How I got my Ph D

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Recently, one of my writing buddies asked me about how I got a Ph D in Applied Mathematics, so I thought I’d tell a little bit of the story. Of course, next time I tell it, I’ll remember completely different things, but hang on, here’s today’s version.

It all started when I was a little girl. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’m not kidding. My mother thought I was a very bright child, and she was very proud of me. Also, my mother always wanted to be a mathematician, but she didn’t believe she was smart enough (uh, she became a chemist), so, in her mind, becoming a mathematician was the best. My father got his doctorate in material science, and went on to teach and do research at Arizona State University, and so it was in the air we breathed: all of us children were expected to do great things.

That meant that her smart daughter – me –  grew up with the idea that math was a woman’s career, and that she could and should pursue it. Although, like all smart kids, I was teased (in those days, we didn’t have the nerd word. Instead, I was called a brain), and I tried to hide my grades from my peers, by the time I hit high school I realized those teasers were envious, and I (mostly) stopped paying attention to them.

I’m reading The Only Woman in the Room, Why Science is Still a Boys Club, and the author, Eileen Pollack, talks about the lack of support and encouragement she got from her parents and teachers. I gather that a lot of girls have this problem, but I almost had the opposite one. My parents pushed me to excel in math and science. They talked me up to my teachers, and I don’t remember ever being told anything other than that I was smart enough to do whatever I wanted. I’m not generally a very confident person, but the brainwashing worked. I also had the good luck to go to a great set of public schools, with some wonderful teachers, who prepared me well for college. After reading Dr. Pollack’s story, I’m glad I chose a state university, where I could excel, instead of being lost in the midst of so many other bright kids. That confidence in my innate abilities, and the fact that I never felt held back because of my gender, is no doubt why I was able to go to graduate school, finish, and do research.

Fantasizing about the arts

Still, I loved music and fiction, and hoped to either be a professional musician or a writer. Both of those ambitions were dashed quickly once I started college. My first English teacher, an arrogant graduate student who smoked a pipe, wore a tweed jacket with patches, and sat on the front of the desk while he pontificated, gave me a D on my term paper, and made me think English majors were total jerks. I edged towards music, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the required music history. I just wanted to play the flute, not memorize which composer wrote which symphony and be able to distinguish between Mozart and early Beethoven after five notes, or whatever. Creative writing and music had one other major strike against them – the fiction of starving artists.

Math and Physics

Which led me back to math and physics. I knew I was good at those. With my advisor’s help, I looked at possible majors, given the courses I’d already taken, and figured out that I’d graduate faster in a weird little major called Engineering Mathematics, which was basically applied math, only with some engineering classes thrown in. So that’s what I did. There were only four students in my year with that major. Three guys and me, and we had a lot of our classes together. Maybe that’s why it didn’t seem weird to me that I was the only woman, because I had my little gang. Also, even though it was the late seventies, there were always at least a couple of other women in my courses (except one summer school course in Thermodynamics).

Me as Bulldog

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I was a tough, driven kid, and I always thought school was fun. I loved learning the laws of physics, how to make a computer do what I told it to do, and how to solve all kinds of equations (I loved learning french, philosophy, too). Maybe the University of Arizona wasn’t all that difficult, but I seemed to impress my professors. My advisor, a modest gentle man named George Lamb (who I later learned was fairly famous in my field), encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I thought about going to work for some company, running computer codes, and feared I’d be bored to death, so I followed his advice, took the GREs, and somehow was accepted to the small Applied Mathematics Department at Caltech (I still don’t get it, guys. Dr. Lamb must have given you a snow job). When I started grad school, I was pretty excited at the shiny future ahead of me.

This is getting long, so I guess I should cut it short and just say that I did what I’ve always done, and bulldogged my way through my courses, exams, and thesis project. I enjoyed the first year (though it was about four times as difficult as being an undergraduate), then I began to have my doubts that I would really want to do math for the rest of my life. Still, I pushed through them after bucket loads of serious soul-searching, hours of such dread I couldn’t eat and lost many pounds, a divorce, a new marriage, and a lot of grey hairs. Maybe I’ll write about this journey later.

Thanks to Omar Franco at freeimages.com for the photo of the graduate and Philip Rassel for the bulldog.

2 thoughts on “How I got my Ph D

  1. True, Andrew. Thanks for reading this. Well, it obviously leaves out a lot of things! That was a fun summer, although my project was pretty lame…

  2. Awesome biography. You should include that you were selected to take part in the undergraduate research participation program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois the summer of 1977.

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