Student Essay Contest

Joan Feigenbaum

2001 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the High School Student Category

by Jessica Berger

“I had no idea of how atypical I was for choosing math specifically for the challenge,” admitsProfessor Joan Feigenbaum. “One of the reasons that I was willing to try being a math major was because I had no rigid, preconceived notions of what I wanted to do after college.” The thrill of learning and desire for a challenge enabled Feigenbaum to become a successful professor in the computer science department at Yale University. Her decision to become a math major after her enrollment at Harvard University fueled her ambition and led her to a point in her life where she is satisfied with her choices and content with her career.
Joan Feigenbaum attributes her interest in computer science to her summer internship at Bell Labs between her junior and senior year at Harvard University, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. At this fork in her career path, Feigenbaum made the decision to compromise her career goals for a more practical, comfortable lifestyle. In order to be an academic mathematician, Feigenbaum would have needed to conform to the requirements of her career. Feigenbaum claims, “I did compromise to study theory of computer science because it had some of what I liked about math, but did not involve the impractical downside of trying to be an academic mathematician.” Her new found interest in computer science carried her to a computer science research position involving cryptology and security at AT&T, following her attainment of a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University. In effect, Feigenbaum’s compromise was beneficial because it enabled her to deal with both mathematics and other related fields.
Most recently, Professor Feigenbaum has devoted her time and knowledge to educating undergraduate students at Yale. Less than two years ago, Feigenbaum entered the academic scene because, she states, “In 2000 there had been several years of an Internet boom, which had been drawing people out of academia to start companies. More students became interested in computer science classes and there was a need for computer science faculty. The opportunity to get a tenured position at a prestigious university and the market forces being in my favor were involved in my decision.” The chance for a teaching position at Yale was a strong influence in luring Feigenbaum from industry, where she started her work. She currently teaches courses dedicated to e-commerce and the “interplay of techno-development and business” as well as “an overlay of economic and computational theory” for more advanced students. These classes stem from Feigenbaum’s own interests because her favorite mathematical subjects are algebra and number theory. Professor Feigenbaum’s extra-curricular activities include a position as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cryptology and membership on the National Research Council panel for Intellectual Property Rights in the Emerging Information Infrastructure. Also, Professor Feigenbaum was involved in the 2001 ACM Workshop for Security and Privacy in Digital Rights Management.
Cryptology, one of Feigenbaum’s major interests, is a pressing subject in the news. The study of cryptology involves using codes to hide information and protect computer privacy. The recent events of September 11th have furthered the government’s cause to curb encryption because it may foster terrorism and secretive communication. Evidence that one of the plane hijackers, Mohammed Atta, purchased his plane ticket without the use of encryption has caused Feigenbaum to believe that, as she puts it, “requests to suppress cryptographic research would not be meaningful. Strong encryption has been in the public domain since 1976. The U.S. government cannot base our safety on its suppression.”
Professor Feigenbaum has been influenced by the past and present status of mathematics as a “man’s profession.” At AT&T, she found few women in influential positions in the company and in her department. Although this was not direct discrimination, she noted the lack of prominent females in the workplace can be devastating to a woman’s morale and ambition. Feigenbaum asserts, “I felt that that was important and a disadvantage. It was difficult for me to envision being in a position of power. If there were a noticeable number of women in positions of power, it would have seemed natural to me or anyone else rather than it appearing odd for me to desire a position of power in that field.”
Feigenbaum, who never had a role model, is opinionated on the subject. She believes, “It is not healthy or logical to infer from the fact that you admire someone’s work or that you want to be in the same career that the person is generally a model. It doesn’t mean that they could be the kind of person you want to be. Lots of women in science think if they can’t adopt the lifestyle of a scientist they admire, then they shouldn’t do science at all.”
Aside from enjoying her lifestyle as a thriving mathematician and computer scientist, Joan Feigenbaum is a person with many interests including going to the theater, watching movies, dining out at restaurants, reading novels and periodicals, and following current events. She is a self-proclaimed “news and politics junkie” and is also an exercise enthusiast who walks on a treadmill and swims. She is 43 years old and celebrates her birthday on September 19th. She has a husband, son, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Tramp. Joan was raised on Long Island, but resides in New Haven and New York City.
Mathematics has been a crucial part of the life of Professor Joan Feigenbaum. According to her, mathematics is vital to everyday life. She stated, “Mathematics is the foundation of science, engineering and technology. No serious technological advances could have been made without math. Airplanes, the Internet, telephones, and personal computers use math in a very fundamental way.” Her interest in mathematics, computer science, and making decisions that test her mind and abilities have paved the way for a rewarding career. She has never succumbed to the trials of being a woman in mathematics and she will continue to focus on educating others and challenging them with mathematics in the same way that she has been challenged.
About the author: Jessica Ashley Berger is a sophomore at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, New York. She enjoys her mathematics class, but is not yet at an advanced level. Jessica especially likes math for its application to other subjects such as chemistry and art. She entered this contest through a journalism course and is a member of her school’s newspaper, The Classic. Jessica hopes to enter a profession in medicine, and her present interest in mathematics will be beneficial in that pursuit.
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM web site.