2014 AWM Essay Contest: High School Winner
By: Francesca Paris, Head-Royce School in Oakland, CA
Katherine F. Stevenson is the daughter of a mathematician and a social worker, and she never imagined she would be either; today, she is both. Growing up, Stevenson had little interest in the latter and only a vague curiosity for math. More than anything, she possessed a penchant for teaching: she used to “line up stuffed animals and pretend to teach them.” Sometimes she included her little sister in the lineup too, finding satisfaction in explaining concepts to others.
Her passion for mathematics blossomed during her undergraduate years at Mount Holyoke. As one of just two thousand students, Stevenson received considerable encouragement, which prompted her interest in further mathematical study. Working on her undergraduate thesis on algebraic geometry, she had a “this is it” moment, and she dove head first into advanced mathematics.
Before graduate school, Stevenson spent a summer working for a primary dealer in United States government securities, to assure herself that she would not rather bring her education to a close and start working. By the end of the summer, she was sure. The job forced her to be quick where she would rather have been thorough, and the experience left her with the realization that she was “more of a contemplative mathematician.” In many ways, the terrible fit of the job ensured that her education would never end completely.
After earning her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, Stevenson traveled to Montreal to brave the freezing winters and study Arithmetic Geometry, which falls in between the fields of Algebraic Geometry and Number Theory. By looking at curves defined over abstract fields, she examined the connections between curves and lines.
Her year in Montreal was the penultimate in which she would bear the biting winters of the Northeast, thanks to a chance meeting in Zurich, Switzerland. At a conference, Stevenson ran into a man demanding that someone wash his shirts. She rolled her eyes, and then fell in love with him. Pietro, who became her husband, was so persistent that after their dates in Zurich he continued to pop up in Washington, where Stevenson had just started a tenure track job at University of Maryland, “so that job was doomed from the beginning.”
Indeed, Pietro convinced Stevenson to move to California after just two years at Maryland. Stevenson spent a year at the University of Southern California, then two as a visiting professor at Cal Tech. To earn teaching credibility for her permanent California job search, Stevenson taught for a year at Pomona College. She attributed being hired at California State University, Northridge in part to a recommendation from Pomona College.
Though she always believed she would carry out her love for teaching at a prestigious university, Stevenson has found her calling at the less well known California State University, Northridge. “The job I have now was not the job I imagined for myself. But it has been a perfect job for me.” Stevenson’s “job” is hard to pin down with a single title; it is a balance of teaching, research, and community service.
Teaching has been her dream since childhood because of the “fantastic reward” of helping somebody truly understand something, and at Northridge, she gets to experience that every day. As a professor of abstract algebra, Stevenson helps her students transform from young men and women who think about math into people “who are mathematicians because they are creating math.” To balance out the exhaustion of “giving up” herself to her students during classes, Stevenson continues her research into algebraic geometry, ring theory, and group theory.
Her research extends past pure mathematics to mathematical pedagogy. Stevenson runs a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for general education math courses across the California State University system. She works to redesign curriculums, secure funding, and coordinate across campuses for the high-failure general education classes that are ignored by many math professors but crucial to the universities. With the grant, she has transformed some entry level pass rates from one-third to three-fourths of students.
Stevenson’s passion for social work, which she attributes to her mother’s genes, extends beyond her grant: she runs the entire remedial math program at Northridge, and she is involved in the implementation of remedial math across the system. With about 3,300 students entering each semester who require remedial math and thirty-five faculty members, Stevenson is the heart of the program. She is responsible for “how they teach, when they teach, and what they teach.”
Stevenson works with psychologists to determine the challenges remedial math students face, which often extend beyond grasping the concepts to how they think about themselves academically or how they engage with the material. Is a kid failing because he is sitting in the back of the room and texting all of class? Stevenson’s job is to ask why, then use both her research and teaching experience to solve the issue. “What we try to do is make it easy, safe, and desirable for students to engage.”
Though she loves working in the classroom and researching complicated mathematics, by pouring some of her time into the remedial math program, Stevenson sees that she is making a substantial impact on access to education, a crucial social justice issue. “The social work has turned out to be more important to me than I ever expected.”
At the office, Stevenson creates conceptual, mathematical structures. At home, Stevenson is an avid gardener; among her blossoming flowers and trimmed tomato plants, she creates something tangible. When her two young boys aren’t busy trampling her plants, she introduces them to mathematics through games and logic challenges. Her hope is that they come to the understanding that she did: math is not repeating knowledge back to an instructor, but creating something, and looking for patterns and proving them, “and that’s incredibly fun and rewarding.” In this way, Stevenson does for her children exactly what she does for thousands of students in the California State University system: she holds wide open the door to mathematics, while allowing them to follow their own passions the way that she did.
About the Student:
As a senior at Head-Royce School in Oakland, I am appreciating the warmth before I leave for Massachusetts next year, where I will attend Williams College. At Head-Royce, I serve as the the senior class treasurer and the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. Though I have been a year advanced in math since middle school, I have only lately recognized my love for it, in AP Calculus last year and Multivariable Calculus this year. Outside of math and writing, I am interested in international journalism, travel, and perfectly ripe pomegranates.