2013 AWM Essay Contest
High School Level Honorable MentionOn first glance, it looks a tad disorganized. Handmade roller-coasters line the back wall. Papers are dispersed about the room. The board is a canvas of numbers and symbols. Shelves are stocked with crystal-ball-like apparatuses and pressure sensing devices. Seated around the room are students debating equations and questions and problems, while she smiles on.
by Alexandria Miskho
Jennifer Tillenburg is a unique teacher. She bounces into her classroom every day, ready to take on the challenges of the course. She is the teacher that arrives 45 minutes early every morning and leaves 45 minutes late every afternoon, in the chance that even one student may solicit her help. Jennifer Tillenburg is the young physics teacher at Kamiakin High school, and an inspiration to her students.
As a child, Ms. Tillenburg had but one goal: to be a carpenter. She was raised in a blue-collar family, her mom being a carpenter herself. For years Jennifer wanted to work with her hands, to build bridges and buildings just like her mom. After flaming the fires of this dream for a short while, however, she realized something. To put it simply, she “sucked at it.” In fact, she did not seriously desire to learn any trade or enter into any vocational school. Coming from a working-class family, this idea was novel. However, her mother supported her entirely. She encouraged Jennifer to chase her dreams, to find her place in academia. Initially, Ms. Tillenburg was drawn to the idea of defending the law. As she realized this profession required an extensive knowledge-base in reading and writing, subjects that she didn't particularly care for, she once again vacillated in what her future profession would be. And then, like a shining beacon on a dark stormy night, there was math.
Math was a subject which came easily to Ms. Tillenburg. It made sense. In high school, she was always the student paired with a struggling classmate. Through this tutoring of her fellow classmates, Ms. Tillenburg began to envision a teaching career. From within herself bloomed a motivation to study math and science, to learn the concepts entirely on her own, to share her devotion to math with others, to be practically the first in her family to attend a university.
Upon matriculating at Eastern Washington University, Jennifer enrolled in her first physics class. This subject, this applied mathematics, spoke to her. Previously, she had never taken (or even heard of) physics before. In these introductory courses, Ms. Tillenburg found her niche. However, as she began to take higher level classes, she was surprised at what she saw. In a classroom of ten physics students, there was often only one girl. Her.
Surrounded by a sea of males, professors and students alike, she was the aberration. And what an aberration she was. Ms. Tillenburg became the student her fellow classmates asked questions of; she was the one invited to a multitude of study groups so that she could explain the concepts. Her natural talent at physics surpassed any prejudices that were swirling around her. In fact, she became a physics tutor at college. When meeting the males she tutored, they would look at her surprised, communicating their doubts that “[she] know more than [they] did about physics?” At first, it was difficult to overcome the stereotype that men were more knowledgeable in math and applied mathematics. After her male counterparts were exposed to her desire to learn and her love of mathematics and physics, though, Miss Tillenburg effectively squashed that stereotype, time after time.
As a young, female applied mathematics teacher, Miss Tillenburg is easy to relate to. Spend one moment with her and it is apparent that her devotion to physics transcends all else. Her energy has no place to dissipate into except for the minds of her students. But even as she found herself in a leadership role, stereotypes continued to follow her. Parents, upon realizing that the AP physics teacher was in fact a younger woman, initially looked at her “weirdly.” Similar to Ms. Tillenburg's own college days, in her first year of teaching there was one girl in AP physics. That year, when a fellow teacher asked Ms. Tillenburg which of her students would qualify as a tutor, one male student explained that “it has to be a guy because no guy wants a girl teaching him physics." Sheepishly, he added "except you, Ms. Tillenburg."
It seems as if moments such as these have only propelled Jennifer to advance women in the field of applied mathematics. For example, she purposefully pairs the differing genders in groups in order to encourage girls to engage in meaningful discussions with male classmates. She herself is a constant reminder that women can succeed tremendously in a mathematics field. From teaching mechanics to learning about special relativity, her favorite subject, to taking supplementary calculus courses on the side, she lives every day in a world of equations and formulas.
Leaving Jennifer Tillenburg’s room, a student comes to find that any sense of disorganization is really a vesicle for her work. Having taken her AP physics class myself, I can honestly say that she is the type of woman that doesn’t back down from stereotypes. “Don’t pay attention to them” she advises. Have confidence in your abilities—they are what will help you succeed. As a young woman planning to enter the mathematics and applied science field, I only have to look towards Jennifer Tillenburg to see my future. In her, I found a teacher and an adviser. But I, along with many other people, have found an example to follow as I enter college and my career.
About the Student:
Throughout my high school career I have been actively involved in multiple organizations. I am the student representative to the School Board for the Kennewick school district, president of Key Club, and vice president of National Honor Society. This is my third year in Link Crew Leadership, fourteenth year of playing the piano, and second year of volunteering with my local hospital's Green Team. In school, math has been my favorite subject for the last twelve years. I am currently enrolled in AP Calculus BC as well as math competition. I love all math, from solving a difficult problem with a complex theorem to exercising my mental math skills with my friends. I hope to further immerse myself in math and science upon entering college.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
High School Level Honorable MentionIn Ms. O’ Halloran’s math classes, you are classified as one of two students: you are either a “dear student,” who follows her directions accordingly and respects her authority, or a “VFP,” a “very foolish person,” who talks ubiquitously out of turn and dozes off mentally in class. If classified as a “VFP,” you need not worry, for these statuses are quite flexible, and you may be back in her good graces as soon as the next day. Ms. O’ Halloran tolerates absolutely no nonsense from her students, but her charming Irish accent and her sharp wit creates a lighthearted and enjoyable classroom atmosphere in universally difficult classes: Precalculus and AP Calculus AB. Lakewood High School has been fortunate enough to have such an invaluable teacher as Ms. O’ Halloran, who enthusiastically teaches any and all students who enter her classroom.
by Angelique Scheuermann
Mary O’ Halloran was born and raised in the village of Ballyheigue in County Kerry in southwest Ireland. As the eldest girl in a family of five children, Ms. O’ Halloran “had a taste for being in charge,” and every student who has had Ms. O’ Halloran as a teacher is well aware of this. Mathematics was always one of Ms. O’ Halloran’s interests; in my interview of her, she articulated that in her youth, she “did her math homework first, and would do the rest of the painful stuff after that.” At the all-girls Catholic boarding school that she attended, Ms. O’ Halloran met Sister Peter, her calculus teacher, who taught her to “think outside of the box” and to think more critically, a goal that Ms. O’ Halloran now has for her students. With her innate love for math, she always knew that teaching was the career that she would pursue.
At University College Dublin, Ms. O’ Halloran attained a bachelor’s degree with a major in chemistry, surprisingly, and a minor in math. “I would have majored in math, but I didn’t think I was good enough. In order to major in math, you had math, math physics, and my physics wasn’t strong enough,” she explained in the interview. After college, she went on to teach all levels of math, chemistry, and biology at an all-girls high school in Ireland. The education system in Ireland was vastly different from that of the United States: the only method for determining how a student did in a class was state exams at the end of the year which lasted six hours each; everything in class was just “learning to learn.” After nine years of teaching in Ireland and with a job waiting for her in the United States, Ms. O’ Halloran immigrated to Southern California.
In 1986, Ms. O’ Halloran began teaching the American students at St. Paul High School in Santa Fe, California. From that point on, she decided to cease teaching science and to focus solely on teaching mathematics. In 1990, Ms. O’ Halloran broke through her earlier collegiate hesitations about pursuing mathematics and earned her master’s degree in mathematics at California State University, Fullerton. Within that time frame, she also began her next teaching job at David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach, CA, where she absolutely loved teaching all levels of mathematics for thirteen years. More recently, she has taught and been co-chair of the math department at Lakewood High School in Lakewood, CA.
To have Ms. O’ Halloran as a teacher is an absolute pleasure. I am honored to be a student in her AP Calculus AB class this year. Every morning I look forward to calculus class because of Ms. O’ Halloran’s witty remarks and pleasant personality. Her natural gift for teaching and her emanating passion for math transcends the minds of even the most mathematically-contemptuous students. Because of Ms. O’ Halloran, my love of math has grown exponentially, and I have decided to pursue mathematics as a minor in college.
As co-chair of the Lakewood High School math department and a teacher with National Board Certification, Ms. O’ Halloran has no need to prove that she is an accomplished and ambitious woman in her mathematics career. She perpetually enjoys having “a bit of a challenge.” Although earning the National Board Certification was a laborious process, she told me in the interview that she found it “energizing” and was open to the change that came with it. But even with her numerous accomplishments, Ms. O’ Halloran has not lost sight of her initial love of teaching high school students. She loves the daily interaction she has with students my age and derives enjoyment from teaching them novel ways to think about mathematics, rather than having them simply regurgitate formulas. All she desires of her students is that they improve their skills, better their attitudes about mathematics, and “enjoy their years” in high school.
For students who cringe at the utterance of the word “mathematics,” Ms. O’ Halloran is able to make math for them tolerable, and maybe even fun. Ask almost any one of her calculus students about his or her opinion of Ms. O’ Halloran, and he or she will reply with something along the lines of, “she is amazing.” Any future Lakewood High School student will be extremely lucky if he or she begins his or her eye-opening journey through mathematics with the two words Ms. O’ Halloran uses to greet each class: “dear students.”
About the Student:
I am a senior at Lakewood High School in the Merit Scholars program, the most rigorous academic program at LHS. I have served as the president of the California Scholarship Federation Club for the past two years, as treasurer last year and vice-president this year for Key Club, and as the Senior Representative for the Merit Scholars Club this year. Mathematics has always been a passion of mine. I also love Chemistry and Biology, and plan to major in Biochemistry and minor in math in college next year. Running and exercising are my other hobbies, and I completed a triathlon and a 10k run in 2012. I currently tutor two students in algebra II and chemistry.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
Undergraduate Level WinnerIn developing nations such as Nigeria, where gender equality and women’s rights are still foreign concepts, female/girl child educational endowment is often relegated to the abyss. It is normal to find few girls in schools and even fewer enrolling for courses such as medicine, law, computer science and the “almighty mathematics” which is feared by even the men. It is therefore a rare sight to see a young female mathematician such as Mrs. Mary-Anne Msuur Shior, who enjoys and derives great pleasure from teaching mathematics.
by Joy Otobo
She was born in the balmy town of Makurdi, the capital of Benue State, on the 24th of March, 1984 to Mr. and Mrs. David Ijuh. The fourth child in a family of five children, she grew up in an average income family where there was just enough of anything to go around and waste wasn’t encouraged. She attended Saint Theresa Primary School, Makurdi, where she grew in strength and wisdom and shone bright in every subject, outdoing both the boys and the girls in her class. She said that mathematics was her favorite subject at the time because of her teacher, Mr. Hakaan, who laid a good foundation and taught with a vigour and steadfastness lacking in most of today’s teachers. After completing her primary school education, she enrolled at Aveco Model School, Makurdi, where she represented and distinguished herself even with limited resources at the Annual Cowbell Mathematics Competition, Junior Category, in her JSS 2. Although she wasn’t the grand prize winner, she brought great honor and recognition to her school as this is the biggest mathematics competition in the country to date. After the completition of her junior secondary education at Aveco Model School, she enrolled at Special Science Senior Secondary School, Makurdi, where she once more represented them at the Annual Cowbell Mathematics Competition, Senior Category.
With all these encounters with mathematics, one would naturally assume that she would choose a career in mathematics, but that wasn’t the case with her: she had set her interest in the medical field and was determined to become a Medical Doctor. She therefore put all her energy into studying and graduated her secondary school the top of her class in the year 2001. Her love for medicine was given impetus by the newly constructed medical school (under the administration of the governor of the state, Mr. George Akume) which came to be known as the Benue State University College of Medicine, but as fate would have it, the commissioning was delayed. This prompted Mrs. Shior to seek remedial admission in the sciences, a program meant to prepare one for a proper degree admission at the same university. While her focus was still medicine, her outstanding performance in mathematics during her remedial earned her placement in the school’s Mathematics Department. Although she was skeptical about the course, parental advice and a zeal to face challenges and make a difference spurred her into accepting the admission for BSc Mathematics.
According to Mrs. Shior, hard work and perseverance kept her going because there were times when she was overwhelmed by the departmental challenges. Her strongest point and one of the reasons for her success was her unquenchable desire to know more, which prompted her to always ask questions. She remembers attending a lot of tutorials organized by her fellow course mates and asking them to help clarify some confusing formulas. She graduated at the top of her class of thirty five, only five of whom were girls, thereby helping to erase the misconception that girls are not good in mathematics. Immediately after her graduation, she married her fiancé Mr. Shior who coincidentally has a PhD in literature. She laughs when she tells me how he is always trying to make her drop her pen and pick up a novel which she has no interest in reading, preferring instead to unravel the mysteries in mathematical problems, watch inspirational movies or listen to gospel songs in her spare time. They have an adorable girl together. She recalls how she had to wait a year at home after graduation like the rest of her mates but instead of sitting at home idle, she got a job teaching at a community secondary school in Makurdi. It was then that she discovered she had talent and love for teaching as she enjoys seeing that light-bulb come on in the eyes of her students when they finally understand a concept. At the end of that year, the school was inspected by the National Teachers Association of Nigeria and with their recommendation she was awarded the best teacher of the year prize.
She went for her mandatory one-year Youth Service from November 2007 to September 2008, and in November of that year she was offered a lecturing position in the Mathematics Department of her former University due to her excellent performance while a student there. She accepted and became the first Mathematics lecturer at the University. Mrs. Shior did her master’s program in the mathematical modeling of malaria at the University of Agriculture (UA), Makurdi. She chose this because she wanted to do something in mathematics that has practical application to her community. She hopes to do her PhD outside the country but cannot at the moment because this will require her to be away from her family for a long time and she cannot afford the cost of regular visit for her family. She hopes to get a scholarship that will lessen the overall cost. She acknowledges this as one of the many challenges career women face across the globe.
Although the fourth child, and a female one for that matter, she was the first in her family to get a degree. This shows that we can rise above societal limitations and cultural boundaries to be the best that we can be. She advises young girls interested in mathematical careers to be hard working and ambitious. That unlike the humanities, mathematics is straight forward. You can know how well you have done in an exam even before the result is out by your personal evaluation. She enjoys the prestige and recognition she gets when she introduces herself as a Mathematician.
About the Student:
My name is Joy Otobo. I am currently doing a major in psychology at Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria. Statistics, a branch of mathematics, is one of my compulsory courses and I enjoy it immensely. When I came across this essay topic, I was excited because it is the perfect opportunity for me to help shine some light on the achievements of this great mathematician whom I admire a lot, Mrs. Mary-Anne Shior.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
Undergraduate Level Honorable MentionFor biomathematics researcher and Duke University Mathematics professor Anita Layton, success comes in many shapes and sizes. She explains: if you achieve the overall goal you set for a project, that is a big success. If you make a step towards solving your goal, that is a little success. If you receive a grant for a project, if a paper gets published, or if a student you mentor graduates and finds a job, you have succeeded.
by Anne Talkington
Layton’s day as a mentor and research supervisor consists of teaching, administrative duties, research, and meetings. Yet, of the varied aspects of her work, she cannot pick a favorite. She enjoys it all.
With the full support of her family, Layton (known at the time as Anita Tam) left her native Hong Kong to enroll in Duke University’s undergraduate physics program. Over time, Layton’s interests shifted from actual experimentation to computer programming, resulting in employment as a computer consultant. Later, Anita Layton graduated from the University of Toronto with a doctorate in computer science. Her experience with the mathematical modeling of weather patterns led her to the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Ultimately, she returned to the Research Triangle and Duke University.
Professor Harold Layton, Anita’s husband, introduced her to research at Duke. Here, they frequently collaborate on projects together. The Laytons’ research has incorporated the use of calculus to describe physical and biological processes that are critical to bodily functions.
Anita Layton’s current research project is a specific example of using mathematical principles to model the biology of everyday life. It focuses on chemotropisms in yeast, or how yeast cells “know” what is around them. From data about chemical sensing and cell signaling, Layton models how the yeast responds to its environment. She is constantly tweaking formulas that relate the strength of specific signals to the path of cell growth. Each model begins simply, becoming more complex as she adds parameters to better represent reality. By working with and learning about a specific organism, she finds the potential to expand her ideas to more general modeling, and cell signaling.
In addition to their work, the Laytons share a happy family life with their two children. They are careful to prevent their life at work from invading their time at home. Therefore, the math they do at home is no different from the math other parents do: explaining basic concepts to satisfy their children’s curiosity.
Despite her busy family life and the multitude of responsibilities at work, Anita Layton has managed to produce nearly 35 papers in the past two years, and has acquired several grants to continue her research. The scientific papers she writes often take a year to be published in a notable scientific journal, such as the Journal of Computational Physics or the Journal of Mathematical Biology. While her experiments continue to evolve, Layton publishes her intermediate progress. Her chemotropism project, already a work of nearly four years, lingers as a research initiative. Layton presents her discoveries across the United States and abroad, and still manages her schedule of classes among the network of conferences, workshops, and project presentations of her latest findings.
Like her schedule, Anita Layton’s writing is carefully planned. She likes it to be organized, to “tell a very nice story.” She views each academic work as a means of communicating an idea to an audience with limited knowledge on the topic.
Layton loves teaching. She is serious about her work, but maintains a sense of humor and enthusiasm. She relates well to students across a variety of majors, from biology, to engineering, to physics. The diversity in Layton’s classroom resembles the diversity in her laboratory – people with varied interests, coming together to learn and grow. Each day brings a new topic, and a new mathematical model to explore.
Anita Layton’s class is discussion-based, a combination of theoretical principles and applications. Layton challenges her students’ intuition, presents them with scientific concepts, and then encourages them to develop questions of their own to study further. She promotes a dynamic of academic community within the classroom. Her students critique one another’s work and the legitimacy and implications of new research. They learn from each other as well as from their experienced professor.
Anita Layton serves as a mentor for both graduates and undergraduates. She helps to organize and actively participates in programs such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Mathematical Biology, and serves as Assistant Director of the Research Training Grant at Duke. Layton, an affiliate of the Association for Women in Mathematics, also supports the Duke University Women’s Mentoring Network. The predominantly male field does not intimidate her. “I work just as well with men as I do with women. Really. … As for being a woman mathematician, I don't find it particularly challenging. There are always people against you. If it is not because of your gender, it will be [because] of something else. I usually don't let such things get to me.” In the face of adversity, “work hard” is her solution.
Layton’s parental instincts translate to her mentorship as she sees her students grow up, graduate, and move on. No two students are exactly the same, so she looks to lead them down the path that will best help them later in life. She sees each student as an individual with special talents to nurture and specific goals to achieve. She guides them, as they continue to accomplish great things.
Regardless of which project Layton is working on, she does not find the conflicting ideas of fellow researchers in the laboratory discouraging. Layton feels that ideological conflict is a good thing. It allows people from various backgrounds to share different perspectives. She knows that collaboration plays a significant role in science. Although this scientific collaboration could be stressful for many, it is not for Anita Layton. She thrives on communication, and truly loves what she does.
About the Student:
I am interested in investigating mathematical models with broad biological applications. My first exposure to mathematical biology was through a research position at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. In the biotechnology lab, I developed my own equation for calculating microbial population growth based on the exponential Maclaurin series expansion. I see complex biological phenomena as a way to test models and use them to refine techniques. I intend to research patterns that could apply in fields such as molecular biology, ecology, or cancer research, and pursue a doctorate in mathematics.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
High School Level Honorable Mention
by Grace Wu
As I was waiting to interview Amie Wilkinson, I imagined what she would be like. She would probably be sitting at her desk in her office engulfed in academic papers and white boards crammed with elaborate theorems. When she answered my video call, I was completely taken by surprise. Wilkinson was sitting comfortably on her sofa at home, winding down from a long day at work. With her casual clothes and unintimidating smile, she looked like a woman I might pass by in the grocery store and never have the slightest suspicion that she might be one of the commanding mathematicians in the world. As soon as we started the interview, all my nervousness was dispelled; I was stunned by the refreshing humility that Wilkinson exuded. By the end of the interview, I realized that Wilkinson’s extraordinary journey has been filled with obstacles but ultimately, her pure love, curiosity, and enjoyment for mathematics has prevailed. I had not only gained respect for her perseverance but also inspiration to zealously pursue my own passions.
Wilkinson was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Evanston, Illinois. Growing up, both of her parents were professionals. Her mother pursued religious studies and eventually graduated from law school while her father earned a PhD in Psychology. His penchant for computers and programming inspired Wilkinson to value education from a young age. She distinctly recalls rifling through her father’s books filled with mathematical symbols as a child and wanting to understand what the complex symbols meant.
High school was a critical time in Wilkinson’s life; her passion for mathematics was cultivated by math teacher John Benson. Benson noticed Wilkinson’s extraordinary potential and placed her on special math teams because he had faith in her abilities. His ardor for math served as a model for Wilkinson and by her senior year, she was determined to become a mathematician.
During her undergraduate years at Harvard, Wilkinson encountered major challenges to the point of giving up her dream. After years of excelling in high school, Wilkinson didn’t realize how much time and effort it would take to do well in college math. Many of her peers were intellectual and hard working so Wilkinson fell behind and felt discouraged. She often doubted herself, thinking, “Maybe I’m not good enough for this.” While Wilkinson was at Harvard in the 1980’s, all of the professors in the math department were men so the lack of role models was part of the challenge. Sexism was more prevalent then and she remembers an instance when a senior math professor suggested that if she chose to be a mathematician, she would be one of lower standing. Eventually, her friend recommended she take ergodic theory, introducing her to a field that she would eventually dedicate her life to furthering. The innovation of the class rekindled Wilkinson’s appreciation for the beauty of math and restored her confidence but it was already too late to apply to graduate schools.
Wilkinson decided to become an actuary after college. That year was the turning point; while doing rote calculations, she yearned to work in the “candy store of math” where stimulation and variety were abundant. Her year off was a revelation because she realized she loved math for the pure beauty and enjoyment of it, not because she was competing with others or had to be the best. A year later, she enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley. She finally committed herself completely to the pursuit of mathematics, free from previous distractions and stressful competitive environments that discouraged her in the past. After earning her PhD in mathematics from Berkeley, Wilkinson returned to Harvard for her postdoctorate. Then she worked at Northwestern for fifteen years, eventually working her way up to being a professor. In 2012, she decided to move to the University of Chicago.
Wilkinson is a pure mathematician and conducts research in ergodic theory, a branch of mathematics that studies dynamical systems. Dynamical systems is the study of the movement of an area of space, which evolves under fixed rules over time. The field of dynamical systems was conceived to understand real world problems, such as the instability of the solar system. However, it has grown into a field of pure mathematics where the questions are more theoretical and not immediately connected to real world applications. Wilkinson analyzes abstract models for her research so most of her work consists of thinking with an iPad and stylus, reading, talking to other professors, proving theorems, and writing research papers. Even though her work may not be applicable to the world now, her ultimate goal is, through her research, to build tools that will become useful in the distant future.
Despite her busy schedule, Wilkinson balances her work and personal life. She is a dedicated mother of two and enjoys cooking. Much of her time now is devoted to her family but Wilkinson has had a variety of interests such as belly dancing and weight lifting. Wilkinson also enjoys traveling; her work takes her around the world from Brazil to the Czech Republic.
In 2011, the American Mathematical Society awarded Wilkinson with the Satter Prize in Mathematics. Awarded every two years to a woman with exceptional contributions to math research, the prize recognized Wilkinson as a leading contributor to the field of ergodic theory of partially hyperbolic dynamical systems. However, Wilkinson didn’t choose mathematics for the glory; she chose it because she loved the idea of learning and discovering something new every day. Through hard work and an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics, Wilkinson successfully transcended the obstacles placed in her way to become not only one of the most respected researchers in her field but an inspiration to aspiring mathematicians. Her life story of breaking the stereotypes and defying doubts is a testimony to her philosophy and advice to students: “If you look around you and you’re not as good as others at math, don’t be discouraged. Mathematicians, just like mathematics, come in all different shapes and sizes.”
About the Student:
As a junior at Mission San Jose High School, I am taking Advanced Placement Statistics and honors pre-calculus. I am an advertising manager for my school newspaper, the Smoke Signal, and an editor for the art and literary magazine. I also serve as secretary for the Alameda County Junior Commission on the Status of Women and, as part of the organization, have started a support club for children with divorced or single parents. During the summer of my freshman year, I attended Michigan Math and Science Scholars at the University of Michigan to learn about game theory and financial mathematics. In my free time, I enjoy reading publications and practicing tuba. I’m still undecided on what I want to do in the future but hope my work can contribute positively to the world.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
Grand Prize WinnerWhat is the probability of becoming a brilliant mathematician after growing up on the tough side of town? Professor Sara Billey could tell you.
by Rebecca Myers
Meet Dr. Sara Billey. Upon first glance, she appears to be the average devoted working mother. But, underneath her modest manner, there is genius. It is obvious that she is full of intense passion for her work. And, when she is not teaching mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle or doing research in Combinatorics, she can be seen playing volleyball, flute, tennis, bridge, and ping-pong, traveling and visiting San Diego, riding her unicycle, jogging, and swimming (she is even training for a triathlon this summer!), and spending time with her two daughters and husband. Sara is also very involved in her community, is on the science center advisory committee and organizes math day events for high school students in Washington State.
Sara Billey’s beginnings were quite inauspicious. She grew up with two blind parents and a sister, living in an apartment building where every family had some tough times. Even though her childhood was full of overcoming difficulties, it was also saturated with love and fun times. One of her fondest memories is playing cards with her family. Sara was even an entrepreneur with her own paper route, “preparing her for life as a mathematician because success or failure was dependent on the amount of work put into the job.” Sara really "shuffled the deck" because a woman in math is still in the minority. This was even more pronounced years ago. But her parents provided more than love – their strength of character and work ethic profoundly influenced Sara. “I appreciate how strong my parents are. Even when others thought that they weren’t up to a task because they are blind, they insisted that they were up to the challenge. And they were right!”
During high school, Sara enjoyed mathematics but did not realize the career possibilities: “For a long time I had no clue I wanted to be a mathematician because I didn’t even know you could BE a mathematician. I thought after high school that was the end of math education.” She decided to study engineering, and then explored architecture. When she discovered that her new major could not accommodate the additional math and physics classes she was interested in taking, she decided to pursue her interests instead. This decision would reveal Sara’s true passion. In Sara's Introduction to Probability class, Professor Gian-Carlo Rota presented five unsolved math problems. Sara was hooked. She went home and, after poring over the problems for hours, she knew her career choice: she would become a mathematician. The following summer Sara worked on a book with Rota.
While she was in graduate school at UCSD, her soul mate, Paul, was a student at MIT. It was hard being apart, so Sara moved to MIT sponsored by Rota. She was treated as a grad student and attended classes at MIT while taking tests at UCSD, developing contacts with mathematicians “on both coasts”. Paul was very supportive of Sara: “We’d work until the wee hours of the night. A lot of other people stayed late in the lab too. It sort of felt like we were having a research party; like we had an academic nightlife.” After finishing school at UCSD, she got an NSF postdoc fellowship, then an assistant professorship at MIT and then came to University of Washington in Seattle with tenure.
Sara's research in the field of Combinatorics was “in the cards” from the start: “I think my specialty in math was in my body before I knew I wanted to do that.” She was quickly reminded of her childhood and playing cribbage and bridge with her family. Combinatorics is the study of counting things. Sounds simple, right? Not quite. Combinatorics can be applied to every aspect of life, particularly when efficiency is important. Think of a letter carrier trying to find the optimal path to deliver packages. Finding the definitive best path is difficult, but possible through Combinatorics. Sara works on discovering new techniques and uses of Combinatorics. "Research," she confides, "keeps me as a user of math; not just an expositor of math. It lets me make a small step in a positive direction."
Sara is especially passionate about working with students and watching their math skills and careers take off. She loves mentoring because she so appreciated her mentors, including Adriano Garcia, who continues to be an inspiration. “My biggest accomplishment is watching my students succeed. What I’m happy about right now is creating a good research environment here at U Dub.” She currently works with 5 grad students, a postdoc and two faculty members. Six of her former advisees now have PhDs, and she has worked with over 30 undergraduates on research. “It’s really good for undergraduates to have a research experience because it makes them think deeply. When you do math research you can use any technique in the world. It drives you to learn new things.” Sara encourages her students to ask others “What problem do YOU need solved?” and to apply math to attack challenges in the community. In addition to helping her students to think deeply and innovatively through their projects, she urges them to learn math vocabulary (“It’s like a foreign language, like French”) and put in quality hours of thinking time.
Sara insists that her many prestigious awards should only be read as part of her obituary, but one truly trumps the others. In 2000, Sara was the only academic mathematician honored with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. President Clinton himself invited her to the White House.
So, can a girl with the cards stacked against her make it in the universe of mathematics? Sara Billey: accomplished mathematician, professor, researcher, wife, and mother. Sara inspires her students and colleagues and is admired for her hard work and generosity. It is obvious that Sara Billey is a real-life royal flush.
** Footnote: Guess who is the most famous "Sara in math" according to her pagerank on Google!
About the Student:
Rebecca Lauren Myers is a junior at High Tech High International in San Diego, California. She truly enjoys mathematics, especially problem-solving, and was particularly inspired when working as a teaching assistant with children on mathematics at a mathematics enrichment camp at the University of San Diego. Rebecca loves animals and has had many growing opportunities while interning at a veterinary hospital. Her other passions include acting, singing, reading, science, writing and learning.
2013 AWM Essay Contest
Middle School Honorable MentionThe definition of a teacher: a person who teaches. On the contrary, in a kid’s dictionary, it might look something like this: “Teachers. An abnormal specimen which continues to be unknown and studied by keen scientists.” That was what I was thinking when I entered the classroom of Ms. Aukema, my previous grade 5 math teacher. But after our interview, I found out some really cool information about her that I didn’t realize before! Turns out that, on the inside, Ms. Aukema is a really cool and more of a traditional teacher who truly cares about students’ learning. Ms. Aukema loves to read and knit. She delights in gardening and socializing with friends, and likes to spend time doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku at home. Ms. Aukema says, with a little chuckle, that she, just like some people, often goes out for coffee. That does seem pretty normal in my opinion, unless you refer to opening up books and planting flowers as extraterrestrial.
by April Liu
Ms. Aukema is actually the truly intelligent and inspiring type of person whom you rarely meet. Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and with a Dutch background, Ms. Aukema is the first of five children in her family. Upon completion of high school, she attended the University of Alberta for 4 years. When I asked Ms. Aukema if she could describe her teaching experience in one word, she thought about it for a moment and came up with “rewarding”. She gets excited about the fact that teaching makes her see the “light go on” in her students’ minds. Ms. Aukema particularly enjoys teaching math because it is so much fun to play with things and finally get to solutions. “Everything in math fits so well together and it all makes sense. It’s orderly and organized.”
Ms. Aukema’s students are very lucky because she knows what kids can be like and can connect with how they feel. One of the obstacles to learning that she notices is when her students are thinking that they can’t do it, but she can relate. She also detests the way some of the math programs are set up and how they don’t lead to systematic progress or building foundational skills one after another. She also identified a lack of practice. Ms. Aukema firmly believes that students should be fully equipped with the right tools before they tackle successive areas.
When I was in Ms. Aukema’s Grade 5 math class and studying multiplication and division, she would drill us on multiplication tables every single day and give us time limits. The next thing I knew, my whole class, including me, could write down all the multiplication tables, from 1-12, in only three minutes! It became our second instinct! One of my classmates said that “multiplication” was becoming his middle name. Ms. Aukema is also the kind of person you could definitely go to anytime you need help. She would help you solve your problem no matter what it was.
For kids who are interested in pursuing a career in mathematical science or becoming a math teacher, here is Ms. Aukema’s advice: “Keep on enjoying math! Play with it! Ask for help when you need it. Don’t be satisfied with just getting an answer; work towards understanding. Try to explain not only to yourself, but also to other people.”
Looking down at my list of questions, I asked Ms. Aukema what the best part about teaching was. Now, a regular teacher would probably say “The holidays!” or “Grading report cards!” But Ms. Aukema said the best part about teaching, which she especially loved, was the fact that a teacher could make a difference in a student’s life. Ms. Aukema is a role model of being a bright and passionate lifelong learner.
About the Student:
My name is April Liu and I am a sixth grade student attending John Knox Christian School in Burnaby, B.C., Canada. I want to become an architect or a psychologist when I grow up. I really like math and I particularly enjoy Algebra. I have a deep interest in Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology, and I attended the Johns Hopkins University’s CTY camp for the “Heroes and Villains” program last year. Some of my hobbies include playing volleyball and basketball, running, listening to music and reading.
2013 AWM Essay Contest:
Middle School Level Winner
by Emmanuel Martinez
My sixth grade math teacher is Mrs. Estella Perez. She is a wonderful woman and teacher; her students, she has told us many times, are like her own children.
Mrs. Perez comes from a family of extremely hard-working people. Her parents were born and raised in Mexico and due to their dismal financial situation, they were forced to drop out of school and enter the workforce at a very young age. Mrs. Perez was born and raised in Mexico, too. She entered school and even though it was very difficult for her to work and study at the same time, she proved to be an excellent student.
Mrs. Perez knew that in order to succeed she needed to try her best; luckily she had a teacher who oriented her. Her math teacher, Mr. Thompson, taught math at the school she attended. Mr. Thompson was an exemplary teacher and human being. He possessed a great deal of patience, so if a student did not understand a math problem he would explain it numerous times, step-by-step. Everyone loved him and looked up to him because he encouraged them to be the best they could be. It was then that Mrs. Perez received her calling.
Her goal when she immigrated to the United States was to become a math teacher and follow in Mr. Thompson’s steps. She started high school here in the Rio Grande Valley and soon entered the University of Texas Pan-American. She received her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and began teaching at my alma mater, Lyford Middle School. Her sole purpose was to instill in her students a love for math. She wanted them to have fun in math class, and not dread it.
For more than twenty years Mrs. Perez has taught kids like me to love math. From sixth graders to eighth graders, she has always motivated her students to follow their dreams. Her message to students interested in the math field is that they can achieve anything they want to: she says, “Math is fun, and it should be. If you like it, it is important for you to get involved in it now and become more exposed to it. You need to remember that you get to choose what your future is going to be like. There is only one person who can decide your future and that is you.”
Mrs. Perez is a woman of Mathematics. From her job, to her family, to her hobbies, she incorporates math into her life in a way that is fun. She has taught me that everything from baking, to solving a Sudoku, to the technology needed for the iPad has fundamentals based in math. She is my role model. Thanks to her, I have learned to love math. She motivates my classmates and me to always do our best and try our hardest. Not only is she a great math teacher, but also a great person. Gone is the image I had of the evil, old, sixth grade math teacher that the older kids would try to scare us with in fifth grade. Instead, there is Mrs. Perez with her kind eyes and wise words. She has taught me more than how to divide fractions, because now I know that the word “miracle” is just a synonym for “hard-work,” and Mrs. Perez is the living proof that miracles and dreams do come true.
About the Student:
My name is Emmanuel Martinez and I am twelve years old. I live in Lyford, Texas and attend school at Lyford Middle School. Since I was in Kindergarten my favorite subject has always been math. I participate in UIL (University Interscholastic League) Mathematics and Number Sense. Math is awesome! Everything in the world needs math, from our stoves to our computers; it’s a perfect balance of equations. When I grow up, I want to be able to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earn a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.
2012 AWM Essay Contest:
High School Grand Prize Winner
by Gitanjali Lakshminarayanan
The first thing that struck me was how simple she looked. You
could walk by her on the street and not even realize that you just passed one
of the leading research mathematicians in India. I was waiting in the library
of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), deep in the heart of
Bangalore, one of India’s most populated cities, when Dr. Mythily Ramaswamy
walked in. We went to the cafeteria where we ate some of the best cafeteria
food I have ever tasted. I interviewed her in her relatively small office which
appeared to be only ten by ten feet, in which she had managed to fit two desks.
Her white board was covered with equations like a cliché.
TIFR is one of India’s top research institutions and has
produced world-renowned scientists. Dr. Ramaswamy is the Dean of the Centre for
Applicable Mathematics and does specialized research in partial differential
equations. She explained to me how partial differential equations have a
variety of applications such as weather predictions, engineering, aeronautics
and even medicine; for instance, in calculating how much insulin to give a
patient being treated for diabetes.
Born near Mumbai, Dr. Ramaswamy spent her childhood moving
around India, wherever her father’s job took him and the rest of his family.
Despite the obvious challenges that moving so frequently would pose to a young
girl, Dr. Ramaswamy insists that because she saw all of India as a child, she
received a great education that equipped her to mix with a variety of people.
It has helped her teaching career, as she says, “I am able to handle people
better because of my exposure at a younger age to various cultures.”
From her first acquaintance with the subject, math was the
only path for her. No other subject came close. She liked the rigid boundaries
and the precision: that “yes” or “no”. She also enjoyed the ability to prove
things and to seek out patterns in numbers. However, when I asked her what she
remembers from her childhood, she said that she only remembers playing with her
friends and climbing trees; she did not think of math as a career until later.
Dr. Ramaswamy did have a lot of support at home because her
mother was a math lover herself. However, when she decided to go into research,
her parents were not happy; they wanted her to take a secure bank job as many
in her family had done. However, she insisted on continuing with research. She
had heard of the TIFR from her cousin, and during her college years, Dr.
Ramaswamy was taught by some professors from TIFR. She was immensely fascinated
by them and therefore attracted to a research career. When we talked about the
declining interest in math amongst US school students, she simply said that if
you really understand math, you enjoy it. “It is like playing a game. Once you
enjoy it, there is no stopping you. You’ll go all the way to the end.”
Before Dr. Ramaswamy became a professor in TIFR, she
encountered several challenges as a woman. Once, a professor predicted that a
start-up center would not hire women because they would get married, have a
child, and resign. Ironically, she stayed to complete the course while most of
her male colleagues left. Today, people accept that women are here to stay. However,
even now, she feels there are some disadvantages. For example, while many of
her male colleagues are easily able to spend evenings and extra hours with a
visiting professor, Dr. Ramaswamy is under various pressures to go back home. Travelling
is also a problem; she can only choose one or two trips: “I have to work out an
elaborate plan. Who will take care of the house; who will take care of the family?”
she asked. She feels that men have more networking opportunities around the
world so they are noticed more. She encourages more women to join mathematics
by saying, “The only way anything will change is if there are more voices.”
Dr. Ramaswamy has not just traveled around India; when TIFR
was starting a school of Differential Equations in Bangalore, they sponsored
her trip to France. She spent two-and-a-half years there and did her thesis in Université
Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. Her trip to France enhanced her love of math
since many famous mathematicians stop in Paris for the summer, and she was able
to meet some of them; it was an inspiring experience. She also travels to the
United States and Italy for meetings. Her favorite place is Italy because, “Italy,
somehow, is very close to India in its approach to life and mathematics.”
The part of Dr. Ramaswamy’s job that she most enjoys is
teaching. She loves to explain difficult concepts to students, and when they
finally understand, it makes her happy. Her second favorite part is the
research: looking for new equations, and how to formulate difficult questions
mathematically. She is able to put them together by giving frequent workshops
for undergraduate students in the hope that more girls will join math related
When she is not thinking about math, Dr. Ramaswamy is very
involved with South Indian classical music called “Karnataka” music. She used
to play the veena, a stringed Indian instrument, but now she has no time
although she still attends concerts. She also likes comedy and light-hearted
movies, and detective movies because they are like a puzzle.
Through enormous perseverance and dedication, Dr. Mythily
Ramaswamy has been able to achieve everything that she has today. During her
stay in France she received the Diplôme de Troisième Cycle in 1983, a
doctorate-level degree, and the Docteur de l'Université in 1990 for her thesis.
She says that she has gotten so far in her career because she just loves what
she does. I believe the mathematical community owes a debt to the bank she did
About the Student:
I am a sophomore in the IB program at Vanguard High School
in Florida. I am the founder and president of our school’s Mu Alpha Theta (a mathematics honor society). In addition to math,
I enjoy science subjects and plan to study biomedical engineering. I love to
travel to unusual places and have been to Peru, Turkey, Greece, Finland, and
Russia. I frequently visit India where much of my family resides. I love
origami; I attended the New York Origami Convention in 2010. I have been
playing piano for ten years, do competitive swimming, and am a varsity runner
on our Cross Country team.
2012 AWM Essay Contest
High School Honorable Mention
by Anita Rao
If you build it, they will come!
Spending your summer studying abstract mathematics may not
seem like fun for most people. However, for me participating in a two week
enrichment program in Houston with twenty gifted girls was a dream come true.
The Rice University Mathematical Institute for Young Women is the brainchild of
Dr. Shelly Harvey, and she uses it to introduce rising 9th and 10th grade women
to abstract mathematics through knot theory and its applications. This outreach
program funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant is just one
example of the many different ways Dr. Harvey is changing the world around her.
Despite her relative youth, Dr. Shelly Harvey has already
achieved a great deal. She is a researcher who has solved decades-old open
problems, an inspiring and engaging teacher, a mentor for graduate students,
and a role model for aspiring mathematicians.
Shelly Harvey’s journey began in Rancho Cucamonga, a suburb
of Los Angeles, California. Her father was a high school math teacher and her
mother a hair dresser. Though only her father and uncle had gone to college in
her family, education was stressed and her parents encouraged her to excel. As
a child she always strived to be the best, and found herself to be healthily
competitive. She loved puzzles and mind twisters, and participated in school
sports such as volleyball and track. However, she was not your typical
After graduating from Etiwanda High School, Shelly was
admitted to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to study Industrial Engineering. In her
sophomore year, she came to the realization that mathematics was not just “about
plugging and chugging”, but rather it entailed understanding the foundations of
the subject. One of her professors suggested she pursue a summer program called
Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). She was accepted to the program
at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where she met many like-minded
students and studied a branch of topology called knot theory. She learned to
give talks, and present her research work in weekly meetings. She came away
from the experience understanding the challenges of research and with the fire
in her belly to pursue graduate school.
Still an undergraduate, Shelly was inspired to attend an REU
the following summer at Cornell University. Investigating different areas of
convex geometry led to her first paper “The Voronoi Vectors of a Lattice” which
was presented at the MathFest in Seattle.
Subsequently, she attended Rice University where she studied
under Prof. Tim Cochran. Her doctoral thesis entitled “Higher-order polynomial
invariants of 3-manifolds giving lower bounds for the Thurston norm” extended
the Alexander polynomial for links and general three manifolds. After receiving
her doctorate in 2002, Dr. Harvey was awarded the NSF Mathematical Science
Postdoctoral Fellowship which she spent first at UC San Diego, followed by two
years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, MA.
The theory of knots had become an exciting field of
mathematics, and Shelly Harvey was in the midst of it. Scientists and mathematicians
were encountering knots in a variety of areas such as string theory in Physics,
statistical mechanics, molecular chemistry and DNA strand untangling. One of
the fundamental goals in knot theory is to find a method to determine if
different-looking knots are equivalent. Over a hundred years ago, the French
mathematician Henri Poincaré introduced the concept of “the fundamental group
of a knot” and developed an algebraic metric to measure all possible paths that
can be navigated in the space surrounding a knot. Dr. Harvey's insight was in
realizing that the “fundamental group of the knot” had an underlying algebraic
structure where some paths were more robust than others. In a paper published
in the journal Geometry & Topology,
Dr. Harvey showed that this algebraic structure remained unchanged even in four
dimensions even as the knots were unraveled.
In 2005, Dr. Shelly Harvey joined the mathematics department
at Rice University as its first female tenure-track faculty member. Presently
an Associate Professor, she has supervised several PhD students and
post-doctoral fellows. Her area of interest is in low-dimensional topology
where she continues to produce exciting results. Her career allows her to
travel around the world and interact with the leading researchers in her areas
of interest. In her spare time, she is passionate about music, and collects
Dr. Harvey is not only on the cutting edge in her academic
field, but also endeavors to make her subject accessible to the larger society.
Her service to the community involves organizing workshops and making
presentations to students and teachers in middle schools and high schools. With
many role models like herself for women today, she is confident that in the
future there will be even more representation of women in careers involving
About the Student:
Currently a sophomore at Glenda Dawson High School, I will
be transferring to the residential Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in
Denton, TX for my final two years of high school. I have participated in
science fairs since I was in 7th grade. This year, my math project “Lorenz and
Modular Flows are Knot Similar” won first place at the ExxonMobil Texas Science
and Engineering Fair, and I have been invited to the Intel ISEF at Pittsburgh
in May 2012.
I am a distance runner, endurance biker and a classically
trained dancer passionate about promoting healthful living in the community. As
a member of the Alliance for a Healthier
Generation, I am active in raising awareness about the epidemic of childhood
obesity and poor sleep hygiene among teenagers.