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Dr. Rita Hibschweiler: Exploring the Pure Beauty of Mathematics

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:34 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:41 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2007 AWM Essay Contest: 
Grades 9-12 First Place

by Elizabeth Faiella

When Rita Hibschweiler’s father arrived home one night carrying the heavy toolbox that he used daily in his job as a sheet metal construction worker, he told his young daughter, “If your toolbox is in your head, you don’t have to carry one.” Now a professor of mathematics at the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Rita Hibschweiler says that these words, and a fascination with her father’s unusual facility for working with numbers, encouraged her to reach beyond the limits of her family’s working class circumstances by going to college to become a mathematician. 

Growing up in a small town near Buffalo, New York, Hibschweiler was impressed by the difficulty of math. Her interest in it began when one of her grade-school teachers presented math in such a challenging way as to make Hibschweiler begin to take the subject very seriously. It was then that she realized there was substantial content in mathematics, and that its difficulty was an indicator of its significance. Math was, to her, utterly unlike any other subject; it forced her to stop and think, to draw pictures, and to creatively figure out the correct answer. Hibschweiler, not a fan of taking the easy way out, decided that mathematics was the subject for her. 

However, Hibschweiler’s path to success was not an easy one, and she was not sure how far she would be able to take her mathematical interest. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and she had to pay her own way. Despite these obstacles, she attended the State University of New York at Buffalo. Commuting to save money, she worked her way through school, largely isolated from the college community because of her distance from campus, her intense work schedule, and her strong dedication to studying math. In retrospect, Hibschweiler wishes she could have gone to a football game, or some other extracurricular events; still, it was here that her love for mathematics grew, as did her fascination with literature and history, subjects she took as electives. 

College was also where Hibschweiler encountered some of her most inspirational role models: her mathematics professors. They had mastered what she was working so hard to learn, and she found herself wondering, “Has it always been so easy for them?” and, “Will I ever find math so easy?” Today, Hibschweiler is still immensely impressed by her undergraduate professors, and says it’s a thrill that she had such exceptional teaching. 

Going on to graduate school, Hibschweiler was faced with new challenges. Professors were more remote from their students in this setting and she found the atmosphere to be intimidating. In addition she began to feel the pressures of being a woman in her chosen field. The further she advanced in her education, the fewer women she encountered. Yet she did not allow this fact to impede her progress. After receiving her master’s degree, she taught at a community college for a year, and then, living out a dream that had begun many years ago with the encouragement of her parents, she received her Ph.D. from State University of New York at Albany. Finally, recalling what an excellent teacher her mother had been, Hibschweiler accepted a job with the University of New Hampshire. 

Currently, as a full professor of mathematics at the University, Dr. Hibschweiler specializes in complex analysis which is a type of pure mathematics. Hibschweiler realizes that pure math may never find an application in daily life. Nonetheless, she remains driven, working on complex mathematical problems simply “for the beauty of figuring something out.” 

A recipient of one of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences awards for excellence in teaching at her university, Hibschweiler teaches undergraduate calculus as well as several graduate classes. Although she considers herself to be a tough teacher, she thinks she “probably should be tougher.” Remembering the grade-school mathematics teacher who pushed her to greater heights in her understanding of math, she believes that it is human nature for students to strive to meet the expectations of their teachers. The higher the expectations, the higher the students will reach. She makes it clear that her courses are not focused solely on solving complex mathematical equations; if students come away from her class with nothing else, she hopes they will have learned clear thinking and clear communication. 

However, Hibschweiler’s work extends beyond the boundaries of the classroom. As graduate program coordinator for the department, she recently helped compile the winning applications of mathematics graduate students for several competitive awards. This, says Hibschweiler, was one of the most exciting moments of her career. Another thrilling experience for her was co-writing and publishing a book titled Fractional Cauchy Transforms. She enjoys the variety that her mathematics affords her -- a combination of research, writing, and teaching that allows her to switch from one to the other before a particular task gets frustrating. 

What does Hibschweiler love most about math? She loves its significance, its consistency, its orderliness and also its creativity. Pure math, she says, is “wildly creative.” Simply coming up with a good question to ask is the mark of a creative mathematician. In spite of the creativity inherent in her work, Hibschweiler emphasizes the importance of a “work hard, play hard” approach to mathematics. Sometimes she finds that she can’t see a new idea if it is right in front of her. She makes time for other creative activities such as cooking, gardening, and yoga. But even when she is relaxing, she finds herself thinking about problems at odd hours; she simply can’t help it. 

Having met Professor Hibschweiler in person, I am truly inspired by her passion for math and her dedication to her students. Any student, whether pursuing a career in math or elsewhere, will find admirable examples to follow in the story of her past, in her devotion to her field of study and in her teaching philosophy: “It is a way to help someone else, and I think that’s a very big deal.” 

About the student: As a senior in high school, I am looking forward to attending college next year. I still don't know where I will be attending, but I am having a great time visiting and comparing schools. Although I do not intend to pursue a career in math (right now I am considering a psychology major in college), I loved my high school mathematics courses, particularly Algebra 2. I also enjoy writing, singing, playing the violin, running, and playing Ultimate Frisbee with my friends.