I majored in math in school, and my college’s math department has a site devoted to female mathematicians. Mathematicians from Sophie Germaine to Helen Abbot Merrill (the mathematician who popped up when I opened the page) to Ada Lovelace (the person this day is named after) have their own page, and the site is a great resource to convince yourself that not all mathematicians are dead white guys.
These mathematicians have accomplished a lot in their lifetimes, and some of them are still alive and finding results of interest. Wonderful and accomplished as they are, I’m not here to talk about them.
Let’s talk about mathematicians I have worked with: my fellow ASC math majors.
During my second semester of calculus at a local college during my senior year of high school, I was one of five female students in a class of twenty to twenty-five. I was certainly the only one who spoke in the class as the other women drowned in a sea of testosterone.
This class made me want to study math in more depth, in part because I was planning to write a world based on math. Then I arrived at the women’s college I got my degree from. Besides being a special snowflake who zoomed through the major and sold her soul to the math department (don’t worry; they offered cookies), I met a group of math majors who knew a lot about the subject, supported each other, and welcomed anyone who wanted to enter math into the fold.
We held study parties before tests, studying our own thing and speaking only when we had a question, but no one minded. We holed up in someone’s room and worked on problem sets, complaining about how hard they were. We’d leave these problems unfinished and arrange to meet the next morning and someone would stumble in late because they slept in thanks to our staying up late the night before. When someone was stuck on a problem, someone knew how to explain the problem, and when all of us were, we bounced ideas off each other until something stuck. We’ve found the entire class in the math center before class, trying to figure a problem or studying for a quiz, and the professor would walk in and joke that we should just hold class in there. (We didn’t because the math center was open for business.) We’d laugh, we’d grumble, we’d wave our hands around and talk really quickly in realization, but we would never give up, and we’d never tell another to give up.
Despite all this, we weren’t a bunch of complete mathheads, no matter what some of them may tell you about me. We had non-mathematical interests. One math major in time there played ultimate frisbee; another played cello; another enjoyed politics; yet another, like me, writes. Those combined interests led to a richer experience, both in and out of math: different backgrounds, interests, and points of view that eventually combined to give us the strong mathematical community that I grew to love.
I wrote this for Ada Lovelace Day 2010. Missed it this year? Join in next year!