Student Essay Contest

An Unexpected Mathematician: Lara Schmidt

2001 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the College Student Category

by Amy Chin

How many people can name a famous female mathematician? How many even know a woman who is involved in a mathematical career? It is true that mathematics is seen as a male dominated profession, but that is slowly changing.
One woman who has met the challenge to enter a mathematical career is Lara Schmidt. Ms. Schmidt received her masters degree from West Virginia University and works at the U.S. Naval Observatory in the Time Service Department, which dictates the standard of time in the U.S. Being a woman employed at one of the oldest scientific agencies is not without its trials. Being bombarded with jokes such as, “So, what time is it?” is not very entertaining beyond the first time someone says it. Having people question the fact that you are a female and a mathematician is not that entertaining either. “Did you learn that in school?” is not the response one expects when explaining how an atomic clock works.
So what led to this career path? Ms. Schmidt did not originally choose mathematics as her field of study. Initially she was more inclined towards subjects such as history and economics. After several years of college, Ms. Schmidt came to the conclusion that most of what mathematicians do is theoretical and you do not necessarily have to be “good with numbers.” In her junior year of college, she faced the difficult task of selecting a major and on a math major with a chemistry minor. Although mathematics was not her first love, Lara Schmidt found herself increasingly interested in the topic when she started her graduate work. It was during this time she also discovered she wanted to teach. After pursuing two years of course work, however, she decided she “would rather DO math than sit around talking about how to teach math.”
After her realization that the program she was involved in did not suit her needs, Ms. Schmidt found a job at the Naval Observatory. The Naval Observatory is primarily a group of civilian scientists, many of whom are astronomers. Her position has her dealing with time series analysis and auto-correlated noise structures. Her work can affect the way the nation’s official time data is distributed to its users. Another aspect of her job has her working with students in the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program. The program allows her to work over the summer in Department of Defense laboratories with high school and college students. In previous years, students have studied antenna patterns in GPS data and tracked the progress of sunspots by visual observing through one of the Observatory’s telescopes.
Much of Ms. Schmidt’s work has her working in depth with statistics. It is because of this that she has chosen to return to school and go for her Ph.D. in mathematical statistics. She is currently balancing working full time and taking two courses per semester. What seems like an impossible feat is very time consuming and an overwhelming endeavor but is made possible by understanding coworkers and supportive classmates. Currently finishing the last chapter of her dissertation, which deals with a model for noise structures commonly found in atomic clocks, Lara Schmidt hopes to have her degree by May.
With all this math in school and work, what does she do during her non-math hours? Well, originally from a small town in West Virginia near Washington, D.C., Ms. Schmidt now calls Colorado home. Although she hardly has any free time, she manages to relax by hiking and rock climbing. She also keeps up with her childhood pastime of ballet and is a football enthusiast. Her favorite team? The West Virginia University Mountaineers — after all, she is an alum.
Even though it was not her first pick, Lara Schmidt reached a point where math “just clicked” for her. In the future, Ms. Schmidt may return to try her hand at teaching, but, for now, she is happy where she is. When she gives tours to younger girls, they are often interested to hear about being a mathematician and want to talk about it at length. Ms. Schmidt admits, “It’s good to shake up people’s ideas of who mathematicians are!”
About the author: Amy Chin is an undergraduate applied mathematics major in her junior year at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Hailing from Jamaica, Queens, Amy spends a lot of time shocking people with her enthusiasm and love for math. Although she admits that it’s definitely not her best subject, she has been quoted as saying she is “hopelessly devoted to math.”
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM website.