Ainsley May is used to getting blank looks when talking about their academic work. The fourth-year graduate student in logic and philosophy of science at UCI is specializing in the philosophy of mathematics. Puzzled new acquaintances often follow up tentatively asking, “Do you like it?” Yes, in fact, May thrives on it.
“One of the things I love about it is just that I get to combine these two things that I find really interesting,” explains May. “Some days I’m just working on mathematical proofs and other days I get to sit in my armchair, so to speak, and just think deeply about the concepts.”
May’s pursuit of philosophy has taken them around the globe – from Australia to Germany to the US, where May is tackling the philosophical problem of meaning in mathematics as their dissertation at UCI. In addition to this bold research agenda, they are serving as a Pedagogical Fellow to learn and share best practices for college-level teaching, and they are actively involved in projects that aim to make UCI a more welcoming and inclusive place for graduate students.
May likes to joke that they move to a new continent every time they earn another degree. In high school on Australia’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a math teacher sparked May’s interest in philosophy by sprinkling lectures with quotes and concepts from philosopher-mathematicians like Kurt Gödel and Bertrand Russell.
“I was really fortunate in that I got to see the deep connections between math and philosophy from a really young age, because both are so interested in abstraction,” May says. “They’re things that people think of as being so far removed from our daily lives, but it’s really just a question of thinking deeply and seriously about concepts that come up all the time.”
At the University of Queensland, they double majored in mathematics and philosophy and were lobbying for a course on set theory when Toby Meadows arrived on faculty. Meadows, who is now an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science at UCI, is an expert on set theory, and readily agreed to teach the course.
On Meadow’s advice, May pursued a master’s in logic and philosophy of science at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, which inspired them to pursue a doctorate. UCI’s Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science caught May’s attention for its top rankings in multiple specializations – first in decision, rational choice and game theory, second in general philosophy, third in philosophy of physics, and top 20 in mathematical logic, philosophy of math, philosophical logic, and philosophy of biology. Plus, Meadows was now at UCI, and May knew a positive working relationship with their advisor would be critical to grad school success.
As a grad student, May’s unbridled love for philosophy and math enlivens classes.
“Ainsley just turns up with the confidence and ability to question and challenge the ideas being presented,” says Meadows. “They are not afraid to sometimes make mistakes, because they know that this is the best way to learn.”
That fearlessness led them to choose a particularly bold dissertation topic: meaning in mathematics, a topic that could easily consume a lifelong academic career. May explains current accounts of meaning contradict mathematical practice. This is because mathematical theorems are usually considered to be necessarily true, which on most philosophical accounts makes them all have the same meaning – which they don’t. That bothers May. So, they will use techniques from model theory to build case studies about meaning in math, including looking at the history of different theories of meaning in math, and present their own theory, which they’re calling a “folkloric account.”
“Ainsley has a remarkable ability to find problems and questions that are both interesting and likely to bear fruit,” says Meadows. “Their project will bring together techniques from mathematics, logic and philosophy of language and with a little luck prompt some deep debate among contemporary researchers in philosophy of mathematics and language.”
May is also passionate about teaching, and will follow their grandfather, mother, and brother’s footsteps to become an educator. May was selected as a UCI Pedagogical Fellow, which focuses on preparing future teachers, and will be the lead instructor in an undergraduate quantitative reasoning course in the spring.
Diversity & disability
Earlier this year, May also co-taught lessons in the LPS Summer Diversity Program, a week-long residential program that gives undergraduates from underrepresented groups the opportunity to learn more about the research opportunities in logic and philosophy of science.
“Many students come from undergraduate programs where they only had one or two courses on logic and philosophy of science, and we want to demonstrate the huge variety of topics that you can study, and also provide some guidance around what the process of applying to graduate school is like,” says May.
Another area May has been committed to is strengthening support and resources available to graduate students with disabilities. May and Stella Moon, Ph.D. ’23 (philosophy), founded the Graduate Student Disability Support Group (email@example.com) in 2021.
“There are just so many unique challenges that graduate students face – and disabled graduate students in particular – that being able to create a community where we could vent and problem solve about these issues was something that was really really important to me,” May explains.
Through this work, May was invited to contribute to a UCI Student Affairs project to establish a Disability Cultural Center on campus, which aims to go beyond legally required accommodations to ensure disabled students flourish, while also providing an opportunity for people from different communities to engage with and learn from one another.
May’s other volunteer activities include serving as the department’s representative for the DECADE program (Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral Experience), and serving on the LPS Climate Committee.
“As a graduate student, we have to wear a number of different hats, we’re a student, a researcher, an instructor, a renter,” May explains. “Just making sure that the university really recognizes that and supports us in all of those different parts of our lives is important and something that I'm committed to being a part of.”
May still carves out time for fun amid these many commitments. In spring 2023, under the stage name Deviant Logician, they made their Drag King debut at the Inclusive Drag Night hosted by the Association of Graduate Students and the Associated Students of UCI.
May plans to pursue a career in academia continuing to explore mathematics and philosophy while also passing on a love for the subject to the next generation – and they’d be happy to relocate to yet another continent to do so.
“I hope and expect that Ainsley will find a position in a university that appreciates their hefty contributions and I hope to continue working with them in the future,” says Meadows.
While May will likely still get blank stares about what they study, they remain unwavering.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. I’m not going to get rich or become mega famous. But I get to do something that I love,” says May. “I think that in a lot of ways, that is the most valuable contribution that I can give the world. We need more people doing what they love because that’s actually going to lead to the most positive change in the world.”
-Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences
-pictured at right: In spring 2023, under the stage name Deviant Logician, Ainsley May made their Drag King debut at the Inclusive Drag Night hosted by the Association of Graduate Students and the Associated Students of UCI.