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Nerds' eye view

Think you know a nerd when you see one. Check out these geeky Mizzou faculty members.

Visionary, but no fashionista


Internationally renowned MU neuro-ophthalmologist Lenworth Johnson is known for his love of gadgets. Here he’s wearing a binocular indirect ophthalmoscope and holding a 20-diopter condensing lens.

During his nearly 30 years as a doctor, Professor Lenworth Johnson has risen to the top of his field in neuro-ophthalmology, where he is sought as an expert nationally and internationally. Since 1990, he has taught and practiced neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Missouri’s Mason Eye Institute in the School of Medicine.

Ever the perfectionist, Johnson is annoyed with himself when he can’t place faces with the names of his patients. Such a task would be monumental because he has treated more than 20,000 people. Nonetheless, he has strapped a camera to his belt. 

Pocket protectors? Check!

Only one area of expertise — sartorial sense — eludes the doctor of the house. If wife Patti doesn’t intervene, he dresses like a nerd, says daughter Gabriella. As evidence, she cites the pocket protector, glasses and Cosby sweaters he wears, along with the ultimate faux pas — socks with sandals.

Making eye contact

As a medical student who wanted to learn everything about optic nerves, Johnson gathered some information in a rather unusual manner. He would carry a hand-held instrument (a direct ophthalmoscope), walk around the hospital and ask patients, staff members and visitors if he could look at their eyes. Most people complied.

Johnson attributes his compulsive search for knowledge to his parents, who value higher education; his mother, now in her 80s, is studying Mandarin Pinyin.

Goals in sight

Other than race-walking — a sport that requires athletes to use a gait reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s — Johnson has little time for normal recreational activities. He relaxes with mathematical calculations, reading, conversation and writing popular music. 

He has three books in progress: a novel, a collection of short stories and a simplified theory of life — if you believe anything Johnson does can be simple.

Probability of finding a female statistician?


Statistics Professor Nancy Flournoy is the world’s leading expert in adaptive design.

Nancy Flournoy works in a man’s world. She’s a statistician and number cruncher who develops new ways to understand data. 

It took years of work and the example of a female role model for Flournoy to feel at ease in a field dominated by men. She once had the privilege of attending a talk by a trailblazer for women in statistics and admired the speaker’s sense of strength.

“She stood confidently at the front of a large auditorium, smoking her cigar,” Flournoy says. “I immediately took up cigar smoking as a way to exhibit my seriousness.”

Gender aside, Flournoy is arguably the world’s leading expert in adaptive design. She is known internationally for advancements in designing statistical models for clinical studies with information that develops and changes over time. Her algorithms can be used to find more effective treatments with fewer patients and give more study participants better treatment.

Spurious relationships

“Nerd. I can’t think of a nicer thing to be called,” Flournoy says, but she admits that junior high school was difficult when fellow students would grab her papers and pass them around for copying.

Flournoy’s mom reacted by seeking a spot for her in a private school with strict entrance requirements. Flournoy scored the highest math grade ever but flunked the English grammar exam. Before accepting Flournoy, an administrator quizzed her on the square root of three. Her answer? 1.7320.

Oblivious to high school social life, Flournoy indulged in her favorite pastime — working algebra problems. College was more of the same. She tested into the highest math level and spent huge amounts of time working every problem in the book — for fun.

Variable attributes 

The most vivid memory Flournoy has of her early career was being the only female statistician at UCLA’s Regional Medical Program, where, she says, she was fired for being an “uppity” woman.

“I never could keep my mouth shut,” she says. “I remember agonizing over whether to speak up.” (Note: Flournoy says UCLA tried to rehire her one year later. She declined the offer.) Speaking up is easier for her now. Flournoy was a guest speaker at the 10th annual New Yorker Festival in 2009.

Big problem: Understanding math


Professor Peter Casazza and his research colleague, wife Janet Tremain, obsess over math and bunnies. They adopted Jumbo, a 25-pound Flemish Giant and the largest of their bunnies, when the landlord of one of Casazza’s students evicted the pet. Their bunnies have two bedrooms, a playroom and their own refrigerator.

Every day starts with mental gymnastics for Peter Casazza and his research colleague, wife Janet Tremain, both mathematicians.

Because they speak a strange math language, their work remains a mystery to laypersons. “It is almost impossible to tell a nonmathematician what we are doing,” Casazza says. “They don’t have the patience or blackboard space to contain the 12 definitions we need to begin the discussion.

“And if we really try to explain ourselves, we just look even more abnormal to someone who cannot comprehend why anyone in this universe — or any parallel universe — could possibly derive excitement from this.” 

Mathematicians might see themselves as different, Casazza says, and people around them notice the differences, too. A case in point: Casazza loves his work so much that he can’t wait to get to it. He started getting up at 5 a.m. so he could complete two hours of research before heading to Mizzou. Then he figured that getting up at 4 a.m. gave him an extra hour. After 36 years of doing mathematics, he now retires for the night at 2 p.m. and gets up at 10 p.m.

No. 1 worldwide 

In his specialty, frame theory, Casazza is at the top of his field worldwide. Industrial entities, universities and engineers request his expertise for industrial applications of math frames to improve signal and image processing.

Some of the world’s most respected mathematicians gathered May 20–23, 2010, at the University of Maryland, College Park, to honor Casazza’s 65th birthday with discussions on the topic “From Banach Spaces to Frame Theory and Applications.”

“Pete Casazza is the current worldwide leader in frame theory; in fact he is frame theory,” says Professor Gitta Kutyniok of Princeton University. “No event in this field takes place without him as a plenary speaker, and one of his essays on frame theory is the most cited one in frame theory to date"

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