Student Essay Contest

An Accomplished Woman in Mathematics: Dr. Evelyn Silvia

2003 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the Grades 9-12 Category

By Amber Durrell

Evelyn Silvia is a respected and accomplished professor at the University of California at Davis. She is renowned for her research in complex analysis and geometric function theory, as well as her commitment to mathematics education at all grade levels. She recently received the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. This recognition is regarded as the highest award in university level mathematics instruction and honors extraordinary teaching effectiveness beyond the confines of the university.
Evelyn Silvia was born in Fall River, Massachusetts. Growing up, she did not consider herself especially talented in math. However, in the seventh grade, she encountered an inspirational teacher named Mr. Donahue who helped her to recognize her exceptional mathematical ability. Mr. Donahue constantly encouraged and praised Dr. Silvia, even showing her final exam (that she had scored one-hundred percent on) to the vice-principal. His thoughtful actions allowed Dr. Silvia to recognize her potential.
During high school, Dr. Silvia planned on attending college and she consistently enrolled in challenging college preparatory classes. During this time, her mother supported her ambitions to excel. After Dr. Silvia repeatedly asked her parents, her mother signed the forms needed for her college prep classes even though her father would not. Dr. Silvia feels that her mother encouraged her because she herself did not have the opportunity to attend school beyond the eighth grade, and therefore realized the importance of education.
Dr. Silvia had to overcome familial and economic difficulties to attend college. No one in her neighborhood or family planned to go to college, and her family did not have enough money to send her. Also, her family did not think a college education was important, especially for a woman. Fortunately, she received a government loan to cover her fees and her grandmother loaned her the money to buy books. Owing to her persistence and hard work, Dr. Silvia was able to fulfill her dream of attending college, and did so at the Southeastern Massachusetts Technology Institute. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics at Clark University in 1973.
Dr. Silvia began her work at UC Davis in 1973. Professor Silvia co-directed UC Davis’s first MAT in Mathematics Program from 1973-1979. Currently, she is a professor and the Principal Investigator for the Northern California Math Project. Her life is now a hectic yet rewarding balance of research in pure math, teaching and other university responsibilities, and service to younger students, which she calls “an interweaving of responsibilities.”
Today, she speaks animatedly of her research in complex analysis and geometric functions and describes her work as dealing with functions of complex numbers. Also, she works with geometric functions in which you input shapes and which result in different shapes. She explains that this part of her work, being theoretical, is the creative and fun part. Because of this, she feels compelled to balance the theoretical part of her job with teaching and outreach to elementary schools in order to give back to the community. She recognizes that many young students are not grasping the fundamental concepts of math, or are unable to recall what they know and make connections necessary to continue with higher math. Under her guidance, the Northern California Math Project educates elementary and secondary school teachers on the practice of Socratic teaching, in which one teaches by asking questions. She feels that this method of teaching encourages students to think more about the math they are learning. Ideally, children taught by this method will not only better understand the math they are currently learning, but will develop the active learning skills necessary to take charge of their own mathematics education later on, when their school curriculum may not fully cover all the topics needed for continuing with college-level math.
Dr. Silvia’s enthusiasm for every aspect of her job conveys her success as an accomplished woman in the field of mathematics. Dr. Evelyn Silvia tirelessly overcame obstacles and has worked diligently throughout her life and career. Her dedication and enthusiasm for her work shows in every word she speaks. She is truly an admirable and inspiring person.
About the student: My name is Amber Durrell and I am a senior at Loretto High School, an all girls Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. Math is my favorite subject and I am currently one of four students taking AP Calculus. I also enjoy using math in my Physics class. I am considering a career that utilizes mathematics and I was happy to do the interview for this essay, as it put me in contact with a very motivating and enthusiastic woman in mathematics.