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Shapes with No Boundaries: The Life of Krystyna Kuperberg

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:22 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:24 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2003 AWM Essay Contest:
Honorable Mention in Grades 6-8 Category

By Maja Wichrowska

Imagine an area of mathematics where shapes know no boundaries and can bend and twist like a piece of rubber. It is often said of people who study this odd subject, topology, that they can be found dipping a coffee cup into a doughnut because these two objects are "topologically equivalent." One such mathematician, Krystyna Kuperberg, was fascinated by the idea of a theoretical and abstract math that can transform and evolve. Mrs. Kuperberg, incredibly talented in her area, was first mesmerized by mathematics in the small town of Tarnow, Poland.

The minute Mrs. Kuperberg entered the classroom as a young girl, she found that she was enchanted by the various numbers scrawled across the chalkboard. She enjoyed attending school in general, but especially watching as the teacher would explain challenging problems in math class. Her parents, both of whom had a higher education, encouraged her throughout her scholastic career, agreeing when Mrs. Kuperberg decided to major in mathematics. In 1962, she followed in the footsteps of her brother, Andrzej Trybulec, and entered the prestigious University of Warsaw.

At Warsaw University, Andrzej Trybulec exclaimed that the only classes worth attending were Borsuk's lectures in topology. Karol Borsuk was intelligent and always well-prepared. One of his greatest qualities was that he would ask questions in and out of the classroom. If he did not know something, he would not hesitate to ask anyone who was more knowledgeable. He was the perfect role model for Mrs. Kuperberg and might have been one of the reasons she began to teach.

During Borsuk's seminar for undergraduates, he introduced the concept of research to students like Mrs. Kuperberg at an early stage. This premature comprehension of what a real job might be like paved the way for her, inspiring her to become a university professor. After Borsuk's lectures, Mrs. Kuperberg would find herself longing to study topology and math in general. As a result, Krystyna Kuperberg considered the option of teaching. At a university, one is automatically given the opportunities and environment in which one is able to discover ideas for him- or herself. This attracted Mrs. Kuperberg and so, once she and her husband, Wlodzimierz Kuperberg, whom she had met at one of Borsuk's discussions, had moved to the United States, she became a teacher at Auburn University.

Shown through her hard work as a professor at college, Mrs. Kuperberg was inspired by her mother's keen working spirit. Mrs. Kuperberg's mother, Barbara Trybulec, had always been interested in gaining a higher education. As a young girl, she had attended an all-girl private high school. At some point in the 1920's, she took part in a mathematics competition and won. This was almost unheard of, and many people were shocked that her school had even been allowed her to participate. Back then and even in modern times, a hard wall was set against equality between the sexes. It was unimaginable that a woman could possibly even match up to a man, especially in such male-oriented subjects as math and science. Having her own mother overcome barriers like these, Mrs. Kuperberg felt motivated to find a job in mathematics, even though this surely placed conflict into her life.

This much sought-after work came after Mrs. Kuperberg proved many important theories in an area of dynamic systems within math. She became an important figure in current mathematics and was known by some as the greatest living female mathematician in the world. She enjoyed teaching and helping her students think the way she did. Mrs. Kuperberg always relishes the company of students who acknowledge the fact that they care for math. It often feels fulfilling to her when students understand the subject and pose interesting and challenging questions for the teacher. Mrs. Kuperberg never wants to hear that "math is boring."

Overall, Mrs. Kuperberg is a brave woman trying to find her way through uncharted territory. She does not understand why society shuns math and calls it "a male thing" when clearly, proven by her own success, the subject does not have to be gender oriented. Krystyna Kuperberg's understanding of topology and various achievements in math have helped her pave the way for future women mathematicians.

About the Student: My name is Maja Wichrowska and I'm a 7th grader at Northwestern middle school in Alpharetta, GA. I've always liked math and especially logic problems. Recently, I have become interested in logic puzzles such as the Rubik's cube. I find math to be an easy subject, but enjoy doing challenging problems. I'm currently in an Algebra I class.