Name: Kathryn Nyman
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!