Student Essay Contest

The Creation of a Female Mathematician: Ms. Melanie Wood

2007 AWM Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

by Leena Shah

As society becomes more progressive, mankind develops the perspective of diverse areas in the fields of mathematics and science. Numerous opportunities have become available to the people around the globe for which mathematics has laid the foundation; these opportunities are available to both men and women. In today’s civilization, women interested in mathematics will be able to freely develop their potential without any restrictions. The accomplishments of influential female leaders encourage the growth of women in unexplored regions of both math and science. The long list of obstacles that female mathematicians have faced is discouraging; however with inspiration, confidence and encouragement women have been able to battle their barriers to become a stimulant for others. One extraordinary female individual that comes to mind is the mathematician Melanie Matchett Wood. Despite being the only woman throughout her nascent math career, she has already consummated several honorable awards, among them, including her most famous contribution to mathematics as the first female to represent the United States at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
Melanie M. Wood was born in 1981, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Melanie’s mother, Sherry Eggers, a foreign language teacher, started teaching her daughter general mathematics at the age of three in an attempt to implant in Melanie the fortitude and memory of her father, who had died almost immediately after Melanie’s birth. At a very early age, Melanie began to show signs of becoming a child prodigy in mathematics and mother felt impelled to teach her daughter linear equations. When Melanie reached seventh grade, her incredible mathematical gift really emerged. In 1994, Melanie was asked to enter MathCounts, a national math contest, due to a shortage of team members. Even though Melanie had no past preparation or familiarity with the contest, she surprised herself and many others when she finished first in the local competition. She would later continue her astonishing streak by taking first place in the state, and later stood fortieth in the nation. A year later, she competed successfully again placing third locally and fourth in the state. While a high school student, Melanie Wood became the first, and until 2004, the only American female to make the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team. Melanie and her fellow contestants had been selected from high schools across the nation with immense rivalry to participate in the prestigious competition.
Recruited by several universities, Melanie finally chose to attend Duke University due to its strong prominence in undergraduate studies. After completing her undergrad at Duke, Melanie spent a year in Europe and participated in a math program there. Throughout her high school and college years, she won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Fulbright fellowship, and a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship in 2003, and also became the first American woman and second woman in the world to be named a Putnam Fellow in 2002 (the top five or six scorers on the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical examination). One year later, she won the Morgan Prize, which is an annual award given to an undergraduate student in the United States who demonstrates superior mathematical research skills. In Melanie’s case, she had done work on two topics- Belyi-extending maps and P-orderings: a metric viewpoint and the non-existence of simultaneous orderings, and was the first woman to win this award. Melanie’s paper on the second topic was printed in the Journal of Number Theory. Along with being a source of inspiration to other young mathematicians, Melanie taught a Putnam preparation course for students with little or no math competition experience. Not too long after, she was also named the Deputy Leader of the U.S. team that finished second overall at the 2005 International Mathematical Olympiad.
Today, Melanie is twenty-six years old and admits that she is in no rush to get through with her education. Recently, she coached for two of our nation’s teams that participated in the 2007 China Girls Mathematical Olympiad. Along with her reputation as a math prodigy, she also won the Duke University Faculty Scholars award after being nominated by the Mathematics and Theatre Studies departments; assistant-directed “Macbeth,” the Duke Players winter show; and produced a musical. Melanie enjoys traveling and both herself and her husband take pleasure in cooking Indian food. She is a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton University and her research interests are in algebraic number theory and arithmetic algebraic geometry. Part of Melanie’s work today includes researching, where she works on “open problems,” or problems that mathematicians around the globe still do not know answers to. She finds herself propitious to have been able to develop interesting and challenging hobbies to focus on throughout her high school and college years, and gives great recognition to the people who raised her (her mom and aunt), who provided a home environment stressing the importance of education. Some of Melanie’s long-range plans include to do a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis in algebraic number theory and to obtain a job at a major research university. She is interested in both research and teaching, and has received the Alice T. Schafer prize for excellence in mathematics by an undergraduate woman given by the Association for Women in Mathematics. Her advice to students who are interested in mathematics is to look into summer programs and explore different math camps. Upon our interview, Melanie stated, “A key in my path was that I knew people involved in mathematics.” She believes it is important to establish contact with contemporary mathematicians and become involved in mathematical programs through your childhood years. By doing so, it opens future doors of opportunities for those who aspire to pursue a career in mathematics.
Having competed and won a number of honors and awards at such a young age, Melanie has has shown promise to be a great mathematician and has proved to her peers and the world at large that women can to mathematics at the same level as men. Such accomplishment by a female mathematician not only provides inspiration to other young women but also proves beyond doubt that mathematics is not a male dominated subject. Melanie’s remarkable and continuing success in mathematics can be a powerful motivation for those young women who are interested in pursuing research and development of new mathematical theories that can become a foundation for solving tomorrow’s complex problems.