Name: Melanie Matchett Wood
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Occupation: Mathematics Professor
So much for the notion that girls aren’t good with numbers. Melanie Matchett Wood is a groundbreaking mathematician, Math Olympian, and the first woman to win the Morgan Prize in mathematics. Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana, Melanie thought of being a physicist, cognitive scientist, and even an Educational Testing Service test writer (a writer for the SATs.) But in 7th grade she became involved in a program known as MathCounts (www.mathcounts.org), and suddenly the problem of what to be when she grew up was solved.
“One key thing about MathCounts that really drew me into mathematics were that the problems were so much more interesting than the math I learned in school. A lot of the math in school was just memorizing and repeating certain steps over and over to do computations, but in MathCounts I worked on problems that required me to use math creatively to solve problems that I hadn’t been taught how to solve,” she says. To this day Melanie’s specialty is solving seemingly impossible problems creatively. Working as a research mathematician, she’s assigned problems that no one else has been able to solve, and she approaches them with a willingness to fail and a whole lot of patience. “Ideally you learn from all the approaches you try, whether they work or not,” she says.
MathCounts also introduced Melanie to a community of fellow students who were equally excited about math. Working with other enthusiastic burgeoning mathematicians taught her that her favorite part of math is working on it with other people, a discovery that is easily reflected in her career as an assistant professor at Stanford University.
At age sixteen, Melanie became the first female American to make the United States International Math Olympiad Team. She medaled silver twice, in 1998 and 1999. After graduation, Melanie attended Duke University, and while studying there she racked up the prizes: a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a Fulbright fellowship, and a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. It was there that she also became the first American woman, and the second woman overall, who was awarded a much-coveted Putnam Fellow. After studying at Cambridge she won the Morgan Prize in 2004. Her work on Belyi-extending maps and P-orderings made her the first woman to win that award. Then, one year later, she was named the Deputy Leader of the U.S. team for the International Math Olympiad. That team finished second overall.
When thinking of a Math Olympiad, it’s hard not to conjure an image of skinny students, wearing sweatbands and numbered jerseys, hunched over pieces of paper, swilling Gatorade as they feverishly finish a record number of math tests in a single hour. In fact, it’s much more intense than that. Melanie compares the training to being on a cross country team, as the preparation requires a mix of teamwork and individual competition. “A typical test is three to four-and-a-half hours long and has three problems. You are working by yourself on these problems, though the preparation for the exam has involved a lot of training with other people,” she explains. “It might seem like a lot of time for three problems, but it flies by, and it’s never enough time, because the problems are really challenging and you might try different ideas and approaches to solve them.”
Typically, there has been a notion in the U.S. that girls shy away from math. The all-too-accepted stereotype is that men are stronger in mathematics, while women excel in languages or the arts. “Women in mathematics are definitely treated differently than men, not all the time or by everyone, but often enough that it creates a different experience,” Melanie elaborates. “Much of the time, it isn’t because someone is outwardly sexist, but just because when they are looking at a man and a woman, they naturally feel like the man is more interested or knowledgeable about math. And women do this as well as men!”
Melanie has an idea of how to squelch this idea. “We need to see lots of examples of girls and women who love math and excel at it,” she says. A good example of is this message board http://www.msri.org/specials/gmo/2009 from last year, when the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute sent seven girls to compete in the China Girls Math Olympiad. The board posts photos and details their experiences competing for a medal in mathematics, and gives the subject itself a very personal feel. It makes an international trip to take an extremely hard math test seem like the fun-filled adventure that it is.
Her daily life is filled with research, which could be conducted at any time, in theory. “I tend to usually work regular “business hours” to help keep a balance between work and family life,” she says. “My work will involve me at my desk, filling pages and pages with ideas and attempts to solve problems, meeting with collaborators, and sharing our ideas around the blackboard, and at my computer writing up some of my better thoughts in a somewhat polished form for my own records or to send to collaborators or eventually off for publication.” (Melanie has been published in the illustrious Journal of Number Theory.) It’s a pleasantly busy workday. “I love my work, but it is a challenge to create a full and balanced life that includes not only my work, but also room for everything else that fulfills me,” she says. She’s hoping that her family and her work are able to strike the ultimate balance, as both she and her husband are studying to become mathematics professors. In the coming years, be prepared to see Melanie turn the misconception that girls aren’t good at math on its head. “We need to make girls feel welcome in mathematics and make them feel like it is a fun thing for them to do, and they can belong in a community of people who love mathematics,” she says.
Among her influences in the community who helped to get her to where she is today, Melanie cites her teachers and coaches, including those from MathCounts in middle school. Nowadays, Melanie is being a role model to young girls everywhere, and for that we calculate that she is one very Cool Girl!
Check out Melanie’s homepage at Stanford http://math.stanford.edu/~mwood/ to see what numeric magic she’s been cooking up, and check out artofproblemsolving.com to become an addition to the mathematic community.