When I was in the sixth grade at a private Catholic school in Illinois, I had a nun who loved mathematics as a teacher. Her passion for the subject rubbed off on everyone. Math became a fun thing that we got to do for hours every day when other students only got to do it for an hour. One day, out of curiosity, I went up to my teacher and asked her, “What is a mathematician? What does a mathematician do?” She said, “A mathematician is someone who makes up their own homework problems.” I didn’t understand this, but she had a big smile on her face, and I thought, “Well it must be fun for some people.” Little did I know that years later I would be doing that very thing.
I was raised in the Midwest, partly in Illinois and then in Wisconsin. My father emigrated from Havana, Cuba, and my mother was a first generation Italian American. In Wisconsin, I was known as the “foreign exchange student” because there were no other nonwhite students at my school.
I left my hometown as soon as I got out of high school and went to a more diverse area for college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Up to that point, I hadn’t realized how much diversity, or rather a lack of diversity, had affected me growing up. It wasn’t until I took a break from school and moved to California, where I met other people of mixed heritage like myself, that I realized there was nothing unusual about the discrimination I faced throughout my childhood. I finally understood why no one would talk to me.
Although I knew I loved math, I never seriously considered pursuing mathematics in school. No one had encouraged me to pursue it early on in life, and I never knew of mathematicians, especially not Cuban American woman mathematicians! Eventually, I began taking math classes at a community college in San Francisco and remembered what I had been missing. Most students in my college classes had big plans to get degrees from four-year universities, so they thought it was weird for me to work so hard in a difficult math class without any serious intentions about working in the field of mathematics. Eventually, some older student friends of mine convinced me to give college more thought. Finally I was being told, “Of course you can!” instead of “Why would someone like you be interested in that?” Eventually, I went to school at the University of California, Berkeley, and majored in mathematics.
Now, I am teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and if a student asked me today what a mathematician was, I’d still use my sixth grade teacher’s answer. Math research is about doing something you love and not being told you have to do it. The way many mathematicians start is to form a hypothesis, or educated guess, involving a mathematical idea. Next, they proceed by trying to prove other ideas or “theorems” that are based on logic. Logic is a set of ideas centered on common sense and theories proven to be true. In this way, mathematicians can be philosophers. They look for new ways to prove already existing truths no one has thought of yet, and many of these ideas can be used in daily life!
Every time you buy something or build, you’re using math principles. The whole world depends on mathematical principals, from building skyscrapers and airplanes to sending email all over the world. Knowing the language of numbers can help us make important decisions and better perform everyday tasks. It’s a great life, if you like math and want to write your own homework problems for a change.