Before the pandemic, Monika Neda, professor in the College of Sciences' department of mathematical sciences, was already preparing for a hybrid teaching model. While she has embraced teaching remotely, she misses the immersion and collaboration of face-to-face teaching.
I grew up in Uzdin, a small village in north Serbia, close to the Romanian border and about an hour from the capital, Belgrade. It has a population of approximately 1,500 and only has seven named streets, which is about the size of two modern Las Vegas housing complexes. There are no traffic lights and traffic rules are dissipated in the warm gestures of salutations. You can hear two languages (Romanian and Serbian) spoken on the streets every day. There is a small river nearby that served as our summer recreation as kids.
My undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. Immediately after graduation I moved to the United States to join the graduate program in the department of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. That is also where I obtained my Ph.D. in computational applied mathematics.
When did you come to UNLV?
I joined UNLV in the summer of 2007 after completing my Ph.D. studies and having just given birth to my first daughter. The move with a 6-week-old was not easy, but I am glad we did it!
I had my doubts about Las Vegas and UNLV. I took the interview trip more at the request of my husband who loves hot weather. We had never visited Las Vegas before, and I only saw the campus during my interview. My decision to come to UNLV was simply based on the warmth and hospitality that I felt from the committee members and the department of mathematical sciences. There was also this uplifting campus vibe that I felt during my scheduled campus walk after meeting with the dean. During that walk, I had a moment of realization that I could definitely move and work here.
Inspiration to get into your field
I was always good at math and enjoyed studying it very much. I got the opportunity to enter the math graduate program and I was so thrilled. That is where I discovered all the numerical classes of applied math and even my engineering undergraduate background kick in toward the field of computational applied mathematics. I still remember the joy of obtaining my first fluid flow simulations and deriving my first error estimates. I had an amazing Ph.D. mentor!
My research interests span numerical analysis of partial differential equations based on continuous and discontinuous Galerkin finite element methods, large eddy simulation of turbulent flows, applied sensitivity analysis, and statistical analysis of engineering type of problems related to solar energy. The fluid flow studies include derivation of the energy (in)equality, exploring model’s micro-scale, boundary layer investigation, stability proofs of the model’s numerical solution, derivation of error estimates, sensitivity computations, and simulations of benchmark fluid flow problems.
I also was a collaborator on a multidisciplinary National Science Foundation grant with the College of Education that promoted increasing the retention rates and overall success in STEM undergraduate classes. That work was different than my normal research but it was fulfilling, and I am glad I had the opportunity. Overall, I am active in undergraduate research that targets underrepresented groups in education and I try to expose undergraduates to my research ideas.
Most interesting aspect of your field
It still amazes me how little is actually known and how much is left to discover in my field. My entire research area is related to one of the Millennium Prize Problems in mathematics that were stated by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000. It is the so-called “Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness problem”. The Navier-Stokes equations were derived in the 19th century and we are still challenged with making substantial progress toward a mathematical theory that will reveal the secrets of fluid flow.
Math always seems so difficult and daunting, whether in college or middle or high school. Why is that and how can we change that?
Math is one of the subjects that is completely interconnected. To be able to do well in calculus, you need to know precalculus, for which you need to know algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and so on. The material always builds on something previously taught and studied. We then have to fight with how easy it is to forget something that we learned and that took so much time and energy to study in the first place.
I believe we can change it using current educational methods, such as developing a class structure with a growth mindset, transparency, and developing grit in our students. To that aim, give students plenty of opportunities to fill in the gaps, recover from a bad test, and achieve content mastery by the end of the semester. I did my entire education in a rigorous system full of punishment settings. It is not an understatement to say that none of us liked it. I am so glad that I have the opportunity to make a difference using these new studies and methodologies.
My remote teaching is going well, at least in my opinion. Hopefully, my students agree with me. I am a little hesitant to say that I may even like some components of it. Maybe it is too early to draw conclusions, but I definitely do not feel any negative resistance towards it. I became interested in creating online math classes in the last few years, and that just became stronger over time. Last year during the fall semester I started a project with the online education department at UNLV. I learned how chalkboards were replaced by dry erase boards, which are now replaced by so-called lightboard videos. I had an amazing team from whom I learned a lot and that is helping me tremendously with my current remote teaching.
What do you miss most about campus?
Despite the fact that I feel comfortable teaching remotely, I do feel that something is missing. As much as digital technologies are helpful, in my opinion, the most important part of an education is immersion and collaboration — being able to ask questions, talk to classmates and collaborators face to face, and to be physically present in a learning environment. I am starting to really miss it, and I am looking forward to going back to campus where I will be able to use all the online teaching material and math applications that I learned during this pandemic and integrate them into a hybrid teaching model.
What’s your day typically like right now?
Getting up at 7 a.m. and waking up both daughters who are attending school online. After breakfast, we all rush to our computers. The work starts and it usually continues until evening hours. If the internet connection goes bad you can feel and hear all the negativity, and everybody is calling my husband to fix it, as if he can do anything about it. There is always some cooking happening in between and some exercise here and there as well.
Give us your recommendation for a TV show are you binge-watching.
I love cooking so I enjoy watching cooking shows, such as those of Jacque Pepin (French cuisine) and Lidia Bastianich (Italian cuisine) from Create TV, as well as Pioneer Woman and Barefoot Contessa on Food Network. I watch them together with my daughters, who also are developing a passion for cooking.
Ideal summer vacation
I love the ocean and the sandy beach. My ideal summer vacation would be on a beach or seaside where you can hear the waves and smell the salty water. However, being away from most of our families, it is exciting to return to Serbia to visit. Hanging with family, cousins, neighbors, and childhood friends over good food brings back some of the most treasured memories, and at the same time creates unforgettable new ones. Those are some of the moments I cherish the most during my summer vacations.