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Infinite possibilities

April 20, 2020

Spring 2020 grad Owen Ekblad says his UM-Dearborn journey gave him a math education that's led to new experiences, like winning a U.S. National Yo-Yo Competition. Now he’s taking encouragement from professors to do something he never thought possible — starting his Ph.D in the fall.

Owen Ekblad thought people who focused on academics — particularly in mathematics —  seemed a little dry, maybe even boring. But then he enrolled at UM-Dearborn.

“I learned that the stereotype is so wrong. You can be really passionate about math and still be approachable and awesome. I came to campus liking math for the clarity in thought it provides, but my professors’ enthusiasm for math makes me love it. I didn’t know that loving math could be a thing before coming here.”

Now the Spring 2020 graduate — a national Duncan yo-yo champion who has a music playlist for just about everything — is planning to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics and become one of them.

Ekblad, who’s occasionally seen practicing yo-yo tricks in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters Math Learning Center where he’s a tutor, says he it’s “a little disappointing” that his senior year ended like it did, due to COVID-19 concerns. But he “couldn’t be happier” with his UM-Dearborn journey and the experiences and education he’s gained.

There was his first swim in the ocean during a mathematics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Pomona College near L.A., a summer-long National Science Foundation-funded research internship he heard about from UM-Dearborn faculty.

While a student, Ekblad says he learned how his love of yo-yo —  a pastime he took up after his grandparents bought him a yo-yo when he was nine — and math merge. Applying mathematical thinking to performing tricks helped earn him a top spot twice in the U.S. National Yo-Yo Contest.

Owen Ekblad and his signature Duncan yo-yo
Owen Ekblad and his signature Duncan yo-yo
Owen Ekblad and the signature Duncan yo-yo he designed

“I liked yo-yo before I was into math. But I’ve learned over time that there is a connection. When I’m trying to do a combination, which is a string of tricks, and figuring out what trick should be next, I think of it like a mathematical proof. For example, what makes the most sense based on momentum or ending location of the previous trick?,” says Ekblad, who’s so good at the pastime that yo-yo maker Duncan asked Ekblad to design a signature yo-yo with his name on it, which is sold worldwide.

Ekblad also picked up the German language here  — which is very handy when brushing up on mathematics history — and says the friendliness, or gemütlichkeit, of his German professors is what encouraged him to take courses from beginner level to advanced.

“When reading about mathematical history — yes, I’m a person who does that — there are footnotes explaining theorems in the original language, which is often German. I can read those now. Reading something in another language can change the way you think about it. My German professors gave me that ability.”

When looking toward graduation, Ekblad says he planned to celebrate his last day on campus with a curated playlist — something he’s done since his freshman year at UM-Dearborn. When he learned during a March 12 afternoon class the campus was canceling in-person instruction due to COVID-19, Ekblad pulled out his Last Day at UM-Dearborn “mixtape” early.

With his windows down and slowly driving the campus loop, Ekblad blared the 1972 classic rock tune “Schools Out” by Alice Cooper. 

He admits it felt a little anticlimactic. But that isn’t just because the coronavirus ended in-person classes prematurely. It’s also because, for Ekblad, school isn’t really out. He starts a Mathematics Ph.D. program at Michigan State University in the fall.

“None of the academics I’ve met — from here to California — fell into that boring, dry stereotype. My professors and advisers have changed my life by genuinely caring about what they teach and about who they are teaching. In the future, I hope my passion for math inspires someone like theirs has inspired me.”

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