Skip to main content
A woman in a multi-colored blouse poses for a headshot to celebrate being announced as a Distinguished Professor.

Malgorzata Peszynska named a University Distinguished Professor

By Tamara Cissna

Malgorzata Peszyńska, newly honored as a University Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University, has charted a remarkable path — shaped by uncommon talent, grit and a spirit of joyful independence.

Renowned for her exploration of the physical world through the prism of mathematics and computation, Peszyńska's work has yielded fascinating insights over her distinguished career. Her research has fostered innovation and enabled applications with global impact on pressing environmental concerns and natural resource management.

In recognition of her achievements, she has earned Oregon State's highest academic honor. The university awards this distinction to a select few faculty nominated by their peers, with the College of Science having the highest number at 19.

"Dr. Malgorzata Peszyńska is nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in mathematical and computational modeling of complex processes, and her work has been particularly significant in building bridges across disciplinary boundaries," Provost Ed Feser wrote in the university’s announcement of this honor.

Peszyńska will present a university distinguished lecture, along with one other 2024 distinguished professor: Todd S. Palmer in the College of Engineering. She will present her lecture on Wednesday, May 8, at 1:30 – 3 p.m. in the Memorial Union Horizon Room. Her lecture is titled, “Math Matters: Multi-* Modeling, Analysis and Simulation.”

“This is an honor and accomplishment, and evidence of appreciation coming from the many colleagues, students and collaborators,” Peszyńska said. “It is also a responsibility, and I am not the only one deserving, but now I can stand on the shoulders of giants and pay it forward.”

As the Joel Davis Faculty Scholar in Mathematics, Peszyńska is acclaimed for her pioneering work in numerical analysis and modeling. Her recognition as an AAAS Fellow in 2020 highlights her “exceptional contributions to multidisciplinary mathematical and computational modeling of flow and transport in porous media."

Peszyńska's work has been supported by more than $3M from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies and industries. She has authored more than 119 research publications in high impact computational mathematics journals including SIAM journals and in the interdisciplinary venues such as the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, Advances in Water Resources, Geophysics, and other high-Impact journals, and her publications have received more than 2,000 citations.

Over the years, her achievements have garnered numerous awards: She received the Geosciences Career Prize from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), and she's also been recognized as a Distinguished Fellow by the Kosciuszko Foundation and served as a 2009-2010 Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Warsaw, 2006 Mortar Board Top Professor award, 2016 Graduate faculty award and more.

A mathematical odyssey in energy and climate

Peszyńska specializes in modeling, analysis, and numerical analysis of models, a discipline that seeks to describe real-world systems mathematically, so they can be simulated, analyzed predicted and — when there are problems — solved.

With expertise that spans disciplines, Peszynska primarily works to mathematically solve problems related to environment and, recently, climate change. Her modeling of mass and energy flow and transport includes porous media phenomena in aquifers, oil and gas reserves, carbon sequestration, solar cells and the effect of permafrost warming. Perhaps most notable is her work on phase transitions in methane hydrate transfer and evolution, as well as in using computational mathematics to study complex pore-scale environments. This work aims to understand and predict the presence and behavior of fluids in nature to mitigate potential disasters, like hazardous explosions or methane emissions contributing to global warming and addressing challenges in climate science and geophysics.

In her recent NSF-supported work on studying permafrost changes, Peszyńska seeks to predict and mitigate potential large-scale events such as building collapses and coastal erosion, highlighting the urgency for more modeling in this area.

Her research team employs computers to approximate solutions, striving for accuracy even when the true solution is unknown, she explained. Ultimately, they contemplate how computational algorithms can approximate truth without certainty, exploring the mysteries of mathematics.

"There's so much about the methods themselves that intrigue us in this mystery," she said. "How do you achieve that? How can you anticipate whether your computational algorithm will yield a prediction close enough to the true solution, regardless of what that true solution might be, without actually having knowledge of it?"

Peszyńska will explore this and other questions in her public lecture. She will also “delve into how her research team explores multi-scale multi-physics systems using complex computational mathematics, inspired by real-life applications. She will discuss their investigation of porous media at nano-, pore-, lab-, and field scales, predicting their responses to environmental changes. She will also emphasize the importance of fostering interdisciplinary collaborations within Oregon State University and with external partners to encourage students to embrace complexity over simplicity.”

A woman in a skiing outfit stands next to a sign read "East, West."

Malgorzata Peszynska on the southeast side of Mt. Bachelor, Oregon, where two trails meet at the East West Divide. Peszynska's journey has also taken her on trails from East to West, over 5,000 miles from Poland to Oregon.

From Warsaw to worldwide impact: A wholehearted journey

Born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, Peszynska discovered her passion for mathematics at a young age. Encouraged by her family, she cultivated that passion alongside her love for the natural world, leading her to study mathematics in the context of physical phenomena and ultimately specialize in mathematical modeling and computational solution of flows through porous media and their geological applications.

She earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the Warsaw University of Technology and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Augsburg in Germany. She also holds a habilitation degree from the Warsaw University of Technology.

Her interest in real-life applications is driven, in part, by a personal passion for the natural environment and outdoor activities. And she commits fully to her pursuits, whether tackling complex equations, building interdisciplinary teams, or enjoying leisure activities like skiing and sailing. Embracing her mantra to "Make your own kind of music," she consistently tries to choose the complex and challenging path over the simple and easy.

Reflecting on the most meaningful milestones and accomplishments that led to this recognition, Peszynska shared that it's not about one single thing but rather a tapestry of efforts woven from countless interesting problems and diverse potential directions.

“At every fork in the road, we are choosing a path and sometimes we succeed in making progress,” she said. “At times, the most cited papers are the easiest for us, and sometimes those least noticed are the hardest but might make an impact much later. This may be scary when looking ahead, but it gets easier over time.”

She likens her role as a mathematician to that of a translator, bridging gaps between disciplines and applying mathematical rigor. Collaborating with colleagues from within mathematics and across other fields has empowered her to tackle real-world modeling projects with significant practical implications, even in the absence of a clear existing mathematical framework for analysis. From exploring multi-scale modeling techniques to navigating complex algorithms, these partnerships have broadened her perspective and fueled innovation.

As a mentor, she encourages students to discover their passions and gently nudges them to work diligently towards their goals, knowing they might change their minds along the way. But, she said, “There's no substitute for hard work. Sometimes, it's not just about assignments or tasks; it's about doing repetitive steps and finding the discipline to keep going. One of my past mentors said, ‘All you can do is work.’ And that's true. It means showing up every day, putting in your hours, and eventually, things will click. In turn, mentoring isn't easy. You offer advice, but ultimately, it's up to them to decide what works best for them. It's not unique—I don't have all the answers. Live and let live, I suppose—that's another principle I try to uphold.”

One of her former students, Scott Clark ('08), listed in Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30, shared, “Dr. Peszyńska’s guidance led me down the interdisciplinary path that would become the foundation of my later graduate and professional work. ... She had a direct, positive impact on my career trajectory, and I would not be where I am today without her.”

At that, she humbly replied, “We have a lot of brilliant undergraduate students, and they just need an opportunity to fly. And so we should be accommodating them, I think. Yeah, let them fly."

She has also found leading the community in various professional circumstances gratifying—“building one connection at a time and not letting go.” Peszyńska has served as a program director for computational mathematics for the NSF and in multiple roles for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Additionally, she organizes conferences, serves on editorial boards, and participates in review panels for prestigious institutions.

A group of people stand on a deck celebrating the graduation of a postdoc.

Malgorzata Peszyńska and her students and postdocs celebrating the graduation of Lisa Bigler (Ph.D. 2022).

Challenges and rewards: Bridging disciplinary divides

Peszynska’s success in bridging complex mathematics and diverse real world disciplines has much to do with her independent and joyful spirit.

She describes her atypical view of computational and applied math as an "attitude," rather than a discipline. “My work leans closer to art in its abstract form, or closer to science and engineering in its useful side. This dichotomy is not always understood or appreciated, and it feels funny and sometimes tedious that we may have to prove ourselves over and over. Doesn't everyone want to have clean air, enough food, exciting and intellectually stimulating complex work and stability of life? Live and let live!

“But my strategy is to not try to win anyone over to interdisciplinary work but rather to enjoy the intellectual and emotional joy of learning the new language while appreciating the cultural differences. The reward is that you build the bridges rather than straddle the fence.”

To apply her discipline and contribute wholly to critical concerns is very hard work, and she competes mostly with herself, harnessing discipline if ever enthusiasm wanes. Just as she advises her students: Do the work.

“On the lighter side, most days I wake up happy in the morning to continue doing this work,” she said. “It's fun, more fun than video games because I can make my own with the simulations. So that's exactly what I hope for others, especially students, that they will find fun in it—potentially even more, making a difference, one step closer to a better world.”

Curious minds may explore Peszyńska’s website for its challenges and interactive learning. Exploring innovative solutions can feel akin to solving puzzles, but even more rewarding.

The lasting impact of her work that she will hold most dear is the enduring value of lifelong learning and the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration—with its potential to shape the future. And she truly hopes that students will experience and appreciate the intrinsic joy and real-world impact that computational and applied mathematics have to offer.

“I am thrilled to see Malgo Peszyńska get this well-deserved recognition,” said Eleanor Feingold, dean of the College of Science. “Her world-class work in mathematical and computational modeling, coupled with her dedication to interdisciplinary collaboration, are instrumental in shaping the future of environmental science.”

Along her journey, Peszyńska has had to choose between many forks in the road. With too many options to follow in one lifetime, she acknowledges the opportunities left behind for future lives.

What might she pursue in her next life? Well, she might need two (or more). “Right now, my count goes into the upper teens.”