MATHEMATIC, NOT ENIGMATIC

By Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University of Utah Marketing and Communications

Picture a mathematician. Is it a man with wild hair scribbling incomprehensible symbols on a blackboard? Is it someone like Charlie Eppes from “NUMB3RS,” prone to episodes of preternatural clairvoyance filled with floating equations and sudden flashes of critical insight? Whoever it is, does the thought of complex math fill you with dread?

If so, six graduate students in mathematics would like to change your mind.

On Saturday, March 11, the students will present a program titled “Math Medley: A Taste of Modern Research” at the Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City from 2-4 p.m. Admission to the event and the museum’s daylong Puzzles & Pi Jubilee, is included in regular museum admission. For 10 minutes each, the students will talk about their math research, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. The topics include guiding unmanned vehicles, the randomness in cell processes and imagining an alternate universe. (See complete list of speakers and topics below)

The Math Medley arose from doctoral student Erin Linebarger’s participation last fall in a 3 Minute Thesis competition. Linebarger and other competitors faced the task of boiling their entire research program into an engaging, concise three-minute presentation. Linebarger, who researches computational methods for navigating unmanned vehicles, won one of two audience favorite awards. Judge Vaiva Kulbokaite of the Leonardo told contestants that they were welcome to contact her about public speaking opportunities, and Linebarger took up the judge’s offer.

The event is hosted by the U chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics (AWM), of which Linebarger is president. “Math became accessible to me as a result of having female mentors,” she says. “I always saw myself as more likely to go into the arts until a female math teacher in high school, who I looked up to, called me a math rock star. Then I started to think about math differently, as something I could be good at and something that could be exciting to pursue.”

The Leonardo event is one of several AWM efforts to make math more accessible and relatable to the public. Other efforts have included a workshop to help graduate students communicate math to general audiences and a monthly lunch to discuss issues of gender and race representation in STEM fields.

Linebarger and her colleagues hope to put a friendly, accessible face on a field fraught with stereotypes. In-born math ability isn’t necessary, Linebarger says. “In reality, anyone can do math. We all had to work to get to where we are in this graduate program.” And math isn’t just about numbers. It’s a creative field, with new discoveries made all the time. (See here and here for recent research news from math professors.) Also, mathematicians are far from antisocial. “There is so much collaboration in math that it would be hard to make it far without interacting and collaborating with others,” Linebarger says.

The Math Medley-ers invite the public to come and break another stereotype: That there is no math left to do. No math background is necessary. And no, there will not be a test.

Presenters:

  • Erin Linebarger, uncertainty quantification: computational methods for unmanned vehicle guidance
  • Jenny Kenkel, commutative algebra: an abstraction of the integers
  • Dan Smolkin, algebraic geometry: classifying curves
  • Samantha Hill, mathematical biology: modeling ecological systems
  • Adam Brown, p-adic numbers: imagining an alternate universe
  • Chris Miles, disorder from diffusion: how cells use randomness to their advantage