Student Essay Contest

Dr. Bonnie Shulman: A Different Kind of Story

2006 AWM Essay Contest: College Level Winner

by Stephanie Higgins

On her thirtieth birthday, on top of a mountain in northern Colorado, with a nine-year old daughter and an income that could barely supplement food stamps and welfare, Bonnie Shulman decided to go back to school. She thought briefly about studying English and had worked with some of the greatest poets and writers of her generation; yet despite her friend’s insistence that she earn “credentials” to help sell her poetry, Shulman suspected a college English education could not compare to her remarkable real-life experiences. Her subsequent decision to return instead to the math she had loved in high school changed her life and the lives of countless women across the country.
As a teenager, Shulman did not take her senior year at Bronx High School of Science as seriously as in her previous years, and let her GPA drop. She was successful, but lonely, as one of only two girls taking difficult math classes. She felt that math was inaccessible to women and that science was corrupted by the arms race, so she turned to poetry as an alternative and an escape. In the 1970s, Colorado was to impassioned poets what Hollywood is to aspiring stars today. Shulman and her newborn daughter left all their belongings in New York and hitchhiked cross-country to join Colorado’s newly formed Naropa Institute, where Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman had just founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets. Living on welfare with another single mother, Shulman transcribed journals for Allen Ginsburg and ran poetry-based service visits to schools and prisons. Poor but elated with her new life, Shulman never went back to New York for any of her possessions.
However, as her daughter grew older and their standard of living declined, Shulman wanted a change. No one knew of her fondness for math but an old boyfriend—one night, in the teepee they called home for a year, she had walked past him struggling through his calculus homework and absently corrected it, revealing her mathematical talent. On her thirtieth birthday they climbed a mountain together and discussed her future at the top. It was there that they realized, as she puts it, that “science was the only thing that made sense for me to study.” A few months later, in September 1981, Shulman enrolled as a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She took every undergraduate astronomy class, most of the physics courses and several math classes. As she continued to study, her interest in math sharpened and mathematical models became the focus of her scientific work. She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1985, funded by scholarships, a Pell Grant, loans, and her work as a tutor, waitress, typist and T.A.
When she could not find a babysitter, Shulman brought her daughter with her to classes. As their standard of living improved and her daughter grew happier and more secure, Shulman was reminded of her own childhood in New York. Her mother, also a single mom, changed careers when Shulman was thirteen, going from a low-paid secretary to a high school teacher. This move enriched both of their lives and sparked Shulman’s interest in teaching. As an undergraduate Shulman found tutoring one of the most rewarding parts of her education, but teaching right after earning her undergraduate degree was never an option for her. From her freshman year Shulman knew that she would “go all the way” with science and math, and in 1991 she earned a Ph.D. in Mathematical Physics after studying mathematical models of solar coronal loops. Finally, at age forty, she felt ready to begin teaching math and science to the next generation of students.
Today, Dr. Shulman works at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She chose Bates for its 50-50 policy towards teaching and research; professors at Bates are expected to spend at least half of their time working directly with students, while also pursuing their own research. Dr. Shulman’s work in applied mathematics takes many forms, and she teaches classes about all of them. Her interest in mathematical models in biology has led her to create a computer program that uses Leslie Matrices to model the “waggledances” that honeybees do when communicating new nest locations. She has developed math-biology modules based on some of her students’ projects, including a project based on work by Mallon and Franks applying aspects of probability to ants’ searches for nests of perfect area. She studies Karl Menger’s work, which has been influential in game theory, his attempts to “mathematize” ethics, and the implications of them in human decision making. She also teaches calculus and advises undergraduate theses.
However, only half of Shulman’s research is in applied mathematics. She is also committed to improving accessibility of math and science to women, sharpening teaching methods and examining the content of math itself for what she calls “the footprints of gender.” She led the Women and Scientific Literacy project at Bates College and co-founded the Calculus Consortium, a nationwide group of math teachers and professors who work for stronger calculus programs at their universities. Many of Shulman’s recent publications delve into the foundations of mathematics from a feminist perspective and suggest ways to improve math literacy and instruction for all students, particularly women.
I had not met Dr. Shulman before our interview, and our conversation left me in awe of her exceptional past, absorbing research, and provocative work. She is likable, charismatic, firm, and articulate; it is equally easy to see her as a mother, a woman with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a scientist, and an impassioned advocate for students of mathematics. After learning about her past and the work she has done, I am truly glad she returned to the field and is paving the way for new generations of mathematicians.
About the Student
My name is Stephanie Higgins —I study geology at Bates College in Maine. Although I take math every semester, I will not be able to minor in it because I am on the three-year plan, which saves money but restricts the number of accessory courses I can take. This means that I am technically a junior, although last year was my first year in college. I love math and nearly majored in it — I chose geology because I am excited by the opportunities to apply mathematical models to this relatively new field. I hope to obtain a Ph.D. and do research on climatology.