Student Essay Contest

Amie Wilkinson: Defying Doubts and Pursuing Passions

2013 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Grace Wu, Mission San Jose High School, Fremont, CA

As I was waiting to interview Amie Wilkinson, I imagined what she would be like. She would probably be sitting at her desk in her office engulfed in academic papers and white boards crammed with elaborate theorems. When she answered my video call, I was completely taken by surprise. Wilkinson was sitting comfortably on her sofa at home, winding down from a long day at work. With her casual clothes and unintimidating smile, she looked like a woman I might pass by in the grocery store and never have the slightest suspicion that she might be one of the commanding mathematicians in the world. As soon as we started the interview, all my nervousness was dispelled; I was stunned by the refreshing humility that Wilkinson exuded. By the end of the interview, I realized that Wilkinson’s extraordinary journey has been filled with obstacles but ultimately, her pure love, curiosity, and enjoyment for mathematics has prevailed. I had not only gained respect for her perseverance but also inspiration to zealously pursue my own passions.
Wilkinson was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Evanston, Illinois. Growing up, both of her parents were professionals. Her mother pursued religious studies and eventually graduated from law school while her father earned a PhD in Psychology. His penchant for computers and programming inspired Wilkinson to value education from a young age. She distinctly recalls rifling through her father’s books filled with mathematical symbols as a child and wanting to understand what the complex symbols meant.
High school was a critical time in Wilkinson’s life; her passion for mathematics was cultivated by math teacher John Benson. Benson noticed Wilkinson’s extraordinary potential and placed her on special math teams because he had faith in her abilities. His ardor for math served as a model for Wilkinson and by her senior year, she was determined to become a mathematician.
During her undergraduate years at Harvard, Wilkinson encountered major challenges to the point of giving up her dream. After years of excelling in high school, Wilkinson didn’t realize how much time and effort it would take to do well in college math. Many of her peers were intellectual and hard working so Wilkinson fell behind and felt discouraged. She often doubted herself, thinking, “Maybe I’m not good enough for this.” While Wilkinson was at Harvard in the 1980’s, all of the professors in the math department were men so the lack of role models was part of the challenge. Sexism was more prevalent then and she remembers an instance when a senior math professor suggested that if she chose to be a mathematician, she would be one of lower standing. Eventually, her friend recommended she take ergodic theory, introducing her to a field that she would eventually dedicate her life to furthering. The innovation of the class rekindled Wilkinson’s appreciation for the beauty of math and restored her confidence but it was already too late to apply to graduate schools.
Wilkinson decided to become an actuary after college. That year was the turning point; while doing rote calculations, she yearned to work in the “candy store of math” where stimulation and variety were abundant. Her year off was a revelation because she realized she loved math for the pure beauty and enjoyment of it, not because she was competing with others or had to be the best. A year later, she enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley. She finally committed herself completely to the pursuit of mathematics, free from previous distractions and stressful competitive environments that discouraged her in the past. After earning her PhD in mathematics from Berkeley, Wilkinson returned to Harvard for her postdoctorate. Then she worked at Northwestern for fifteen years, eventually working her way up to being a professor. In 2012, she decided to move to the University of Chicago.
Wilkinson is a pure mathematician and conducts research in ergodic theory, a branch of mathematics that studies dynamical systems. Dynamical systems is the study of the movement of an area of space, which evolves under fixed rules over time. The field of dynamical systems was conceived to understand real world problems, such as the instability of the solar system. However, it has grown into a field of pure mathematics where the questions are more theoretical and not immediately connected to real world applications. Wilkinson analyzes abstract models for her research so most of her work consists of thinking with an iPad and stylus, reading, talking to other professors, proving theorems, and writing research papers. Even though her work may not be applicable to the world now, her ultimate goal is, through her research, to build tools that will become useful in the distant future.
Despite her busy schedule, Wilkinson balances her work and personal life. She is a dedicated mother of two and enjoys cooking. Much of her time now is devoted to her family but Wilkinson has had a variety of interests such as belly dancing and weight lifting. Wilkinson also enjoys traveling; her work takes her around the world from Brazil to the Czech Republic.
In 2011, the American Mathematical Society awarded Wilkinson with the Satter Prize in Mathematics. Awarded every two years to a woman with exceptional contributions to math research, the prize recognized Wilkinson as a leading contributor to the field of ergodic theory of partially hyperbolic dynamical systems. However, Wilkinson didn’t choose mathematics for the glory; she chose it because she loved the idea of learning and discovering something new every day. Through hard work and an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics, Wilkinson successfully transcended the obstacles placed in her way to become not only one of the most respected researchers in her field but an inspiration to aspiring mathematicians. Her life story of breaking the stereotypes and defying doubts is a testimony to her philosophy and advice to students: “If you look around you and you’re not as good as others at math, don’t be discouraged. Mathematicians, just like mathematics, come in all different shapes and sizes.”
About the Student:
As a junior at Mission San Jose High School, I am taking Advanced Placement Statistics and honors pre-calculus. I am an advertising manager for my school newspaper, the Smoke Signal, and an editor for the art and literary magazine. I also serve as secretary for the Alameda County Junior Commission on the Status of Women and, as part of the organization, have started a support club for children with divorced or single parents. During the summer of my freshman year, I attended Michigan Math and Science Scholars at the University of Michigan to learn about game theory and financial mathematics. In my free time, I enjoy reading publications and practicing tuba. I’m still undecided on what I want to do in the future but hope my work can contribute positively to the world.