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The Perseverance of a Woman in Actuarial Science

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:12 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:13 PM by AWM Editor ]

2005 AWM Essay Contest: 
Grade 9-12 First Place

By Tyler Wottrich

Nowadays, college is recognized as a critical component of a person's education, and one's entire high school education is generally geared toward college preparation. Young people commonly develop a taste for what kind of careers they would like early on in their lives. Nancy Myers, a property and casualty actuary, was born and raised in a time when this was not so. A smart kid in a small town, a woman mathematician in a time of male dominated academics, a married woman pursuing her own career in the 1960's, Nancy did not have an easy time doing what she loved. When I asked to interview her for this essay contest, she said she thought I should find someone more prestigious than she to interview. After our interview over lunch, I knew that I could not have picked a better interviewee. Nancy's life is a case study in pursuing what you love despite any obstacles.

Nancy grew up in a small town in Missouri in the 1940's (I surmised this date; she refused to tell me exactly how old she was). She attended public schools there, and realized partway through high school that she didn't fit in because she was smarter than most of her friends. After graduating high school, Nancy went to college for the thing she knew she liked best: math. Having earned a National Merit Scholarship (which, in those days, meant a full ride anywhere), Nancy's path through college was already paved. However, since her father was the only member of the family tree who had gone to college, neither Nancy nor her family realized the value of a full scholarship to college. Nancy spent two years at a small Baptist community college before transferring to the University of Missouri with her new husband, who was also a math major.

After graduating from the University of Missouri, Nancy decided to follow her husband into graduate school. Not knowing what to expect, Nancy was extremely dismayed to receive letters of rejection saying that women were not accepted into graduate mathematics programs. Indeed, Nancy and her husband eventually attended the only school that advertised its acceptance of women mathematicians, the University of Minnesota. Even at the University of Minnesota, however, Nancy was usually the only woman in her classes and faced pressure because of that. "As the only woman in my class, there was this sort of pressure on me to always do things correctly. I remember one day the professor asking me if a [male] classmate's given proof was written correctly. It was not, but how was I to say that without shaming the male student by being corrected by a female?" (Interview with Nancy Myers, 10/16/05). Throughout her education, Nancy had to fight against the stereotype prevalent in the 1960's that women were supposed to marry and have children, not pursue their own careers. Nancy succeeded despite these obstacles in earning her master's degree in mathematics, and proceeded to settle in Minneapolis with her husband and newborn daughter.

Nancy began her career as an actuary mostly by happenstance, according to her. "At the time, career prospects for mathematicians were very poor...so, when a friend mentioned that St. Paul Fire and Marine was looking for actuaries, I began working there and taking the actuarial exams." After passing all 10 exams in 6 years, Nancy took a job working for St. Paul Company. After two years there, Nancy changed jobs and began employment with the State of Minnesota as the first actuary ever to work there.

Although Nancy always downplays the amount of math she uses in her job, I can say confidently that she is just being modest. Nancy has the very difficult job of interpreting full-scale statistical models for people who have little background in higher mathematics. Not only does this task require complete understanding of the models, it requires absolute clarity in one's concept of their practical interpretations. When Nancy insists that she doesn't do any "real" math, she means that she doesn't crunch any numbers. What she actually does requires at least as much mathematical prowess as creating models.

Despite everything that stood in her way, Nancy succeeded in achieving the career she desired most. From a small town, to an academic field dominated by men, to a job market littered with unemployed mathematicians, Nancy rose above the fray. For as long as I have known her, she has inspired me to love math, and her account of success has further inspired me to continue pursuing my own mathematical interests. I owe her a great debt as a friend and advisor, and applaud her for her lifetime's achievements.

About the student: 
I am a senior at Roseville Area High School currently taking all of my courses at the University of Minnesota through PSEO (Post Secondary Education Options). I was enrolled in the UMTYMP program for 5 years and successfully graduated from the program last year, after which I continued on to take a course in combinatorics. I am currently taking a course in probabilistic methods. I am very interested in pursuing a career as an actuary and am extremely interested in all areas of abstract and theoretical mathematics. I plan to continue an extensive study of math for the rest of my life.