at UT-Austin begin in August.

“I just fell in love with those people at that department, they are doing interesting work, and I could see myself being there,” Pyronneau said. “It was really important to me that a graduate school pushed their students to be great and pushed their students to put out really good work.”

At UT-Austin, the 23-year-old UWA alumnus will study at one of the nation’s top math departments in higher education. In March, UT-Austin professor Luis A. Caffarelli received the Abel Prize from the king of Norway, who bestows the award annually to outstanding international mathematicians. Professor Emerita Karen Uhlenbneck won the award in 2019. In 2018, former UT-Austin professor Alessio Figalli won a Fields Medal, an honor awarded every four years by the International Congress of Mathematicians that’s considered the Nobel Prize of math.

As he neared graduation at UWA last fall, Pyronneau applied to a rich collection of graduate schools well within the nation’s top 40 rankings. Acceptance notices arrived from five prominent institutions, and two stood out: the University of Notre Dame and UT-Austin. Though Notre Dame’s mathematics program was impressive, he said, the opportunity to work with Cameron Gordon, a distinguished UT-Austin professor who holds an endowed chair at that university, proved the deciding factor.

Pyronneau is interested in the mathematical field of topology, which he describes -- in layman’s terms -- as the study of “the connection between mathematical objects called knots and the connection with three- and four-space dimensions.” Gordon’s research centers on geometric topology, as does one of UT-Austin’s research groups, which includes Gordon.

"I will always cherish the five years that I was a student at West Alabama.”

-- Audrick Pyronneau

Pyronneau described his meeting with Gordon during a visit to the UT-Austin campus as a “surreal” experience. 

“He has produced some of the best students in the field,” said Pyronneau, who is well versed in Gordon’s accomplishments with that research group. “They really pushed the knowledge at the time of their particular subfield of math. He's one of the big names that have multiple grad students go on to do amazing work.”

How Pyronneau discovered his talent in math

Pryonneau, a native of Warner Robbins, Georgia, arrived at UWA because of his talent as a cross-country runner. His father is a doctor, and his mother is a nurse practitioner. Math wasn’t a blip on his radar. Pre-medicine was first choice as a major. But he despised biology.

That conundrum -- a student interested in a medical career but disinterested in biology -- became a revelation when now-retired UWA math instructor Rita Bonner noticed the UWA runner who was exhausted after practice regularly dozing in her freshman-level class.

Sleeping through lectures didn’t hinder his grades, though.

Bonner wanted to know why -- and how -- he did so well in math, Pyronneau recalled. She noticed he scored high in the math sections of the SAT. “So she asked, ‘Hey, have you thought about doing math?’ And I was like, ‘Well, no, but I definitely don't like biology,’” he said. “So I changed my major to math just because of that suggestion.”

That happenstance kickstarted Pyronneau’s unrealized ability to excel in mathematics at UWA. It also led to a brief summertime research project on topology at the University of Alabama and opportunities to present research findings at Notre Dame and the Georgia Institute of Technology. That intense academic workload took place alongside his athletic career, which included a personal best of 25:07.70 in the eight-kilometer race set at the 2022 University of Alabama in Huntsville Invitational. He also qualified last fall for the NCAA Division II South Region Cross Country Championships , running the 10-kilometer event in 33:59.9.

“There's a lot of pressure that comes with being a student-athlete,” he said, “but there's nothing like being a student athlete. You get to have really deep connections with people because you have to be up at 6 a.m. when nobody's up, and they have to be there on the bus ride home after a loss. I will always cherish the five years that I was a student at West Alabama.”

With his athletic career complete and a UWA degree in hand, Pyronneau’s focus is solely on earning his Ph.D., with which he could teach and conduct research, or work in data analysis or tech positions. For now, he’s not sure where his academic pursuits will lead. His family has even asked about his career plans.

What he does know is that he’s running in the right direction.

“There's just so many things you can do with the math Ph.D. nowadays,” he said. “You'll never probably use your research-level knowledge. (Employers) are more interested that you are able to solve original research ideas and solve a problem. They believe that that work transitions to the problems they have. That's the skill set they're looking for.”