Student Essay Contest

Lenore Cowen

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

by Marlo Dublin

In our male-dominated world, minimal light is shed upon those women in the fields of mathematics and science who have made extraordinary strides in their area of study. Professor Lenore Cowen of Tufts University is a terrific example of a female mathematician who, despite any outside encouragement, established herself as a successful professional and continues to work with the intention of using her theoretical knowledge to better understand the world in which we live.
“It was in graduate school that I ran into people who told me that women couldn’t do math and I had no business being in math because I was female,” she explained. “There were only a few people who had this attitude, but it was both surprising and annoying. It didn’t destroy my confidence. I knew I could do math because I was my father’s daughter.” Because her father was a mathematician, Professor Cowen grew up with the notion that pursuing math was just as normal as becoming a doctor, nurse, lawyer, fireman, teacher or writer. However, she didn’t always believe that math was “her thing.” As a student at Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, Professor Cowen enjoyed math, but was also quite fond of English. She was the poetry editor of her school’s literary magazine while being an active member of the math team, as well as a participant in several math fairs.
It was during the summer of her sophomore and junior years of high school, however, that Professor Cowen realized that math was her calling. “I really chose math when I went to a high school math camp, Hampshire College Summer Studies in Math. That’s when I met a lot of friends my age who were also good in math, learned silly math songs, math jokes and started thinking of myself as a math person,” she said.
Professor Cowen took advanced math classes throughout college and received her undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1987. Pursuing her interest even further, she studied at MIT and, in 1993, received a Ph.D. in Mathematics. After completing her doctorate, Professor Cowen joined the Mathematical Sciences department at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and remained there for six years. When her husband found a great job opportunity in Boston, Professor Cowen applied for a position at Tufts University, and is currently working there as an Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department.
As a professor, Professor Cowen works with students on both the undergraduate and graduate school level, but also does extensive research in the areas of discrete mathematics and the analysis of algorithms. “As I drifted into more applied areas of math,” she explained, “I found that it enabled me to learn more about the world. One thing I learned is how useful randomness is! If you allow random choices, finding solutions to some sorts of problems get much easier. I am very interested in when randomness helps in computation and when it can be removed.”
Recently, Professor Cowen has been working on a research project concerning the patterns of computational protein folding in the human body. By working with a team of biologists at MIT, she has been able to “make predictions that a whole bunch of proteins (whose three dimensional structures haven’t been solved yet) fold into a shape that cause human, plant and animal disease.” Because protein folding is a vital piece of the Human Genome Project, Professor Cowen’s research has had a practical application in medicine. Through careful mathematical analysis, she has helped to computationally predict a particular protein-fold pattern called a “beta-helix”. The toxin that causes whooping cough folds into this structure, and her program now predicts this fold in anthrax, lysteria, chlamydia, and pollen allergens. “Our work has suggested that this protein fold may play a big role in helping bacteria make you sick,” Professor Cowen explained. “If this is true, then that might help with a drug or vaccine design someday.” By conducting such crucial research, Professor Cowen has opened the door for further advancements to be made in her field, as well as for doctors and scientists trying to find cures for fatal diseases and disorders.
Aside from being affiliated with Tufts, Professor Cowen is also a member of three math organizations: SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics), AMS (American Math Society) and AWM (Association for Women in Mathematics). Recently, she has been on a small committee to help the AMS award scholarship money to high school math students.
In between teaching multiple classes at Tufts, attending various conferences sponsored by math organizations and writing papers for math journals, Professor Cowen has limited leisure time. ” I love to teach, and I wouldn’t want to give it up for anything in the world,” Professor Cowen claimed, “but research needs huge interrupted blocks of time. Sometimes it is very hard to find those long hours to concentrate when you are planning lessons, designing homework and exams, and meeting with students.” When asked how her research job might help her teaching, Professor Cowen responded, “When you are really stuck in your research, and you teach a great lecture, or help a student, it definitely helps you from sinking into a rut and just continuing to hit your head against exactly the same spot on the wall.” However, when she is able to take time out of her busy schedule, Professor Cowen does enjoy playing the violin and folk fiddle and dancing with her husband to swing and folk music.
“Some people think it’s funny that I’m a math person and have no sense of direction,” said Professor Cowen. “My friends can tell you funny stories about me trying to find my way to different places. I used to reinvent the concept of parity (a fancy way to count even and odd numbers) when I was a little girl to find my way home. I would count “1” for the street I was on, “0” for a street I knew crossed it, “1” for a street that crossed it, etc., until I was able to figure out which streets were parallel to one another.”
Professor Cowen believes that students thinking about their career future should go after what they are good at and enjoy doing. However, if a student shows interest in pursuing a mathematical career, Professor Cowen thinks that he/she should take lots of upper level math classes in high school and college, go to some sort of math camp, seek guidance from college professors regarding which graduate schools to look into and learn something about the computer, in order to be successful.
“I went into math because it was very different from our world in one important way: there was always a right answer and you could prove it,” Professor Cowen claims. “The real world is not like this.” Similarly, she points out that math is one of the only branches of study that allows you to find definitive, concrete answers to complex questions.
Advancements are being made every day in our mathematical world, and Professor Cowen has certainly set an example for young female students with inquiring minds that women can make a difference in the field of mathematics.
About the author: Marlo Dublin is currently a Junior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York, and has always had a love for writing. In elementary school, she published a monthly newspaper for her sixth grade classmates entitled The New York Host, and continues to report regularly for her own school newspaper, The Classic. Although she is not very fond of mathematics, Marlo is quite intrigued by mathematical concepts that have been linked to certain scientific theories as well as current medical research.
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM web site