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Dr. Marsha Davis: Defying Statistics

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:35 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:36 PM by AWM Editor ]

2003 AWM Essay Contest:
Honorable Mention in Grades 9-12 Category

By Sarah Tracy

Dr. Marsha Davis was born with dyslexia, a learning disability that is neurological in origin. Dyslexia can be crippling because it causes difficulties with accurate word recognition and decoding abilities. This often leads to problems with reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. Instead of letting dyslexia prevent her from pursuing a career in mathematics, Dr. Davis used her disorder as a catalyst for success. She overcame her learning disability by funneling her creative talents into developing a unique theme-oriented teaching curriculum and visualizing data as a statistician. Her perseverance and ingenuity set her apart from other dyslexics, mathematicians, and educators.

Amazingly, by the age of twenty-seven, Dr. Davis had already accomplished more than most female mathematicians do in a lifetime. In high school, she realized that she could decipher numbers more easily than novels and became fascinated with mathematics. She spent her undergraduate years at Marietta College, where she majored in mathematics and minored in physics. While attending the University of Connecticut graduate school, she earned a masters degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in statistics. Her inimitable ability to visualize mathematical equations and apply thematic concepts to statistical data helped her earn a fellowship and a great deal of respect from her professors and classmates.

Dr. Davis currently teaches a variety of mathematics-based courses at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). Prior to her professorship at ECSU, she taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Mount Holyoke College. Dr. Davis enjoys teaching because "Every class is different, I can be my own boss, and I have the freedom to do what I like with my time." Her dedication to instruction is outstanding. Teaching is always on her mind and she is constantly trying out new teaching styles. Late at night, she dreams up innovative group projects for her students. She makes connections for them with real-world applications in order to help them understand the essence of each subject. Unlike her colleagues, who teach by topic, she picks out a theme and "drives it through." Her unique approach to thematic learning has proven to be extremely effective. For instance, by the end of each term, every calculus student in her classroom understands that a major theme in calculus is rate of change.

Dr. Davis has never let her disorder bar her from achieving her goals. Once again, she conquered her dyslexia by writing a plethora of textbooks and fearlessly confronting her limitations by writing the expository material herself. She is the co-author of "Precalculus: Concepts in Context," a text that emphasizes the appropriate use of technology and context. She added her unique creative flair to the text by incorporating major themes, sections for the students to complete, and labs and projects. In her opinion, "Students learn to do it by doing it, not just watching and learning." She also co-authored a lab manual for precalculus called "Precalculus Functioning in the Real World." Again, she makes mathematical concepts more comprehensible by applying them to real-life situations that students can visualize. Dr. Davis has co-authored many more unconventional texts, including "Mathematics Modeling Our World," a core curriculum for high school.

Her texts are especially interesting because they give students real stories to solve. For example, in one of her precalculus texts, she discusses how to find a linear equation that represents the relationship between the long bones in a person's body and the height of that person. She asks students, "What would that equation do for you?" She answered her own question when she visited the forensic data bank at the University of Tennessee. There, she excitedly reanalyzed bones found on an obscure island that may have belonged to Amelia Earhart. Using a linear equation to calculate the height of the person from their bones, she learned that the person was the same height as Earhart. Consequently, the bones could quite possibly have belonged to Earhart.

Dr. Davis describes another one of her specialties, statistics, as "the art and science of analyzing uncertainty" and "patterns buried in noise." As a statistician, she sifts through enormous amounts of data and looks for trends and patterns amongst the clutter. The elaborate process of coming up with a statistic includes organizing numbers into tables or graphs and using standard deviation to measure the spread of data sets. This is where her uncanny ability to visualize data comes in handy. She is currently working on a project that requires the use of lower level statistics to analyze evaluations of teacher professional development programs in math and science. Her main duty is to organize the ratings that participants give to different workshops.

Dr. Davis's main focus at the moment is curriculum. This year, she was appointed chair of her department at Eastern Connecticut State University. She is currently working on a project which includes writing units for vocational schools to assist them in passing tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Earlier this year, she received a plaque for being on the local school committee for twelve years. Although she is extremely busy, she manages to find time for her family, her four cats, and swimming at the YMCA.

Overcoming dyslexia to become a professor, a statistician, and an author is practically unheard of. Statistics show that most dyslexic adults are often limited in their career choices because their learning disorder prevents them from performing certain tasks. Dr. Davis defies the statistics. Instead of letting her disorder cripple her, she has pushed past her limits by developing the ability to visualize everything from sentences to graphs of data sets. This is her best strength. She uses her special ability every day when she helps college students grasp difficult mathematical concepts and when she extracts patterns from lists of data. Dr. Davis is a remarkable woman and a superb role model for aspiring female mathematicians who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

About the Student: My name is Sarah Tracy. I am a senior at Notre Dame Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. I am currently enrolled in AP Calculus and Physics, and my teachers are, respectively, Mrs. O'Leary and Ms. Joubert. I have always had a keen interest in mathematics and I enjoy approaching problems from different angles. Mrs. O'Leary often tells me I should rewrite calculus. I plan to major in biochemistry in college, which will most certainly keep me on my toes, since it involves a good amount of math. Math is exciting because it is constantly evolving and there are always new things to discover!