Gravitational lensing expert Arlie Petters, a Belize native, was awarded the first David Blackwell and Richard A. Tapia Prize for contributing significantly to his field of expertise and serving as a role model for both scientists and students who are underrepresented minorities. Petters is a frequent speaker at events for minority students, ranging from elementary through graduate school.
Petters, William and Sue Gross Associate Professor of Mathematics, emigrated from Belize, earned his Ph.D. at MIT, and taught at Princeton University before coming to Duke, where he is the first tenured African-American professor in mathematics. He works on problems in mathematical physics, and a major focus is "gravitational lensing," a phenomenon whereby the powerful gravitational fields of distant galaxies and other objects deflect light from even more distant celestial objects. Analysis of these deflections offers insights into the structure of such galaxies. He is co-author of Singularity Theory and Gravitational Lensing, published by Birhauser in 2001.
As a popular adviser and mentor to undergraduates at Princeton, Petters received the 1996 Service Award of the Princetonians of Color Network. In 2001, he helped organize the Seventh Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, held at Duke.
The Blackwell-Tapia Prize, which will be presented every other year, was established by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and Cornell University. It is named for two distinguished mathematical scientists who have inspired more than a generation of African-American and Hispanic-American students and professionals in the field.