Getting to Know CSUF’s 2022 Outstanding Professor

Sam Behseta, professor of mathematics, received the 2022 Outstanding Professor Award, recognizing him for his work in inspiring students and colleagues and for his contributions to the University.

Each year, Cal State Fullerton presents the Outstanding Professor Award to recognize one faculty member for their work in inspiring students and colleagues and for their contributions to the University and the University system. This year, the award was presented to an icon in the Department of Mathematics.

“Sam Behseta is one of our most dedicated and successful faculty members. He embodies everything that the honor is meant to celebrate,” Alfonso Agnew, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, says of Behseta, professor of mathematics. “From the classroom to research and service, he has excelled in both quality of work and quantity. He elevates everyone around him – faculty and students – and his work raises the stature of CSUF in the professional community and beyond.”

Agnew says Behseta has driven the success of the statistics program at the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics on many fronts, noting that his grant collaborations have been transformational for students. These have allowed them to engage in research in modern data science and present their results and network with students and faculty from other universities, opening the doors to many graduate school and career opportunities.

Professor Sam Behseta with a fellow faculty member

“These are some of the most powerful and consequential experiences that our diverse student population will ever have at CSUF,” Agnew says. “His work as CCAM [the Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics] director has been key as well. Faculty are very busy and different subject areas have their own culture, so bringing together multiple departments on campus to create a high-functioning center is a huge undertaking. Moreover, he has done a great job getting involvement and guidance from industry and community leaders.”

Agnew also says of Behseta “that even with all his credentials and accomplishments, you will never find a more kind-hearted, positive, and supportive colleague. He is truly the complete package and a model for all faculty.”

The Enthusiastic Mathematician and Mentor

Behseta says he was overjoyed to receive the honor, “as this award mostly belongs to our students and my remarkable colleagues in the math department.” He adds that behind every individual success story is an environment of support and encouragement provided by those who have made it possible for that person to excel in what they do.

Students who have learned from Behseta over the years say he excels at explaining difficult topics in a way they can understand and with enthusiasm, offers constant encouragement, and welcomes all questions and discussions.

“There is a familiar cliché that mathematics and statistics concepts are too hard to decode, and only very smart people can excel in them,” Behseta says. “I would argue that to become good in math, one has to also feel genuinely excited about it. Passion for learning and a knack for seeking beauty in mathematical and statistical constructs are equally important. Smarts help, but they are not sufficient. The point is, once students get to discover the sheer elegance of statistical thinking in solving complex real-life problems, there can be no turning back. I think the key strategy in mathematics education is to help students find those elegant concepts early on in their educational journey.”

Professor Sam Behseta with another faculty member

Throughout his tenure, Behseta has mentored more than 60 students on incredibly dynamic research problems, including modeling data stemming from neuroscience, cryptography, education, epidemiology, biology, technology, finance, and economics, among others.

“If that list looks rather long, it is by no means accidental,” Behseta says. “There is a famous saying by the legendary statistician John Tukey: ‘The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.’ A solid majority of my research students have gone on to build reputations of their own, becoming leaders in academia and industry themselves and mentoring the generation that has come after them.”

He points to the journey of his former undergraduate research student and current colleague, Valerie Poynor, associate professor of mathematics.

“Val was my undergraduate research student. In the beginning, she was not sure what educational field she wanted to pursue in life,” Behseta says. “She took a few statistics courses with me and got involved with unusually high-level research at the undergraduate level. From that point on, the sky was the limit.”

Poynor went on to earn a Ph.D. in statistics from UC Santa Cruz, conducted postdoctoral research work in the Bay Area, and then joined CSUF’s Department of Mathematics.

“Every time I pass by her office and see her guiding young students, I feel energized that there must be something right about what we do, as educators and mentors, here at Cal State Fullerton,” Behseta says. “There is an almost indescribably rewarding feeling in witnessing your students excel in life. It is worth all the money in the world.”

On a Quest to Open Up Opportunities for Students

At CCAM, Behseta says he could not be prouder to have some of the brightest faculty that any institution could wish for; two cutting-edge supercomputers; multiple grants energized by the Center’s resources; a very active advisory board led by Tien Nguyen and Armando Martinez-Cruz; creative decision-makers like Marie Johnson and Al Agnew “supporting us in every twist and turn”; incredibly knowledgeable and efficient allies in the IT department, including Amir Dabirian, Willie Peng, and Charles Yang; and a long list of wonderful ideas for the future.

Student and faculty creativity is driving the need to expand the existing computational infrastructure on campus, Behseta says. That means CCAM has the capacity to become a main hub for high performance computing (HPC) in the region, so securing the supercomputers was an important achievement.

“Andrew Petit, chair of CCAM’s Computation Community, has been instrumental in energizing our efforts in that direction,” Behseta says. “Not only will expanding our HPC capacity facilitate our research programs in the college, but it will also position us to reach out to local industry, community colleges, and K-12 school districts to build a network of data science learners and practitioners. Down the road, our students will greatly benefit from that, especially after graduation when they are ready to join the workforce in the region.”

Professor Sam Behseta with another faculty member

In collaboration with researchers at UC Irvine and Cypress College, Behseta and colleague Jessica Jaynes, assistant professor of statistics, recently obtained a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the California Data Science Experience Transformation Program – a project he is very passionate about.

“I have to give full credit to Dr. Jaynes, who is leading our data science efforts at CSUF. This Data Science program is providing unique opportunities for undergraduate students in applying data science methods for solving complex real-life problems,” Behseta says. “We had 20 students from CSUF participating in the first cycle of the project, and they did remarkably well. After taking an introductory course in data science, they spent the summer at UC Irvine, working on a host of challenging research topics, including epidemiological, environmental, and neurophysiological projects. At the end of the program, they created research papers and posters and presented their work to the research community and their peers at a special symposium.”

Behseta says he believes it is the faculty and college’s responsibility “to provide as many opportunities as we can for our incredibly deserving and brilliant students.”

“Our students are the main asset of this institution. Each decision, project, and planning should begin with asking questions about its potential impact on enriching their educational experiences,” Behseta says.

When it comes to awards, Behseta says he would love to see an award that recognizes the collective work of faculty teams who have designed and successfully completed exciting research and training projects.

“I believe the real value of an individual’s work, in academia at least, is better understood in the context of the environment in which they operate, and it is definitely a by-product of their collaborative effort,” he says. “I also have a word of advice for my younger colleagues, as they are moving up the ranks: Keep working hard, stay focused, and don’t let daily challenges dissuade you from reaching your goals. It is worth repeating that this profession of ours can be incredibly rewarding!”

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