Margo Levine, Mathematician
2006 AWM Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner
by Annie Davis
Margo Levine never intended to be a mathematician. All through her childhood, she constantly told herself, “I will not go into math.” This was simply because her father was a mathematician, and she never planned to imitate him. This is plain irony; for not only did Margo decide to become a mathematician, but also she is clearly following the exact imprints of her father’s footsteps.
A descendant of a family from Eastern Europe, Margo grew up in Ames, Iowa. The college town at that time had a population of approximately fifty to sixty thousand, which included about twenty thousand undergraduates of Iowa State University. Her father was a mathematician, as well as a college professor. At the time, he researched theoretical proof-based work; however, he has since changed to mathematical biology.
Margo’s father greatly encouraged his two children to pursue a career in the sciences. When Margo was in sixth grade, he tried to teach her the distributive property. Though math had always come so easily to her, Margo began to cry at her failure to understand this topic. This was another reason why, as a child, Margo rejected the idea of a career in the mathematical sciences, for she became discouraged with that lesson. However, now she would advise students not to become angered if they have one bad day in math, for other times will be more promising.
When learning at Ames High School, Margo set her mind on becoming a poet. However, she soon disposed of the idea, considering herself too sensitive to face the critics. Therefore, her next wish was to build bridges as an engineer. Indeed, she graduated college with a major in civil engineering. In her junior year, Margo re-examined her reasons for avoiding mathematics. Her math classes were more enjoyable, and she loved the subject. As a result, she received a minor in applied mathematics. Later on, she went to Northwestern University to receive a master’s degree in math! Margo hopes to receive a Ph. D. in applied mathematics next June.
Since graduating from college, Margo has published several papers in mathematics journals and has attended many conferences. She is especially excited about having traveled to Haifa, Israel, in order to present a paper there. In addition, Margo also went to France for a mathematical workshop.
Her current research is trying to develop equations on how the minuscule structures, quantum dots, grow. (Quantum dots are on the order of nanometers.) Apart from her impressive research, Margo also teaches.
Her main goal is to teach math at the university level, or at least in a small college. This is different from her original goal, which was not only to be a professor, but to do groundbreaking research like the mathematician she admires, Gauss. How her research develops in the next two years will determine what she may do.
When I asked her whether she likes to teach one-on-one, or in a class, Margo replied, “I find it easier to teach one-on-one, because I’m able to get a sense of how the student learns, and that way I can adjust my method of teaching to suit that particular person.” When she works on a problem, she prefers at first to work alone, and later to discuss the problem with one or two other people.
I also inquired whether girls ask questions more frequently than boys. Based on her experience, she believes that neither males nor females seem to ask more often than the other. Margo does notice, however, that students tend to feel more comfortable putting a question to a teacher of their own gender.
And what about Margo’s future? Most of all, she wants to find a job! In addition, she hopes to write a paper with her father some day. Margo is extremely satisfied with her choice of career, and there is little chance of her changing her decision. Most people would consider math uncreative — not as imaginative as writing books or painting a masterpiece, that is. But Margo says that math is “absolutely creative!” It involves solving complicated problems and explaining why structures like the quantum dots she studies behave the way they do. Many people have not excelled as much as she has, so they have not yet gotten into the abstract part of mathematics. Creativity is yet another reason why Margo is pleased with the career that she has chosen.
When Margo informs people she is studying mathematics, they are extremely impressed, not only because she is a woman, but also because a common stereotype of mathematicians is that they have no social skills and are seemingly out of touch with everyone else. While in some rare cases, this could be true, any person who says this about Margo is truly mistaken. She is a very out-going person who enjoys yoga, running, swimming, cooking, worrying, and reading fiction unrelated to math and science. In addition to these favorite pastimes, Margo loves to visit any kind of museum she can find.
Because I interviewed a professional mathematician, my mind has been greatly opened. Mathematics presents more substantial possibilities than it once did to me, and I am now protected from prejudices against women in math. After all, I’ve just finished writing about one, haven’t I?
About the Student:
I am a seventh grade student at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. My interests have been in the areas of literature, writing, art, sports, animals, culture, and music. I have not been particularly interested in math until last year, when I had a lot of fun taking the placement test for pre-algebra. My future career might include veterinary medicine, writing, archaeology, or astronomy.