Math, music and Ryan Stees in perfect harmony at JMU

by Eric Gorton


Ryan Stees sits at a student desk in a classroom looking at the camera, wearing a purple JMU sweatshirt. In the background is a blackboard with music written on one side and math formulas on the other.

Ryan Stees isn't quite sure where his interest in math comes from, although there are a few engineers on his father's side of the family. With a family tree full of musicians, it's a bit easier to see where that interest, and talent, comes from.

Stees' fondness and aptitude for both subjects led him to major in both math and music composition even though the requirements for each are among the most demanding at JMU. Heading into his "junior" year, Stees already has enough credits to graduate.

"I sometimes don't get to enjoy campus life quite as much as I would like to, but usually I try to find a balance in there of getting enough sleep and doing enough work and doing social things with friends," he said. "It's something I'm doing better at, but I'm still not good at it."

A Dingledine Scholarship recipient, Stees could have left Harrisonburg to pursue his interests at bigger universities in other states. For a number of reasons, including having his father, Professor Kevin Stees, as a tutor on the euphonium, he's happy he chose JMU. "When you visit other schools, you can kind of get a feel for their environment. I don't know how that works, but there's something that tells you what the school is like just when you walk on the campus and with JMU, I think you get that same thing," Stees said. "I really like the environment here. It's an undergraduate-focused university, which is real nice. It's very people focused. There's a big focus on developing personally in addition to academically, which I appreciate more and more the longer I'm here. The campus is very beautiful, the food is good, all those things that people say they love about JMU."

While composing and performing music will always be important to Stees, he's leaning toward making his living as a math professor. "If music composition takes off then I would have to decide what I want to do," he said. "It's something I'm always going to do I'm sure for the rest of my life. It's just a matter of how much of a career it becomes versus an avocation. It's really hard to make a living writing music."

And math, he has discovered, satisfies his creative side. "One of the things I'm noticing more, once you get out of high school, math becomes less about numbers and it's a lot more proof based. I really enjoy that type of thing and the more and more I get into math, the more I get into music composition, I see connections between the two."

A student in the honors program, Stees' senior thesis will focus on his research in knot theory, a topic he discovered by taking a math class he didn't have to take during his freshman year. "One of the biggest questions in knot theory is, 'How can I tell if two knots are the same thing?'" he said, explaining that there are methods for determining when two knots are not the same. Trying to prove two knots are the same is a much more difficult process.

While knot theory may seem a bit abstract to people outside of math, there are applications for it outside the field, particularly in biology, Stees said. "One of the coolest things about doing math research is you never really know when the thing that you're researching is going to make a contribution in another area," he said, noting that group theory existed long before uses were discovered outside of math. Today, group theory is used extensively in physics and also in online banking security, he said.

Stees will get to explore another type of math this summer, Lie algebras, when he participates in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Penn State in July and August. "I know it's connected to group theory, but that's about all I know," he said. "That's not something you talk about normally until grad school so it will be nice to get a little primer, a little taste of that topic."

Stees said he plans to take two more years to complete his degrees and will graduate in spring 2016. "Initially I planned to complete both majors in four years, but that would have killed me," he said. "Plus, I have taken some classes that I didn't have to take, but I'm glad I took them."

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Published: Friday, June 13, 2014

Last Updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2021

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