U of T’s Department of Mathematics has set up a memorial scholarship in honour of Professor Alfonso Gracia-Saz who passed away on May 6 from COVID-19. The department is currently accepting donations to help fund the scholarship.
Gracia-Saz was awarded the 2021 Excellence in Teaching Award by the Canadian Mathematical Society. Students and professors spoke fondly of him in heartfelt social media posts, and his loss was felt by many in the community. A memorial for him was held online on May 14.
Pillar of the community
Gracia-Saz was characterized as a caring and passionate person by those who worked with him. He always worked his hardest and pushed others to do so as well.
In an interview with The Varsity, Professor Bernardo Galvão-Sousa recalled one time when Gracia-Saz referred to himself as a “mama bear” and said that he was very protective of his students, always wanting to show them support. According to Galvão-Sousa, Gracia-Saz would “defend [his students] fiercely against any threats to their learning.”
Galvão-Sousa talked about one time when Gracia-Saz tried to help some teaching assistants fix a “smelly situation” — a bunch of student complaints about the smell inside a classroom — by jokingly sending emails to students that asked them to shower before coming to class.
Winston Lau, a second-year student majoring in actuarial science and mathematics, added that Gracia-Saz made the notoriously difficult MAT137 — Calculus with proofs classes fun. Lau noted that he found Gracia-Saz’s lively personality refreshing.
Achievements and impact
During his time at U of T, Gracia-Saz revised, improved, and modernized the teaching of mathematics to benefit students. He introduced active learning methods, more conceptual understandings of class concepts, and, more recently, started pushing students to discover calculus concepts themselves. One student on Reddit said that even though they struggled in his class, they attributed their love of math to him.
Gracia-Saz also trained new instructors and teaching assistants in the department. When he was first hired, there weren’t many mechanisms in place to help train new instructors. He created the first training program in the department, and, initially, he did it all on his own time.
He also managed the MAT137 Youtube channel, which has over 13,000 subscribers, where he posted videos that taught students calculus. Gracia-Saz would often give back to the community, volunteering as an instructor at Mount Tamalpais College for the Prison University Project, teaching at the Canada/USA Mathcamp, and coaching for the University of Toronto Putnam Competition team.
One of Gracia-Saz’s teaching goals was to try to instill a love of math in all his students. While coaching the U of T Putnam team, he met a lot of students who were studying math because they loved the subject and were motivated to discover math principles for themselves. After this experience, he and Galvão-Sousa attempted to set up a scholarship for these types of students, although they were ultimately not successful.
In memory of Gracia-Saz’s incredible impact on the Department of Mathematics and the U of T community in general, the department has set up a scholarship which will aim to bring students with a strong passion for math to U of T. The department is still accepting donations for the scholarship fund, and it will match the first $50,000 of donations.