Student Essay Contest

Biographical Essay: Misha E. Kilmer

2001 AWM Essay Contest: First Place in the High School Student Category

by Sana Ahmed

Professor Kilmer looks forward to motivating students—and female students in particular—to pursue graduate degrees and careers in mathematics. In the near future, she wants to get an undergraduate program started that involves students in research projects of an interdisciplinary nature. Professor Kilmer says, “I want to turn my students on to mathematics, really getting them to see the value and power behind the tools they learn in the classroom, and get them excited about learning more.” As a female mathematician, she serves as an AWM mentor to women graduate students and has influenced others into becoming math majors. This spring, she has been awarded one of two “Undergraduate Initiative in Teaching Awards” given to the junior faculty at Tufts “who have demonstrated excellence in teaching and advising students for academic and personal growth, and the ability to convey a passion and enthusiasm for their field of study.” She expresses happiness in receiving the award because she sees the honor as evidence that she is successful in fulfilling her goals. “But”, she admitted, ” I’m not ‘satisfied’ in the sense that I will always strive to improve these skills—there’s no such thing as being too good at teaching/advising.”As the world enters the new millennium, it increases its horizons in different branches of mathematics. Mathematics has opened doors of possibilities to all people, including women. Contrary to the previous century, the twenty-first century will be the first time in history when women interested in mathematics will freely expand their abilities with no restrictions. One woman mathematician, Misha E. Kilmer, is an Assistant Professor at Tufts University and explains just how interesting mathematics is for her. With a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Maryland at College Park, and an M.A. and B.S. in Mathematics from Wake Forest University, Professor Kilmer conducts research in iterative methods, numerical linear algebra, numerical analysis, and image and signal processing. Professor Kilmer is both a researcher and teacher whose main objectives are to make mathematical discoveries and motivate her students to further studying mathematics.
As a researcher, Professor Kilmer would like to bridge the gap between mathematics and other related disciplines by identifying and working on problems of an interdisciplinary nature. Among the things that she works on are solving large-scale linear systems of equations quickly and accurately. Currently, Professor Kilmer is working with some engineering colleagues at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School on a problem in “diffuse optical tomography.” In order to solve this problem, a limited amount of measured diffuse photon waves are measured on the surface of the skin in order to formulate a “picture” of what’s under the skin. The picture of the skin underneath represents a map of light absorption in different areas under the skin and can be used to detect tumors. Professor Kilmer is involved with three-dimensional breast tissue imaging and will soon move to brain imaging. She explains that three-dimensional imaging is much harder than two-dimensional imaging and you have to reconstruct a lot of information from a very limited set of data.
Another amazing application Professor Kilmer has worked on was the detection of buried landmines. Professor Kilmer explained how you might use an algorithm based on measured electromagnetic scattering data to find landmines. She says that research is particularly satisfying to her because she gets to see her work in action. Much of what Professor Kilmer does involves simulated data and she says, “I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing some of the work I’ve produced applied to real data.” She likes “knowing my work might make a difference in someone else’s life. I play a small role as part of a big team.” What seems to be a small role to Professor Kilmer, though, produces practical and crucial research data for many interdisciplinary fields such as engineering, biology, and physics. She feels that different fields can learn from one another and enjoys the constant simultaneous interaction with different subjects.
Besides mathematics, Professor Kilmer enjoys the outdoors, hiking, riding her bicycle, sailing, reading and playing with her dog. She feels that the real challenge is balancing career and home life. She is married and has a house and a dog but no children, though she has not ruled out the possibility. Professor Kilmer says, “I tend to push myself reasonably hard in my career, so I need to be careful and remember to put home life on an equal footing.”
Ever since she was a little girl, she was told that women could pursue any career they wanted, and her family was very encouraging and supportive. In her childhood, Professor Kilmer moved around a lot every 2-3 years because her father was in the U.S. Navy. Because she lived in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, and even Japan, Professor Kilmer says that moving around so much and having these different experiences really contributed to shaping who she is.
Professor Kilmer is a wonderful and talented mathematician who has taken her career to a high level with her hard work and devotion. As a teenager in junior high school, she came to love mathematics and had a female math teacher who helped influence the way Professor Kilmer perceived mathematics. In college, she had mentors, men and women who respected her for her quality of work. Many teenagers in the young generation are exposed to a whole new “pop MTV culture” of music and musicians that they idolize and think are the ultimate role models and ideals of their lives. Being a teenager myself, I love music and other teenage things—but I don’t make that my uttermost priority as most young people do. Programs like the AWM and people like Professor Kilmer help young impressionable people focus in the right direction and expose my generation to academic opportunities that really turn out to be not boring—but VERY INTERESTING THINGS! I think I am very lucky to have talked to Professor Kilmer and just by her responding to my questions, she has enlightened me about so many different opportunities in mathematics.
About the author: My name is Sana Ahmed and I attend the eleventh grade at Townsend Harris High School at Queens College. I currently take Pre-calculus and find math interesting and exciting. I love to solve problems and approach them from different angles. I find it amazing that you can find the answers to a mathematical problem by solving it from many different angles. Since I am taking physics, I realize how math and science can be interdisciplinary. Although I would like to be a neurologist, I want to further study mathematics because it pertains to computer engineering and my interest in the medical field, including the Human Genome Project.
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM web site.