What do famed inventor and founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, and a mathematician from the Pacific Island of Guam have in common? Magic squares! I’m working on a project with one of my students about “magic squares,” which are square grids filled with whole numbers. The magic is that the sum total of each row, column, and diagonal is the same. These math puzzles have been around for over 3,000 years. The oldest one on record is from China. Between helping write the Constitution and conducting experiments to harness electricity, Ben Franklin worked on his own special squares. And they’re huge: numbers1 through 64 arranged in an 8x8 grid. Although they are not traditional magic squares (the diagonals do not match the sum), they have some very unique properties. For instance, half of every row is half of the magic sum. He also made a 16 x 16 square, which uses all the numbers from 1 through 256!
Imagine fiddling with these numbers so they match up like that. One of the research questions out there asks: How many different kinds of “Franklin squares” are there? Can you count them? Or is there a mathematical way of finding them all? My student and I are trying to answer some of those questions. You may think that being a mathematician just means solving much longer problems than the ones in your homework. But math, like any science, is about new ideas. We wonder how the world around us works and look for patterns that can help us make sense of it. Puzzles are important because they help us visualize abstract math. Then we can use everything we’ve learned so far to find patterns and look for different solutions.
I did not become seriously interested in math until I came to the mainland to attend Loyola Marymount University. I was born and raised on the island of Guam, which is officially United States territory. It is tropical and peaceful, and most of my high school classmates still live and work in Guam. It is hard to leave behind your family since most of us grow up being very close. But I knew at an early age that I would have to move one day to fulfill my goal of going to college and getting my Ph.D.
Growing up financially unstable, I wanted to get to the point where I could take care of my family, and I knew that education was the key to having this privilege. There are not very many opportunities for higher education on an island that is only 10 miles long and 30 miles wide! But my teachers were dedicated. They would tell me, Go to the best college you can, do the best that you can, and go as far as you can go.
After completing my master’s degree at University of California, Berkeley and my Ph.D. at New Mexico State University, I became an assistant professor in mathematics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I teach classes every day and work on research projects. I’m also writing grant applications for an undergraduate summer research program at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. Undergraduates will be able to work on current research topics, which can make a difference as they decide whether to pursue a career in mathematics. One of my goals is to increase opportunities, so more minorities seek math degrees. I am the first Chamorro woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, but I do not want to be the last!
Being a professor is a demanding job, but the rewards are worth every effort. I am in a highly visible career, where many students of color and women alike see in me that they too can achieve their dreams in the sciences and mathematics. I am a mentor, advisor and a source of support and encouragement to my students. If you love science or mathematics, don’t give up and don’t give in. Don’t give up your natural talents for anybody else and don’t give in to anyone or anything that tells you, “College is not for you. A master’s degree is not for you. A Ph.D. is not for you. ”
What can you do with your math degree? Mathematics will open so many doors of opportunity. It trains you to ask the right questions and gives you the power to find the right answers. This is an important skill in every career and in every science! Start out on the right foot now by getting to know your teachers, and appreciate all that they do. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize it was really their feet that kept those doors open for me all along.