Student Essay Contest

From Neural Networks to Mentor Networks: Dr. Mary Poulton Teaches Connections

2004 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in the Grades 9-12 Category

By Mallory Brown

What would it feel like to spend an entire career in the company of no one who is like you? What if, in over twenty years of school, there was not one female teacher who showed by example that your dreams of being a woman mathematician or scientist could come true? Would you feel discouraged, isolated, defeated? Many would, but not Dr. Mary Poulton, Professor of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. She has known how it feels to be the only woman in a class of two hundred men and the only woman in the entire department at a large research university. But far from being defeated or isolated, Dr. Poulton is an inspiration, a mentor, and a creator of connections in every aspect of her life. She is a role model for women in mathematically related sciences, and she teaches the power of reaching beyond social roles and academic borders.
Dr. Mary Poulton is Head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. Always interested in connections, her research and teaching bring together many different subjects. She combines math, neural biology, computer science, and geology to study artificial neural networks. That means she develops computer codes that process data in ways that are similar to how the brain processes information. Putting her knowledge to practical use is very important to Professor Poulton, so she applies her research to protecting the environment and helping people interact responsibly with their natural resources. Her dream is to make math and science tools for designing a better world. With that goal in mind, she and two partners created a company that develops software for better managing water. In graduate school at the University of Arizona, her Master’s research was on remote sensing, or analyzing satellite data, and the work for her Ph.D. involved studying electromagnetic information to search for contaminated objects buried in the earth.
Dr. Poulton loves her job. Ever since the age of four, she wanted to be a geologist. She has always liked the logical power of math, the way it explains relationships and makes sense of the world. As a young girl, Mary did not have much confidence in her mathematical ability until her eighth grade teacher told her parents that she was gifted in the subject. One of the reasons she lacked confidence was that she had no female role models to prove that girls could excel in math. From middle school through graduate school, all of her math teachers were male. In ten years of university education, she had only one female teacher: an English instructor. No one in her family was mathematically inclined, but the lack of support didn’t stop her from enjoying the subject. Her favorite math involves imaginary numbers, which help her to analyze problems by translating conventional math into hypothetical numbers.
Knowing how hard it is to follow your dreams without mentors, Dr. Poulton is passionately committed to providing support for girls and women who are interested in math and science. She was a leader in the program called “Girls in the SYSTEM” (Sustaining Youth in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics); this education project offered summer and after-school experiences for girls from low income communities – especially American Indian and Mexican American girls. The program also trained teachers and Girl Scout troop leaders. Dr. Poulton helped design a handbook of engineering related project activities for educators and for Girl Scout Councils throughout America. She even developed a Girl Scout badge in Engineering! In addition, she created a popular computer program for middle school students to learn how we use minerals in the household. Students from kindergarten through high school enjoy learning not only from her instructional outreach software, but also from the national earth sciences curriculum she designed. All of her projects focus on helping students conceptualize, analyze, apply, and enjoy problems.
Dr. Poulton’s commitment to mentoring and to forging connections with females interested in math and science is legendary at the University, where she serves as a leader in the program called WISE: Women in Science, Engineering, Math, and Technology. Supported by Women’s Studies and Residence Life, WISE provides academic support, mentoring, and networking opportunities for female students interested in math and sciences. Professor Poulton is a crucial member of the support system, spending many hours every week mentoring undergraduates in the WISE wing of a dormitory. One of her important goals is to help them overcome obstacles that female students often encounter.
Overcoming obstacles is a skill Dr. Poulton has honed through experience. She grew up in a small town of 1,600 people in Illinois. Her parents had both lived on farms with no electricity or running water. Mary got her first job when she was eight years old to start saving for college. She has been working ever since. But the more difficulties Dr. Poulton has experienced, the more dedicated she becomes to helping others get around those barriers. She encourages girls to follow careers in math and sciences not only because they are such fascinating subjects, but also because they are so powerfully useful in our daily lives. Women need to have a voice in designing the world, or the world won’t fit them, she says. And according to Dr. Poulton, females make excellent engineers because our culture teaches them to focus on interactions with people and with the environment. Combining engineering knowledge with concern about people, women can change the world. Her advice to girls like me who love science and math is not to let anyone discourage us. She teaches by example that you can be successful, help people, and have fun. And if you are as dedicated as Dr. Mary Poulton, you can also inspire others and create connections between academic fields, individuals, and communities.
About the student:
My name is Mallory Brown, and I am in the sixth grade at St. Gregory School in Tucson, Arizona. My family and I lived in the Netherlands for two years recently, and we have traveled throughout my life on four different continents. I’ve learned Dutch and some Spanish (my grandmother is Mexican), and I really enjoy math, logic, and science. My math teacher, Mrs. Ramsower, is wonderful. I also love to read and to write stories, and I play a lot of sports (swim team, dance, gymnastics, track, and horseback riding). My dream is to become a veterinarian.