SIAM News Blog

Honoring Bonita V. Saunders

In honor of Black History Month, SIAM is spotlighting Black mathematicians throughout February. Bonita V. Saunders is a Research Mathematician in the Applied and Computational Mathematics Division (ACMD) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She serves on the editorial board of the NIST Digital Library of Mathematical Functions (DLMF) and leads a spin-off project, DLMF Standard Reference Tables on Demand (DLMF Tables), which is a collaboration between NIST ACMD and the University of Antwerp Computational Mathematics Research Group.

“Black History Month, and earlier, Black History Week, was a very important event in the Black community when I was growing up,” says Dr. Saunders. “I have very fond memories of all the activities that were planned at schools, churches, and throughout the Black community. However, no matter what your race or ethnicity, understanding the history of Black people in America is a crucial part of understanding and solving many of the problems in America’s communities. A first step should be making sure that Black history is accurately included in the teaching of history in K–12 grades.”

Education and Awards

Dr. Saunders was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Computational and Applied Mathematics from Old Dominion University. Her dissertation advisor was Dr. Philip Smith, a numerical analyst and expert in spline approximation theory. Her doctoral research explored the effectiveness of using tensor product splines to generate boundary fitted meshes, or grids, for solving partial differential equations (PDEs) associated with computational fluid dynamics problems. To advance her understanding of the field, she worked with Aerospace Engineer Dr. Robert Smith, a specialist in numerical grid generation, at NASA Langley Research Center.  

Prior to her doctorate, her earlier education included the completion of an M.S. degree in Mathematics from the University of Virginia with a thesis in commutative algebra and a B.A. in Mathematics from the College of William and Mary.  

Dr. Saunders was recently awarded the NIST 2020 Diversity, Inclusivity and Equal Opportunity Award for exemplary service as a role model, mentor, and tutor in support of STEM careers for women and minorities. In addition, she is a Fellow of the Washington Academy of Sciences and received a U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 2011 for her important contributions to the development of the DLMF. 

Research Focus

After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Saunders worked as a programmer analyst at a defense contractor for four years. While the position provided invaluable coding experience, she found herself longing for something more challenging and eventually moved to a position in ACMD at NIST, where she revived her research in numerical grid generation and PDEs, finding applications in the field of materials science, and worked on numerical software for special functions.

These early interests of Dr. Saunders are a key part of her current work on the NIST DLMF and DLMF Tables. The NIST DLMF is a free online resource  used world-wide by mathematical and physical scientists needing information such as definitions, recurrence relations, expansions, and differential equations to aid their understanding and computation of high-level mathematical functions arising in applications. As an editor for the DLMF, she is part of the management team, and serves as Graphics Editor, conducting ongoing research into mesh generation techniques and 3D web technologies needed for the development and presentation of complex functions data on the site. She has managed the design and implementation of 600+ graphs and 200 interactive 3D visualizations with the assistance of several NIST mathematicians, computer scientists, and student interns.

Recent Happenings

The goal of Dr. Saunders’ involvement with the DLMF Tables project is to develop an online system where users can generate tables of special function values computed to user-specified precision with a certified error bound. Such a system can be used by numerical analysts, scientific researchers, or software developers to validate the accuracy of algorithms computing special function values. A beta version of the system is currently available.

In 2020, Dr. Saunders was elected to the SIAM Board of Trustees and will serve her first term through December 2022.

Many thanks to Dr. Saunders for your robust contributions to computational and applied mathematics, and we look forward to your continued impact as a member of the SIAM Board. Tune in throughout February to meet more inspirational figures!

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