On weekends when he was a kid, Illya V. Hicks, with his mother and brother, often ate lunch or dinner at a favorite restaurant in Waco, his hometown.
“In those days, you’d get an itemized accounting of what you ordered, and you’d pay after you ate,” said Hicks, professor of computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) at Rice University. “She would hand us the receipt and ask if the total was correct. I enjoyed competing with my brother to see who would finish the calculations first. I would also estimate the total before finding the actual total. Those are some fond memories.”
Hicks, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2007, has been named a 2018 honoree for Black History Month by the website Mathematically Gifted and Black
. A different mathematician is honored each day in February.
“I was always good at math,” he said. “I used to challenge myself to where I wouldn’t let problems beat me. I always strived for 100. Never liked when problems got the best of me.”
Hicks, 44, grew up and went to school in Waco, where his father was an auto mechanic who owned his own garage and his mother worked in a factory that made cabinetry for travel trailers. He had 11 half-brothers and half-sisters. His only memory of overt racism occurred during a biology class at Waco High School. The class was studying Mendelian genetics when Hicks asked the teacher if any Africans or African-Americans had contributed to the field.
“The teachers said, `No, they were too busy playing with sticks.’ I never told my parents about that,” said Hicks, who got a football scholarship to Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). He was an offensive lineman, and graduated with a B.S. in mathematics in 1995.
“When I first went to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do with my life. I think I was most interested in professions that made money,” Hicks said.
When he visited Rice after being accepted for graduate school, he met Richard Tapia, now University Professor, Maxfield-Oshman Chair in Engineering and professor of CAAM at Rice. Tapia encouraged him to enroll in the Spend a Summer with a Scientist program at Rice, and paid his travel expenses to the inaugural Conference for African-Americans in the Mathematical Sciences.
There he met William A. Massey, a former researcher at Bell Labs, now the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton. Massey encouraged him to apply for a Bell Labs Fellowship, since renamed the AT&T Labs Graduate Fellowship, which he received. Hicks went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in CAAM at Rice in 2000. For the next six years he taught industrial and systems engineering at Texas A&M University, before returning to Rice.
His research interests include combinatorial optimization, integer programming, graph theory and matroid theory, with applications in social networks, cancer treatment and network design. A more recent research interest is finding cohesive groups in social networks and political redistricting.
He has supervised eleven doctoral and two post-doctoral students, and since 2016, Hicks has served as a faculty adviser to Rice president David Leebron. Married more than 20 years, he and his wife Casmin have a son, Illya Jr., who turns sixteen this year.
When asked to share some “words of wisdom/ inspiration” in his Mathematically Gifted and Black interview, Hicks quoted Calvin Coolidge and Mike Tyson, and added: “Enjoy this journey of life. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”