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Women In Mathematical Sciences: To Infinity and Beyond! A Biographical Essay on Dr. Toni Galvin

posted Jul 8, 2010, 4:22 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 5:28 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2001 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in Middle School Category and Grand Prize Winner

By: Alexandra McKinney

Some say the "sky is the limit," but this is never true for women in mathematical sciences. The sky isn't the limit, because some women go beyond! Dr. Toni Galvin is a space physicist who works at the University of New Hampshire as a member of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space and of the Department of Physics. This means that she primarily researches the sun, its particles and the heliosphere. Her job isn't exactly like an astronomer's, but the two fields are similar. Space physicists study mainly particles, fields and energies. They also study sun, space, space around planets, particles, comets and asteroids. Astronomers study these sometimes, but they will usually study stellar evolution and cosmology. Wow! Dr. Galvin has a lot of possibilities and a lot of responsibilities in her work. Some of her main responsibilities are to do scientific research, build instruments, and write proposals to get money to fund her latest project. She also teaches at UNH and offers her expertise as an educator for the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium.

To study particles from our sun, Dr. Galvin uses instruments to help her. She uses computers, vacuum chambers, ovens, oscillators, multichannel analyzers, or voltmeters. Sometimes, she even builds her own instruments to catch particles! She will take these particles and study them to learn about where they are from, how much energy they have, and other important information. Currently, Dr. Galvin is working on an instrument called PLASTIC. PLASTIC is an acronym for some scientific terms, but more simply put, it is a tool used to gather particles in space. It will be launched at the end of the year 2005. While a man may have been first on the moon, there are some great female minds exploring space further now!

Dr. Galvin's job may sound very exciting, and it is. However, sometimes instead of making new instruments or discoveries and researching particles, she has to go to meetings, work on budgets, do paperwork, or review other scientists' proposals. In all of these areas, mathematics is also an essential tool. When she was young, Toni remembers watching the first man, a Russian named Yuri Gagarin, going into space. Later in high school, she continued to be fascinated by the launches and returns of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. She vividly remembers viewing these exciting events on television monitors in her school hallways. Even now, Toni gets excited to see a launch. Although at the time, it was male scientists who headed the exploration of this new frontier, Toni never thought about it being off limits to women. Toni's father was a strong influence in how she viewed her choices. He never said, "women don't do that." He was encouraging, and Toni believed she could do anything as long as she was qualified. "Qualified" definitely describes Dr. Galvin when considering her credentials as a professional in the mathematical sciences. Toni received her Bachelor of Science from Purdue University. She earned her masters degree and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, specializing in space physics. She has co-authored over 100 articles in professional journals. She even wrote the entry for "heliosphere" in the World Book Encyclopedia's 1998 edition. Dr. Galvin says to prepare for a career like hers, many math and science courses would be useful. Math courses such as geometry, trigonometry, advanced calculus, differential equations and statistics are just some of the savory offerings in a feast for the space physicist's brain! Certainly, science studies in physics, chemistry geology, oceanography, biology and computer science are likely to be part of the main courses as well.

Dr. Galvin uses a lot of math in her career. She uses physics, as well as a broad range of mathematics for designing instruments to use to collect particles from the sun. For example, she has to determine voltage needs, and she uses mathematical simulations of electrical fields. Statistics are useful when Toni has to take samples of space and determine characteristics. Toni even uses basic math in monitoring her budget! Before coming to the University of New Hampshire in 1997, Dr. Galvin worked at the University of Maryland as an Assistant Research Scientist. During that time, it was rare to find women in her field. It takes persistence and determination to go where no woman have gone before. Some professors even tried to discourage her along the way. Others were encouraging though. Now, there are a lot more opportunities for women in this field. Gender is not important to what you know and your desire to use it. Toni's advice to middle school-aged girls who are interested in this field or any mathematics or science area is basically that you don't have to be mega-smart, just determined and persistent, as well as a good communicator. She points out that you will need to work with computers, and it helps to be familiar with some world languages as well. She says, "Learn from the downs and don't take the ups for granted."

The opportunity to explore the world of Dr. Toni Galvin has taught me about how important mathematics can be for girls who dream of wide open places. I learned that math can be "far-out" and fascinating! If you're lucky enough to be able to check out the new show called "Living With A Star" at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire, you'll meet a real star…Dr. Toni Galvin.

About the author: Like Dr. Toni Galvin, my interview subject, I like to stretch my mind beyond others' expectations. My name is Alexandra Leigh McKinney. I am a sixth grader at Londonderry Middle School. I am in the high math group at school, currently studying pre-algebra. Last year, I had a woman math teacher who really inspired me. She made math exciting and was a very creative mathematician. I was always very interested in mathematics and science, but it has helped to have mentors to nurture my interests. There are so many wonderful things to learn in math and science!

Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM web site.

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