Math is Hard—That's Why They Love It
Four post-baccalaureate students are spending a year at Smith, drawn by their love for math. They are (left to right) Emily Gunawan, Amanda Cangelosi, Sarah Rathnam and Agnieszka Rec. Photo by Judith Roberge.
In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie chanted "math class is tough," causing a storm of protest among women's advocates working to encourage girls to pursue careers in mathematics. Sixteen years later, women remain underrepresented in mathematics, a situation more related to social influences than intrinsic aptitudes.*
With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the college, the Smith Center for Women in Mathematics is attracting young women who find the "toughness" of higher mathematics exciting and rewarding.
The center's junior year program for visiting undergraduates and postbaccalaureate program address two concerns: keeping talented women in the pipeline and helping those who didn't take enough math as undergraduates. In addition to choosing from extensive mathematics and statistics courses at Smith and four area colleges, visiting students take a seminar that includes a lecture series; undergraduate curriculum review; introduction to mathematical research and writing; and discussions on career paths, graduate school and the GREs. Everyone has the opportunity to join a research team with a Smith faculty member. Financial aid is supported by the NSF grant and Smith.
Four postbaccalaureate program participants spoke about their love of math and the opportunities Smith's program provides.
* See the research report of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, at www.smith.edu/newssmith/kellogg.
Agnes is a 2008 Yale graduate in math and humanities, exploring mathematics more fully to clarify her career plans.
"I love the sort of thinking math entails. In history or literature, there seem to be so many interpretations. In math, if I say something is irreducible, that has a very specific meaning. I like the fact that math is hard because it's satisfying to discover something new from what didn't seem to make sense. There's a great feeling of accomplishment in resolving a difficult problem.
"Being part of a close math community is a pleasant change for me. We had brilliant mathematicians at Yale, and some gave dazzling lectures, but you either understood their work or you didn't. Smith's mathematicians focus on teaching; they want to be sure we understand the material. When I have questions, the professor is accessible.
"I'm deciding between graduate studies in math or in history. Part of me thinks I could be a better historian than a mathematician, and part of me thinks I would be a better historian for having studied math. I don't want to give up either area of study."
Amanda obtained her degree in math education from Utah State and enjoyed teaching high school for four years, but she missed the intellectual stimulation of college classes. After she obtained a masterís in statistics, her desire to study math increased. When a professor gave her a Smith brochure, she realized that the center seemed a perfect test of how far she really wanted to go in math.
"I really like pure math, and I wanted the background to feel comfortable and competent in graduate studies. Now I'm learning exactly what I wanted to learn—how to be a mathematician. The students are serious, and the academic culture is pleasantly different from a large university. I feel more comfortable focusing fully on my work. At the end of this program, I'll either begin graduate school and study algebra or teach high school. Right now, I'm leaning toward graduate school.
"My love of math stems from wanting to see the connections I can find in mathematics. The different fields—algebra, geometry, typology—are ultimately all the same. The larger math community is discovering how these areas relate to one another—the Theory of Everything—and I want to be part of that search, to be immersed in it. I can't not try to understand."
Emily graduated from Wells College in 2005. She didn't think her background was strong enough for the doctoral program she wanted, so she decided to work a few years and improve her math preparation. She thought the Smith program, which she found online, offered the right exposure.
"I wanted classes to fill the gaps in my undergraduate work, and as a women's college graduate, I expected the Smith environment to be supportive. I didn't expect to gain the confidence I have to succeed as a doctoral student and become a mathematician. A community of women mathematicians and supportive faculty isn't easy to find, and it has a big impact on my learning. I am planning to enter a math program in Moscow and then apply to grad school in fall of 2009.
"Math allows you to find solutions that seem clear, visible and true. If you have proven something is true, you can say 'that is true.' I find great satisfaction in that aspect of math."
Sarah graduated from Dartmouth in 2008 as a French and pre–med major. After deciding against medical school, she wasn't sure how to apply her math and science background. She had a number of friends and family who were connected to Smith and also saw the math program on Smith's Web site.
"I'm experiencing math in a different way now. The people in my undergrad classes were often focused on specific math applications such as for investment banking. I wanted to learn more about pure math.
"I'm not sure I have a passion for math, but I realized that people don't usually switch in and out of medicine and that I didn't want a single discipline to occupy most of my life. Math is part of many disciplines; if you do math well, you become a logical thinker who can do a number of things well. I like studying something that can lead to many possibilities."