Student Essay Contest

Dr. Laura Gunn – Family Misfit

2009 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

by Carmen Ng

Dr. Laura Gunn came from a family that was not at all mathematically inclined. Her mother was a secretary and her father was a librarian and musician. The only possible link between her familial cultivation and her own passion that she could think of was between music and mathematics. This tenuous link might be that both music and mathematics involve patterns. But besides that, no one would have guessed that the daughter of this couple would have had such a fervent enthusiasm for mathematics.
Dr. Gunn was born in North Carolina and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. In elementary school when she played the game of school with her friends, she would always insist on playing the role of a mathematics teacher. Even as a child, Dr. Gunn imagined herself working in the field of mathematics. When she was with her parents at the grocery store, she would add up the amounts of all the items as they were placed into the shopping cart; by the time they arrived at the cash register, she would already have an accurate total amount in her head. She consistently received As in her mathematics classes until 11th grade, when she got her first C in Pre-Calculus. She strived to reach the A mark, and although she did not quite reach it, she worked extremely hard in that class. Despite what other people might have considered a setback, she actually found the challenge enjoyable.
By the time Dr. Gunn started applying to colleges, she was doubtful as to whether mathematics was what she really wanted to pursue. She was hesitant because few of her female friends were interested in entering this field – they preferred something less challenging and more “fun.” But since this was what she truly loved, it did not matter to Dr. Gunn that she would be one of the few females in this field. She believed that she could make friends and study with her male classmates. At first, she felt an “exclusion factor” and a sense of isolation from the rest of her male peers. But after becoming familiar with her surroundings, she began to get used to and even like the predominantly male environment. She found a silver lining as this supposed disadvantage soon became her advantage. There were more opportunities as a female and she was more sought after. She was accepted at every place she applied to for graduate? school and for which she conducted job interviews. It was difficult for her to make a decision among her job offers. Although she took the long route in choosing the more “challenging” and less “fun” field, she claims that the rewards at the end were well worth it.
In college, Dr. Gunn continued to take mathematics courses and continued to enjoy them. She particularly developed an interest in statistics. Her life-changing moment, however, was during a mathematical biology workshop in the summer after her junior year of college. Because of this workshop, she decided to work in an interdisciplinary area involving both statistics and biology. Although she loved, and still loves, mathematics with a passion, she wanted also to do something that would have a more direct and immediate impact on people. It is rare for the work of pure mathematicians to reach the general population. This workshop opened her eyes, and had a lasting influence on her career and life.
As a biostatistician, Dr. Gunn is able to do all sorts of different work. She is on the faculty of the Georgia Southern University, where she teaches about fifty percent of the time. With the other fifty percent she consults with public health organizations, including hospitals, and conducts research. She is striving along with her fellow colleagues to improve health outcomes, particularly among disparity groups. She works with health and environmental organizations and informs those in health policy who, in turn, inform policy makers of statistical results of analyses. An organization might contact her in order to do some statistical research about certain public health, biomedical, or biological phenomena. She would then do some background research about this and analyze the data that she is given. Her conclusions often bring new information, which in turn may arouse the interest of other researchers to further the investigation.
In addition to her job, Dr. Gunn also works to encourage and popularize mathematical studies and to promote them to people who are not as mathematically oriented. She does this at Georgia Southern University, where she teaches. She gives talks on biostatistics to undergraduates in other fields of science and mathematics, especially to women and minorities. She understands that some are afraid of mathematics because of stereotyping and the desire for an easier and less demanding job. Dr. Gunn tells her story to these students and hopes that she can inspire and encourage them toward studies in the mathematical sciences, including biostatistics. She wants other people to know that mathematics can lead to opportunities to make an everlasting impact on society. Although she presently only does this at the college level, she is looking for ways to promote mathematical sciences to a younger population such as those in middle and high school as well.
Dr. Gunn has no plans ever to leave this field because she enjoys it so much. She is enthusiastic about learning new things, and the field of biostatistics allows her to explore new concepts in applied mathematics and statistics. She loves to help people, and her field allows her to make an impact on others through public health and biomedical applications. What can be more satisfying than this? Although she was hesitant in the beginning as to whether or not she truly wanted to go into mathematics, she now looks back and is certainly glad that she has decided to undertake this adventure. She would not want it any other way.