Renowned UC San Diego mathematician Jeff Remmel dies unexpectedly

Jeff Remmel, a lifelong UC San Diego professor known for his tireless nurturing of students and his insights about some of the most arcane areas of mathematics, died unexpectedly on Sept. 29 in La Jolla. He was 68.

The university said that Remmel — a man who preferred to climb stairways rather than ride elevators — passed away of a heart attack at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

His death has produced a sense of shock in the university’s Division of Physical Sciences, where Remmel was forever roaming the Department of Mathematics, looking for opportunities to empower students.

“(He) would work overnight to help us do something that was (not) even his business,” said Dun Qui, one of Remmel’s doctoral students. “He tried his best to let students do what they most liked, and he was so powerful that he could give advice in almost all the areas in math.”

Remmel worked broadly across the mind-bending landscape of mathematics, studying everything from shuffle conjectures to tableaux theory. But he was best known for his research on combinatorics, the study of patterns.

“One typical example is the so-called party problem,” said Fan Chung Graham, one of Remmel’s fellow math professors at UC San Diego.

“Among six people there are always three people who know each other, or all (who) don't know each other. It can also be described as `finding order in chaos' in the sense that in an arbitrary large set of objects, some fixed pattern emerge(s).”

Remmel had an enduring passion for mathematics and, later, computer science.

He earned a doctorate in math at Cornell in 1974 and later joined the faculty at UC San Diego, when the campus was less than 15 years old. He rose through through the ranks, becoming a full professor. Remmel also served as chair of the math department from 1998 to 2002, and he was associate dean of Physical Sciences from 2000 to 2016.

He became deeply involved in promoting STEM education programs, including the Science and Math Teacher Initiative (CalTeach).

Most of all, Remmel was known for the way he made people feel about themselves.

Janine Tiefenbruck, one of his former doctoral students, recalls meeting Remmel and "wondering if I was sufficiently qualified to work with a well-respected professor in an area that I had just started studying, and I left feeling completely encouraged by his confidence in me and all that we might discover over the next few years.

“His continued unwavering confidence in me was a major factor in my ability to complete my degree.”

Remmel also was remembered for being humble and fair.

“I remember one time a group of us were discussing curriculum and he and I got into a heated debate about the significance of a particular mathematical concept,” said Sherry Seethaler, who directs education initiatives in Physical Sciences.

“There were some raised eyebrows in the room because he was a famous math guy and I am not a mathematician. But instead of pulling rank, he heard me out. And, in the end, we both ended up modifying our positions and finding agreement. That is the kind of person he was.”

Mark Thiemens, a UC San Diego chemist, said, "Jeff was a magnificent mathematician and scholar, teacher-mentor, creator of new academic programs and administrator. He did it all.

The university said that Remmel is survived by his wife Paula, his son Christopher Remmel, and his daughter Saramaria Remmel.

The family asks that friends make a donation to the Jeffrey Remmel Memorial Fund in the Department of Mathematics. Donations can be made online at https://giveto.ucsd.edu/.

Twitter: @grobbins

gary.robbins@sduniontribune.com

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