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Robbie Lyman CC’15 (right) with friends at the Live at Lerner Goes Ice Skating event that he helped to organize in February 2015. Photo: Tenlie Mourning CC’18

Exploring Math, Music and Everything in Between

“What do we value when we’re saying something is good or not? This is the same kind of question that we ask in Lit Hum or [Contemporary Civilization].” — Robbie Lyman CC’15

Before graduating from Columbia College in May, Robbie Lyman CC’15 got a taste of many different sides of Columbia — its music, its math, its literature and philosophy, its political advocacy, its academic research and even its humor — through his academic and extracurricular interests. Lyman, who graduated with a double major in music and math, says that though he has always pursued a broad base of knowledge, he has never tried to find a logical connection between his many interests; instead, he delights in their variety.

“[It’s] partly for the sake of always having something interesting to think about, and partly out of a kind of naïve ‘I wanna know everything curiosity,’” Lyman says. “I [look] at all these things and say, ‘Wow that's pretty cool, let me go find out all I can about it.’ … It sounds cheesy, but there’s always something new to do.”

As a prospective student, Lyman was drawn to the College’s Core Curriculum for this reason. “I thought that was a really neat way to think about doing college,” he says. To Lyman, the diversity of subjects in the Core, much like the diversity of his interests, have the collective effect of asking students to examine what kind of life they would like to lead. 

"A lot of what the Core is getting at," he says, "are the questions: 'How do you live your life? What do you prioritize? What counts as good?' And I like that the courses are not taught as, ‘this is the answer.’ They’re not even taught as ‘these are the answers that you can pick from.’ They’re taught as, ‘How do you think through that—how do you approach these questions?’”

Lyman brought his dedication to the Core to his participation in the Academic Awards Committee (AAC) of the Columbia College Student Council. The group annually honors two professors, granting the Mark Van Doren Award for excellence in the classroom and the Lionel Trilling Book Award for excellence in a published work. Students in the AAC sit in on classes and read professors’ books throughout the academic year to decide on the winners. The debate about who should win often boils down to the question, “What do we value when we’re saying something is good or not?” says Lyman. “This is the same kind of question that we ask in Lit Hum or [Contemporary Civilization].”

Throughout his four years at Columbia, Lyman asked himself this question regarding his own life and discovered many ways to answer it, but creating and contributing to community was a theme, from his involvement with GendeRevolution and Everybody Allied Against Homophobia, discussion-based groups aimed at social justice for the LGBTQ community, to his role as student coordinator of Live at Lerner, a live music program held in Lerner Hall during lunchtime about 20 times throughout the year. Live at Lerner also hosts 2 study breaks each year as well as several miscellaneous community outings, including ice skating and apple picking.

“Live at Lerner was wonderful as a way for me [to] help build a sense of community at Columbia,” he says. “It has this impact of bringing happiness to [students].” Lyman’s passion for music — he has played piano since age eight — and for graphic design sparked his initial interest in the program. As coordinator, Lyman not only developed his musical tastes by researching and inviting each of the bands to campus but also honed his design skills by creating the program’s promotional materials. The latter has translated into the non-Columbia world as well. “When I applied to the graphic design internship I had last summer at [The Runthrough] a fashion business downtown,” he says, “I brought out a postcard I’d done for Live at Lerner to show the interviewers, and their eyes just lit up.” 

Lyman says that when he works on a graphic design project, his thought process is similar to when he composes a piece of music or solves a math problem. “They’re all about putting parts together to make something. ‘What can I make?’ is a question that I like asking, says Lyman. For graphic design, you’re working with the text, the images and the space to convey a message. … So that's a little bit similar to what I find fun about math, that sense of play and recombining things.”

Lyman also expressed his penchant for fun in intellectual contexts through his involvement in the Philolexian Society, a satirical debate club that is Columbia’s oldest student group, having been founded as a literary society in 1802. “It [was] a chance to be zany about these little tiny things that maybe only you're interested in, instead of just [being] embarrassed,” says Lyman. “I even brought my love of math and music into the jokes and speeches that I told there. … It really felt like a nice place for me to be me — a sort of home for me on campus.”

Through all of his multidisciplinary passions, Lyman’s dedication to math — a dedication that was deeply influenced, Lyman says, by his studies with Professor of Mathematics Robert Friedman, the 2014 Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching winner — will bring him to the next chapter of his academic career: a PhD in mathematics at Tufts University, which Lyman will begin in September. Lyman’s PhD research will be based off of geometric group theory, an area of mathematics that Lyman first researched through an undergraduate research program run through the Department of Mathematics in the summer of 2014. “It was always sort of in the back of my mind that it might be nice to be a math professor,” Lyman says. “I think that would be a fun sort of life to have.”

Lyman hopes to bring the lessons he’s learned over the past four years into the future. He plans to move forward in each of his interests even as he enters a field of research that requires an element of single-minded tenacity. “I double majored partly because I had to choose something,” Lyman says. “I didn't want to pick one and not the other. I was hoping I could decide between [my interests] by the end of college. I guess I did in one way, but I don't plan on giving up on my other interests in grad school.”

Sally Whalen CC’17, from Spokane, Washington, is a student web editor for the Columbia College website. 

Published Wednesday July 8, 2015

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