Obituary: Evelyn Silvia, Mathematician and Educator

Photo: woman gesturing and holding a card
Evelyn Silvia (UC Davis/file photo)

Evelyn Silvia, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, who worked tirelessly to improve mathematics teaching at every level from fourth grade to graduate school, died Jan. 21 following a courageous battle with ovarian cancer. She was 57.

"Evelyn has been one of the most successful, influential, respected and beloved university teachers of the nation. Her love of mathematics and care of all her students are the treasure she shared with everybody," said Motohico Mulase, professor and chair of mathematics at UC Davis.

Evelyn Marie Silvia was born in 1948 in Fall River, Mass. Speaking to the Sacramento Bee in 1999, she recalled that she was "sort of average" in math up to the sixth grade. But in seventh grade, she had a math teacher who told her she was the best math student he ever had.

"It was very powerful. Here was someone who looked at me and said I was special," she said at the time.

Silvia went on to receive her bachelor's degree in mathematics from Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts, North Dartmouth) in 1969 and attend graduate school at Clark University, receiving her M.A. in 1971 and a Ph.D. in 1973, when she joined the faculty at UC Davis as an assistant professor.

Silvia was deeply involved in mathematics education throughout her career. In 2001, the Mathematics Association of America presented her with the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. The award, presented to up to three recipients each year, is recognized as the highest award in university-level mathematics teaching and honors educators whose teaching has had influence beyond their own institutions. She also won the UC Davis Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1990.

Since 1994, she had been principal investigator of the Northern California Math Project. The program works with schools and school districts to improve math teaching, for example through teacher training, continuing education and research on problems in instruction.

In the 1970s, Silvia volunteered as a math teacher in local schools in fourth, fifth, ninth and 10th grades. From 1990 to 1992, she taught a regular Friday "math lab" class at River City High School, West Sacramento, for ninth through 12th grades.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant of $1.5 million over three years to a project led by Silvia to build partnerships between UC Davis students and professors and teachers in four local cities: Dixon, Folsom, Sacramento and Vacaville. Under the program, graduate and undergraduate students from UC Davis bring their expertise to teachers' classrooms, and learn about teaching in return.

Her research contributions were in theoretical work on complex analysis and geometric functions. In recent years, she studied the mathematics underlying the geometric properties of starlike, convex or spiral shapes. Her publications also encompass work on mathematics education and curriculum development as well as numerous materials to help students and teachers at all stages from grade school to graduate school.

Silvia was also deeply involved in campus issues. She was co-director of UC Davis' first Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, 1973-79. The program introduced students to innovative teaching methods involving large group discussions. In the early 1990s, with Carole Hom of the College of Biological Sciences, she worked on revitalizing the approach to teaching calculus at UC Davis. She served as secretary to the Davis division of the Academic Senate; chaired the senate Committee on Admissions and Enrollment; and chaired or served on numerous other departmental, college and campuswide committees.

For many years, she coordinated an informal support group open to all women faculty at UC Davis. Drawing on her years of experience, in 1990 Silvia wrote a pamphlet: "Collegial Advice for Assistant Professors: Hints for Success and Stress Reduction as an Assistant Professor at UC Davis," in which she gave tips for young faculty on how to manage their time. Originally intended for local use, the document was updated in 2003 and has been widely distributed on the Internet.

"Although her collegial advice to others was to learn to say 'no,' she almost never did turn down a request for something she felt was important," said her friend and colleague, Jessica Utts, professor of statistics at UC Davis.

She is survived by her husband, Doyle O. Cutler, professor emeritus of mathematics at UC Davis; her father, Manuel Silvia Jr., and brother, Howard T. Silvia of Somerset, Mass.; brothers Dwight D. Silvia and Manuel Silvia III, and sister Loretta A. Estrella, all of Fall River, Mass.; her stepson, Daniel F. Cutler, and his wife, Martha, of Cazadero, Calif.; stepdaughter Dorothy Landry and grandchildren, Colby and Drake Landry, of Gold River, Calif.; 12 nephews and nieces, and many grandnephews and nieces. She was preceded in death by her mother, Evelyn M. Silvia and her sister, Nancy Silvia.

A memorial service and reception will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday Jan. 28, at the Davis Community Church, 412 C St., Davis. Burial will be private. A public memorial is planned for the spring.

The family requests no flowers. Friends and colleagues plan to establish a scholarship in her name to support future mathematics teachers. Donations should be sent to the Evelyn M. Silvia Scholarship Fund, c/o UC Davis Department of Mathematics, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616.

Media Resources

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,

Mitchel Benson, (530) 752-9844,

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