2013 AWM Essay Contest
Grand Prize Winner
by Rebecca Myers
What is the probability of becoming a brilliant mathematician after growing up on the tough side of town? Professor Sara Billey could tell you.
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.