Student Essay Contest

Dr. Fern Hunt: Mastering Chaos in Theory and in Life

2002 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in College Category

By Alicia Richardson

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, employs over 3,300 employees. These employees conduct research on the structure and implementation of complex materials and develop high precision techniques for the standards and measurement associated with these studies. Among these employees there are about 39 full-time mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists, who ensure that sound mathematical methods are applied to NIST problems.
One area of Dr. Hunt’s research has been computer graphic rendering. Rendering is the process of producing an artificial image using a computer. During the interview, she pointed out that people are very good at being able to detect gloss or sheen on an automobile, and that is the thing that sells automobiles. For instance, a person probably would not buy a new car if it was dull in appearance. Dr. Hunt was part of a group that measured and described the properties of visually attractive surfaces using their light scattering properties. One means of quantifying the reflection properties of a surface is by use of the bi-directional reflection distribution function, which defines the spectral and spatial reflection characteristics of a surface. The function is the ratio of reflected radiance to incident irradiance at a particular wavelength. Dr. Hunt supervised a group that took data from from measurements of this function for a surface. This data is then used to create an integral equation whose solution provides an artificial image of the surface.
Currently, Dr. Hunt is doing work in bioinformatics. This is a relatively new area of computational biology used for finding out information about genes. The Human Genome Sequence Project is an attempt to determine exactly the correct sequence of all of the human DNA sequences. These are made up of amino acids A (Adenine), C (Cytosine), T (Thymine), and G (Guanine). She also pointed out during the interview that “people feel that once they know what the genes are in DNA, that would give them a big step in understanding and curing disease(s).” For example, during our discussion I learned that it might be possible to cure sickle cell anemia by correcting the gene that causes the red blood cell to sickle. Dr. Hunt and other scientists have developed a method of using sequence statistics to build a Markov decision model that is being used to solve a particular linear programming problem related to the alignment of sequences of DNA.
Dr. Fern Hunt grew up in the Amsterdam Housing Projects in Manhattan around the 1950s and 60s. She became interested in science when she received a chemistry set for Christmas at nine years of age. As a result of this, she figured there was a plethora of excitement out there in the world and in nature. She was an ordinary student with few friends. She gives credit to Mr. Charles Wilson, a black junior high science teacher, for her success. She recalls that he had “a huge lab” and told her to maintain interest in science and take the examination that eventually got her into the Bronx High School of Science in New York.
She earned a Bachelors Degree in mathematics at Bryn Mawr College, and received her Master and Doctorate Degrees from the prestigious New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. She has taught at Howard University, the University of Utah, and City College of New York. What she enjoys about teaching is trying to explain and convey the beauty of difficult mathematical concepts. Additionally, she enjoys talking with students and hearing their ideas and new insights.
In comparing teaching and research, she agrees that teaching and research are different in that teaching deals with understanding and explaining knowledge that has already been discovered; while with research you are trying to discover the unknown. However, both are similar in that we can apply new techniques to known concepts and theories.
Dr. Fern Hunt currently has 23 publications. In 2000, she was awarded the Arthur S. Fleming Award for Outstanding Federal Service. She was recognized for fundamental contributions to probability and stochastic modeling, mathematical biology, computational geometry, nonlinear dynamics, computer graphics, and parallel computing. She explains that she was “set-up” secretly and was extremely surprised to receive the award. She is happy to have achieved something that others consider valuable. This is obvious in her response, “I didn’t expect to get much acknowledgement, so I was very pleased.”
Dr. Hunt is a very spiritual woman. Spirituality has played a crucial role in the development of this accomplished black, female mathematician. “I think that I am different than the majority of scientists, because I am here because of the sacrifice of other black people. I am aware of that and immensely grateful. I am a small part of a larger movement to restore what was taken from us. As a woman, I feel much the same way. I feel that I am a part of that struggle as well. I’m hoping that women and men will advance the rights of all people and restore their birthright as human beings. As children of God, we have certain inalienable rights, and we need to struggle to achieve those. So I don’t see myself as a successful individual only.¨ Outside of the research arena, Dr. Fern Hunt finds time as a singer and pianist. She is an assistant organist at her church and sings in the choir. Among her many pleasures, she loves swimming, particularly at the beach, visiting the theatre, reading historical books, bike riding, cooking, and serving on the Board of Trustees at her college.
The advice Dr. Hunt gives to college students, like myself, is “begin to reach out and learn about the rest of the universe. Try learning about how the world is outside the United States in terms of poverty. Remember to keep a broad view of things and be in service to others and the world itself. Also try to look beyond day to day difficulty and look at maximizing opportunities here and now. This is what keeps me going.” Her words are very inspirational and convey one major concept to me. Do not always worry about your own difficulties and struggles in life, because there are many others throughout the world who are less fortunate. Instead, we must be grateful and try to keep an open mind and help others. I believe that many black, female students can also find inspiration and encouragement through Dr. Hunt as a researcher and as an individual. As an individual, Dr. Fern Hunt overcame the chaotic challenges of life as a black female. As a research mathematician, she mastered the concept of chaos theory, which today is inspiring other young mathematicians to excel for greatness.
About the author: My name is Alicia Richardson. I am originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan, but currently I am a junior, mathematics major at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. I have always had a love for mathematics and have an interest in cryptography or in teaching. After earning my Bachelors degree in mathematics, I plan to go to graduate school to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy in mathematics. In my spare time, I read and play music. At Morgan, I participate in the marching band, the MARC U*STAR Program (Minority Access to Research Careers Undergraduate* Scholars Training in Academic Research), Sigma Alpha Iota Music Fraternity for Women, and Iota Sweetheart Auxiliary.