Student Essay Contest

Dr. Mythily Ramaswamy: Making a Difference, One Equation at a Time

2012 AWM Essay Contest: High School Grand Prize Winner

by Gitanjali Lakshminarayanan

The first thing that struck me was how simple she looked. You could walk by her on the street and not even realize that you just passed one of the leading research mathematicians in India. I was waiting in the library of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), deep in the heart of Bangalore, one of India’s most populated cities, when Dr. Mythily Ramaswamy walked in. We went to the cafeteria where we ate some of the best cafeteria food I have ever tasted. I interviewed her in her relatively small office which appeared to be only ten by ten feet, in which she had managed to fit two desks. Her white board was covered with equations like a cliché.

TIFR is one of India’s top research institutions and has produced world-renowned scientists. Dr. Ramaswamy is the Dean of the Centre for Applicable Mathematics and does specialized research in partial differential equations. She explained to me how partial differential equations have a variety of applications such as weather predictions, engineering, aeronautics and even medicine; for instance, in calculating how much insulin to give a patient being treated for diabetes.

Born near Mumbai, Dr. Ramaswamy spent her childhood moving around India, wherever her father’s job took him and the rest of his family. Despite the obvious challenges that moving so frequently would pose to a young girl, Dr. Ramaswamy insists that because she saw all of India as a child, she received a great education that equipped her to mix with a variety of people. It has helped her teaching career, as she says, “I am able to handle people better because of my exposure at a younger age to various cultures.”

From her first acquaintance with the subject, math was the only path for her. No other subject came close. She liked the rigid boundaries and the precision: that “yes” or “no”. She also enjoyed the ability to prove things and to seek out patterns in numbers. However, when I asked her what she remembers from her childhood, she said that she only remembers playing with her friends and climbing trees; she did not think of math as a career until later.

Dr. Ramaswamy did have a lot of support at home because her mother was a math lover herself. However, when she decided to go into research, her parents were not happy; they wanted her to take a secure bank job as many in her family had done. However, she insisted on continuing with research. She had heard of the TIFR from her cousin, and during her college years, Dr. Ramaswamy was taught by some professors from TIFR. She was immensely fascinated by them and therefore attracted to a research career. When we talked about the declining interest in math amongst US school students, she simply said that if you really understand math, you enjoy it. “It is like playing a game. Once you enjoy it, there is no stopping you. You’ll go all the way to the end.”

Before Dr. Ramaswamy became a professor in TIFR, she encountered several challenges as a woman. Once, a professor predicted that a start-up center would not hire women because they would get married, have a child, and resign. Ironically, she stayed to complete the course while most of her male colleagues left. Today, people accept that women are here to stay. However, even now, she feels there are some disadvantages. For example, while many of her male colleagues are easily able to spend evenings and extra hours with a visiting professor, Dr. Ramaswamy is under various pressures to go back home. Travelling is also a problem; she can only choose one or two trips: “I have to work out an elaborate plan. Who will take care of the house; who will take care of the family?” she asked. She feels that men have more networking opportunities around the world so they are noticed more. She encourages more women to join mathematics by saying, “The only way anything will change is if there are more voices.”

Dr. Ramaswamy has not just traveled around India; when TIFR was starting a school of Differential Equations in Bangalore, they sponsored her trip to France. She spent two-and-a-half years there and did her thesis in Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. Her trip to France enhanced her love of math since many famous mathematicians stop in Paris for the summer, and she was able to meet some of them; it was an inspiring experience. She also travels to the United States and Italy for meetings. Her favorite place is Italy because, “Italy, somehow, is very close to India in its approach to life and mathematics.”

The part of Dr. Ramaswamy’s job that she most enjoys is teaching. She loves to explain difficult concepts to students, and when they finally understand, it makes her happy. Her second favorite part is the research: looking for new equations, and how to formulate difficult questions mathematically. She is able to put them together by giving frequent workshops for undergraduate students in the hope that more girls will join math related fields.

When she is not thinking about math, Dr. Ramaswamy is very involved with South Indian classical music called “Karnataka” music. She used to play the veena, a stringed Indian instrument, but now she has no time although she still attends concerts. She also likes comedy and light-hearted movies, and detective movies because they are like a puzzle.

Through enormous perseverance and dedication, Dr. Mythily Ramaswamy has been able to achieve everything that she has today. During her stay in France she received the Diplôme de Troisième Cycle in 1983, a doctorate-level degree, and the Docteur de l’Université in 1990 for her thesis. She says that she has gotten so far in her career because she just loves what she does. I believe the mathematical community owes a debt to the bank she did not join.

About the Student:

I am a sophomore in the IB program at Vanguard High School in Florida. I am the founder and president of our school’s Mu Alpha Theta (a mathematics honor society). In addition to math, I enjoy science subjects and plan to study biomedical engineering. I love to travel to unusual places and have been to Peru, Turkey, Greece, Finland, and Russia. I frequently visit India where much of my family resides. I love origami; I attended the New York Origami Convention in 2010. I have been playing piano for ten years, do competitive swimming, and am a varsity runner on our Cross Country team.