Cool Girls with Tag: math

Eugenia Cheng

Name: Eugenia Cheng
Age: 38
Location: Chicago
Occupation: Mathematician and pianist

eugenia-piano-resize-200Britain-born Eugenia Cheng knew at a young age that she wanted to be a mathematician or pianist, but didn’t know that she would grow up to be a wild success at both. Today Eugenia has brought her love of math to ink and paper, writing a new book on the subject called How to Bake Pi.

As a child, she began playing piano at only three years old, and couldn’t find a teacher willing to instruct such a young student until she was the age of five. She also started playing violin at three, but preferred the piano due to how self-sufficient it could be. “Which is funny because now my favorite thing to do with the piano is collaborate with singers,” Eugenia says.

As for her love beyond music, her attraction to mathematics also began at an early age, and that natural, youthful curiosity still hasn’t quit.
eugenia-cake-resize-200“I think I never stopped being the toddler who keeps asking the question ‘Why?’ until all the adults are fed up with them! For me, mathematics provides the most satisfying and irrefutable answers to the question ‘Why?’ at the end of a long string of ‘Whys’,” she explains. But that’s not to say that getting older and more proficient with her skills has made things less vivacious or fun. “The best thing about being an adult is that nobody can really tell me what to do! I can eat chocolate for breakfast, eat ice cream in midwinter, and stay up all night if I feel like it,” she jokes.

While music and math may seem different, Eugenia sees the similarities. “There is a lot of structure in music that is very mathematical to me, but that’s also because to me mathematics is all about structure,” she says. But she also sees how certain artists, like Bach, Wagner, and Chopin, jive with the more creative, less linear parts of her thought process.

eugenia-illuminated-resize“For me personally, music is relief from mathematics,” she admits. “Math is all about logic; music is all about emotion. I balance myself out with those two opposite extremes.” Much like finally solving a complex problem, uniting both of her loves is about striking a harmonious chord!

One might expect such a successful author, mathematician, and musician to have to conform to a disciplined, dull schedule to maximize every hour of the day, but Eugenia keeps her daily life fairly unrestricted, save for a little bit of routine to keep her sleep habits in line with the waking world. “My favourite bedtime is 4am, and then I get up around 9 or 10. However at the moment I’m trying to get up at 6:30am, I then force myself not to look at my phone or computer but to sit and think about pure research for a while,” she says. The rest of a typical day is spent writing and editing, cooking, exercising, practicing piano, and socializing.

eugentia-bagel-resizeEugenia’s next missive is to illuminate some of the lesser-known aspects of the math world, and to reach out to those who may feel distanced from the field itself. She hopes to show people how math can be both “fun and beautiful, not that awful hated subject in high-school.” Her goal is not just to educate, but to inspire. And to young women in particular who might be struggling to find their footing in the world of mathematics, Eugenia has some clever words of wisdom, “Remember: a lot of boys who say they find it easy are actually getting it all wrong!”

As for the future, Eugenia has big dreams, but for someone as talented as her they’re more than possible, they’re as probable and logical as math itself. “I hope to reach more and more people with both mathematics and music, and break down unnecessary boundaries around things so that everyone can share the things I love most,” she says. “I also hope we can get to a point where we don’t need female role models any more, because everyone knows that women can do all the things that men can do.”

For her inspiring triumphs in both mathematics and music, and for writing books that trigger thought and discussion, we think Eugenia Cheng is one Cool Girl!

Kathryn Nyman

Name:  Kathryn Nyman
Age:  38
Location:  Salem, Oregon
Occupation: Mathematician and college professor

Wisconsin native Kathryn Nyman wants you to know that taking a knife to a chocolate torte isn’t just a delicious way to share some sweets. “One of my recent projects has to do with cake-cutting, which is the study of how to divide up goods in such a way that everyone feels like they got the best piece. While it may not sound like there are any uses of cake-cutting beyond a birthday party, the theory actually has applications to dividing land, inheritance, mining rights, chores, and even airport landing fees,” she says. To this mathematician, sharing her numerical knowledge adds up to a really awesome life.

In college, Kathryn had an professor who asked, “In what other profession do you get to play games all day long?” It was then that she knew she should go into the field of mathematics, even though her original path had been to pursue physics. But because her small school hadn’t been able to secure a physics professor, and because of her brilliant advisor and professor who nudged her towards numbers games, Kathryn became a mathematics professor herself. Now, not only does she teach two or three classes per day, she also does a lot of research. Other than the cake cutting project, she’s working on an overview of the mathematics of voting, which looks at the numbers and statistics that can be guaranteed depending on how many people share certain interests. “I enjoy problems like these, which lie in the intersection of mathematics and personal preferences,” she explains.

One of the best parts about Kathryn’s job has been being able to prove a theorem. “Sometimes my collaborators and I will work on a problem for a couple years and so it’s a real cause for celebration when we finally solve it,” she says.

So what does a tough-cookie mathematician have to say about the widely held – and wildly false – view that girls aren’t good at math?

“I think there are some subtle societal cues that encourage boys to keep trying math problems when they become challenging, whereas some girls might get the impression that they’re not good at math when it becomes difficult,”

“I think there are some subtle societal cues that encourage boys to keep trying math problems when they become challenging, whereas some girls might get the impression that they’re not good at math when it becomes difficult,” she says. “I think as more and more women find themselves succeeding in and enjoying mathematics, the misconception will fade,” she adds.  She’s happy that her graduate school made a concerted effort to recruit more female Ph.D. candidates, as the ratio of men to women in her own academic community has become a little more equal.

Beyond making math masters out of her students, and breaking the gender stereotype of the male mathematician mold, Kathryn volunteers with groups like Expanding Your Horizons that introduce kids to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She has taught workshops that show the intersection of math with fun things like origami, bubbles, and graphs, and she hopes to continue to spread the word that math isn’t boring. Her research is even integrating math with decision making and behavioral economics, as she begins to advise students in a newly developed Mathematics and Economics major program.

Another neat instance of addition? Kathryn recently got engaged!

“My fiancé and I are avid swing dancers and we met at a dance about two years ago. We also share a love of hiking and strategic board games,” she gushes. “We got engaged on New Years and, like many girls, I’ve been dreaming of planning a wedding for a long time. I’m really excited to be doing it now.”

Because Kathryn Nyman makes math matter in school and beyond, we think she’s a very Cool Girl! Check out Kathryn’s website if you want to know more about math, Kathryn’s courses, and cake-cutting. Wear some super socks down the aisle, Kathryn!