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Dr. Marjorie Senechal: What do Silk, Crystals, Culture, and History Have in Common?

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:43 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:45 PM by AWM Editor ]

2007 AWM Essay Contest: 
College First Place

by Sarah Budrus

What do silk, crystals, culture, and history have in common? Surprisingly, Dr. Senechal proves that the answer to this question is none other than mathematics. Her successes and personal life personifies women's current stature in academia.

1939 saw the birth of a girl named Marjorie, who would grow up to become Dr. Marjorie Senechal. A year after her birth, her father's work moved the family from St. Louis, Missouri to Lexington, Kentucky, where he worked as a doctor in the United States Public Health Service. He treated drug addicts at a long-term residential prison located on a working farm outside of Lexington, where, Senechal reflects “I had the run of the farm,” which she claims, “instilled independence and the ability to amuse myself.” Senechal then cites the “broad outlook” on life she received from the “patients/prisoners [who] came from many parts of the country and many walks of life” indirectly “pointed me towards a field that is unconstrained by language or culture.”

When asked why she chose mathematics, Senechal bursts: “I enjoyed it! Also, unlike laboratory science, math is portable; I saw that as being compatible with raising a family. Most important, I realized early on that it would always challenge me.” With her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago completed, she went off to the Illinois Institute of Technology where she earned her M.S. and PhD studying number theory and complex variables. After working in Brazil on a Fulbright Scholarship, she moved to Smith College in Massachusetts where she teaches today.

Senechal shifted the focus of her studies to study the geometry of numbers, symmetry, and the growth of crystals. When asked what her favorite project was, Senechal answers, “That's a hard question, because I've enjoyed everything I've done. (I've been very lucky.) If I have to choose, I'll say it was writing the book on Quasicrystals and Geometry, because I had to learn so much about so many things in order to do it.”

Senechal's drive to connect mathematics with other areas of academia has led to her becoming the co-editor-in-chief for The Mathematical Intelligencer, which she states is “a forum for discussion of mathematical communities throughout the world, and through all time.” Her interest in combining mathematics with history and culture is revealed in her involvement in the conference: “Mathematics and Narrative at Mykonos.” This conference brought together “mathematicians, historians, philosophers, literary scholars, and artists, to explore the relationships between mathematics and narrative.” Senechal has also collaborated with Helaman Ferguson on a sculpture, “Aperiodic Penrose Alpha.”

Combining her love for mathematics and interest in history, Senechal directed the Northampton Silk Project. This project included two exhibitions, entitled: “From Mulberry to Manufacturing: Northampton Builds an Industry” and “Silk and New England Society, 1730-1930.” During the project, the local community and students built a working silk reeling machine and an early Jacquard loom.

Senechal quotes her hobbies as, the “History of Science, writing, and cycling” and also enjoys gardening, traveling, and reading. Yet, she adds: “I don't have time for hobbies.” This is true because of her commitment to many societies and committees.

Of the current status of her field, Senechal exudes: “The computer is revolutionizing mathematics. The old distinction between 'pure' and 'applied' mathematics is dissolving, along with the boundaries between disciplines. The field is expanding and career opportunities with it.” Her life's work has proved that mathematics applies to much more than simply punching numbers, but to everything from sculpture to silk, and narrative to history. Senechal is certainly an inspiring woman, thus I will leave you with her advice for young people interested in pursuing her fascinating field: “Go for it!”