Student Essay Contest

Dr. Patricia D. Hough: A Shining Example of Women in Mathematics

2002 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in Grades 9-12 Category

By Francesca Pizarro

Imagine that you want to go from your house to your best friend’s house and that there are many different ways to get there. You are running late, so you want to get there as fast as possible. The question “‘What’s the fastest way to get there?’ is an example of an optimization problem,” said mathematician Dr. Patricia D. Hough, explaining the concept behind her research at Sandia National Labs, California. “Such questions come from people like scientists and engineers with whom I work. Whenever they ask a question like, ‘What is the best/ worst/ smallest/ fastest/ etc.?’, the problem can be solved using optimization.” In a field of study that has been dominated by and associated with the male population, she is just one of many who demonstrate what women today can contribute to mathematics, the rest of the world, and human progress.
“When I was in middle school and early high school,” she said, “I had daydreams of doing things like being a pro baseball player or an FBI agent. By the time I was starting college though, I never considered anything else” besides being a mathematician. She has had no regrets over her career choice. “I always enjoyed math and science,” she said, “particularly the problem solving aspects. So I figured, what better way to spend my career than getting paid for doing something that I really liked to do?”
Dr. Hough specializes in Parallel Optimization and Fault Tolerant Algorithms for Distributed Computing in the CSMR (Computational Sciences and Mathematics Research) department of Sandia National Labs. And what exactly does all this mean? It means that Dr. Hough works with many computers — some of which are in different geographic locations — to solve parts of one complex optimization problem. When a computer breaks down before it is able to complete its piece of the problem, she also comes up with methods by which to make sure that the piece is still completed. These methods are known as fault tolerant algorithms.
An instance in which Dr. Hough’s optimization methods were used was in the development of a new tool for manufacturing smaller computer chips. One of the components of the tool was a special type of lamp, which in its first form did not function in the way that it was expected to. The engineers of the project then developed a computer simulation that demonstrated the behavior of the lamp and approached Dr. Hough with the question, “What values for these unknown pieces of information would cause the computer simulation to most closely match the lab experiments?” With the help of her parallel optimization techniques, the engineers were able to solve the problem.
Dr. Hough received her high school diploma at Loudoun Valley High School in Virginia and her B. S. in Mathematics at Lynchburg College, as well as her Master of the Sciences and Ph. D. in Applied Mathematics at Cornell University. It seems that growing up in a small town in rural Virginia did not deter her from reaching this position in her career. She mentions her parents as being the most encouraging presence in her pursuing a mathematical career. Her professors in college and graduate school, she says, also helped broaden her horizons. “I grew up in a small town, which meant I led a very sheltered life,” she explains. “I never knew that there were so many opportunities for me out in the rest of the world. Fortunately, I had some really good professors at college who made sure I was exposed to some of those opportunities and encouraged me to try them. Otherwise, I might have done what everybody else did– go back to my hometown and stay there.”
She also cites her experience at Cornell as a rewarding opportunity after the sheltered environment of her hometown. “When I started graduate school,” she said, “I was behind these other students, and I had to work really hard to catch up. Fortunately, the environment at Cornell was friendly rather than competitive, so the other students helped bring me up to speed.” When asked what she would consider to be the most meaningful milestone of her career, she talks about receiving her Ph. D. “I had never worked so hard for anything in my life,” she says, “There were times when I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it.” Everything else, she said, “has been icing on the cake.”
In her spare time, Dr. Hough enjoys playing sports, including softball, soccer, and volleyball. She had played for the varsity softball team of both her high school and college. She generally likes being outdoors but also likes to read spy novels and play the piano.
Today, after having reached her goals and experienced what it takes for someone to pursue a mathematical career, Dr. Hough enjoys working with students one-on-one during the summers and offers the following advice to aspiring mathematicians: “Pursue opportunities that expand your mathematical experiences. This includes things like taking advanced courses in school, participating in summer programs at universities, and getting summer jobs that include some mathematics,” as well as to “learn about computer science and at least one other field that uses mathematics. Having this breadth of knowledge will open up a lot more doors than mathematics alone will.”
We — not only the aspiring mathematicians — can all extract the lessons behind Dr. Hough’s success through the pursuit of her goals. She shows us that by exposing ourselves to opportunities and expanding our horizons, new doors can be opened to us for the future. “Women have been doing high-quality mathematics for a long time,” says Dr. Hough. “However, there are many more women doing mathematics now, and their contributions are also more visible.” With new doors opened to young women through her and other mathematician’s examples, women mathematicians in the future will become an even more visible and significant force in the shaping of our world.
About the author: My name is Francesca Pizarro, and I am a sophomore at Townsend Harris High School. I enjoy writing and wish to become a famous novelist someday. I am currently taking a Journalism class in school, from which I learned about this contest. Despite my lack of mathematical interest, I enjoyed interviewing Dr. Hough and found her story to be very inspiring. It proved that through hard work and exposing ourselves to new opportunities, we can reach our goals in life.