Student Essay Contest

I Seek an Answer to the Question “Why?” – Dr. Helen Moore

2003 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in Grades 6-8 Category

By Sergei Shubin

If you were asked to name a person who thinks of “mathematician” when you think of finding a cure for a horrible disease, who would it be? Would you name anyone? Would you name a person with an M.D. degree? Dr. Helen Moore would name herself!
Now, let’s go back to the year 1979. We are at Albemarle Road Junior High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a classroom where a group of students are busy with pencils and paper. A special silence fills the room. Only the sounds of scratching pencils on paper and the flipping of pages are heard. At first, it seems like the students are taking a math test, but then you realize that they are busy competing in a math contest. One of these young students is Helen Moore, who will eventually become Helen Moore, Ph.D. research mathematician.
Dr. Moore was born and raised in North Carolina. During her early childhood, her architect grandfather showed her various tricks with numbers. This helped spark a life-long interest in mathematics. In the 7th and 8th grades, her participation in math contests further motivated her towards a career in mathematics and the sciences. Because of her interest in and love for mathematics, she was viewed as a “nerd” by many of her fellow students. During the 11th and 12th grades she attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), a “special school” for youth interested in math and science. At NCSSM she learned to fully appreciate at least four human endeavors: music, language, literature, and mathematics. This learning experience was the best of her early school years, and many of these interests have carried over to her adult life, especially her appreciation of and love for music.
Following her secondary education, she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her early undergraduate studies, she was interested in studying physics. The contemporary approach to instruction in physics was results oriented, and it did not allow for in depth study that answered the ultimate question of “Why?” Ms. Moore turned to mathematics. Upon completion of her undergraduate studies, she went to the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook) where she specialized in differential geometry. As she completed her graduate studies and was surveying employment opportunities, her Ph.D. advisor felt that she should become a teacher of mathematics, rather than a mathematical researcher. Unable to find a position as a mathematical researcher, she initially followed this path, but her interest in becoming a mathematical researcher lingered on, and only later did she succeed in achieving her real professional goal.
Dr. Moore’s degree in mathematics was in a very specialized area of differential geometry, where she studied how one can predict the shape of a soap film from a frame that is lowered into soapy water to produce a film of a given surface. This research led her to an in depth study of minimal surface theory. Upon careful reflection of her graduate studies and research activities, she realized that mathematics could be both an act of pure thought and a vehicle for understanding and solving real-world problems. Her strong mathematical background eventually led her to the study of mathematical modeling of diseases.
After graduate school, Dr. Moore taught at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This experience was eventually followed by a sabbatical leave and further teaching experience at Stanford University. She credits participation in a Project NExT Fellowship, a professional development initiative for young faculty sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), with making a real difference in her career goals. Also, early in her sabbatical at Stanford, while she was attending a reception, a biology student talked with her and later informed her that his professor wanted to meet her. She visited their laboratory and learned that they were working on disease models. The professor believed that cancer agents being attacked by white blood cells looked very much like soap bubbles fusing, and, therefore, he thought that her work was applicable to his research goals. It turned out that Dr. Moore’s research was not relevant, but she knew other applications of mathematics that would be helpful to the research project. This experience led Dr. Moore to begin working with mathematical models of diseases. Today, her research interests and efforts are in modeling diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis C, and leukemia. While now a research mathematician, she still makes time to direct student activities in the medical arena of applied mathematics.
Much of what Dr. Moore does today comes under the heading of applied mathematics, that is, mathematics that is used to solve real-world problems. Today, applied mathematics is assisted by the utilization of the high-speed computer, because many equations are just too difficult to solve in a traditional manner. The appropriate use of a computer allows for the ease of constructing and testing of models of diseases.
Earlier we mentioned an interest in music. Dr. Moore is quite musical, and since college, she has been playing the piano, violin, and guitar. Many mathematicians over the ages have found a strong connection between mathematics and music, and Dr. Moore is no exception. For her, approaching problems in pieces, rather than as a whole, a technique used in music, is a very useful tool. Furthermore, solving the hardest part of problems first, another technique used in music, is also often very useful. Another connection she makes is the aesthetic beauty of both mathematics and music. When you see beauty in what you do, it is easy to be motivated by it!
Dr. Moore offers some sage advice to students who have an interest in the mathematical sciences. She advises them to think creatively with persistent effort directed towards answering the question “Why?” She also encourages them to compete in math and science contests whenever possible. Even for students who don’t want to become mathematicians, she encourages taking as many advanced math courses as possible. When she taught at Bowdoin College, she had returning graduates visit who had taken jobs outside mathematics. They told her that taking her advanced math classes was the best decision they had ever made, because it had more fully prepared them for their careers. She also says: “If you move in a direction you like and pursue that career, you can pretty much create a job where you are doing what you like and are getting paid for it.” As Associate Director of the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), Dr. Moore is now doing her own “dream” job!
Dr. Moore also reaches out to her mathematical community. She has a strong interest in achieving gender equity in all fields of professional endeavor. She has been ever present to support the learning of youth in the Santa Clara Valley. Her actions and presence as a role model support a local motto, “Not Words but Deeds.” While she has supported the interests and goals of AIM, she is actively involved in many other mathematical endeavors in the Santa Clara Valley. Wherever youth have a sincere interest in mathematics, you will find Dr. Moore. She is an active supporter of the Bay Area Mathematical Adventures (BAMA), the Presentation High School Mathematics Colloquium, the San Jose Math Circle, and the meetings of the Santa Clara Valley Mathematics Association (SCVMA). She is a caring professional who believes that mathematics plays a defining role in many aspects of our lives.
It is not always easy to pursue your dream career. For Dr. Moore, the dream of being a research mathematician was almost impossible. And, unfortunately, it is still difficult for many women mathematicians to get a job at an acclaimed university or research institute. With perseverance, Dr. Moore was able to overcome great challenges. Her success story is a model for all of us to reflect upon. Learning from others, we too will learn.
About the Student: My name is Sergei Shubin, and I am in the seventh grade at Joaquin Miller Middle School in San Jose, California. My favorite subject is science, though I enjoy math, especially geometry, trigonometry, and probability. I am a first-generation Russian-American: my parents emigrated from the USSR. I was born in Santa Clara, but have lived in San Jose, California all my life. I am bilingual: I speak both Russian and English fluently. I also enjoy studying Spanish in school. I enjoy traveling quite a bit, and I have crossed the entire United States of America by car. My hobbies include model railroading and model aviation. I have been playing the piano for more than seven years now. I wish to go to college, and eventually, to study law.