Student Essay Contest

Painting with the President: Maria Klawe – mathematician, artist, and educator

2015 AWM Essay Contest: College First Prize Winner

By: Ramita Kondepudi, Harvey Mudd College

When I arrived on Harvey Mudd’s campus for the first day of freshman orientation, I wasn’t expecting anyone, let alone the president, to know me. But President Maria Klawe recognized me instantly and greeted me by name. She knew every single student on campus. A firm believer in making a difference in our lives, President Klawe takes the time to get to know us, gives us advice on how to cope with the intense workload, invites us over to her house for painting lessons, and jokes with us about how one is not the loneliest number, as per the song by Three Dog Night. Mathematically speaking, irrational numbers, especially pi and the square root of 2, are the loners. She wants to help students at Harvey Mudd realize that “you don’t have to look like the standard model to be successful,” as she has learned herself over the last 30 years.
President Klawe jokes that she grew up as her “father’s son” as one of four daughters, and was encouraged to explore activities that weren’t traditional for women at the time. After considering a career as an artist, engineer, astronaut, writer, and architect, taking a two year break to travel around the world, and deriving inspiration by the student radicalism around her, Klawe realized she couldn’t live without the feeling of being “immersed in the magical, virtual world of a math problem.” She majored and received her PhD in mathematics, determined to “use math to change the world.”
In the early 1980s, she joined IBM’s research team in California. In the following years, in a series of firsts for women, Klawe became the head of computer science and dean of science at the University of British Columbia, dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University, and most recently, became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006. She has served as president for the Association of Computing Machinery, chair of the board of trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, trustee of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, and is currently on the board of Microsoft, Broadcom Corporation, and Math for America. Along the way, president Klawe didn’t forget her love for math; she spent years researching functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology, and interactive multimedia for mathematics education with over 80 publications working towards changing the world with math. She is grateful that she “never had to give up mathematics.”
Today, Klawe has two main goals, one of which is to change the culture of math and science so that the field embraces everyone, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and background. She is proud that her own life serves as “existential proof that women can be as successful as men in any role,” but it has also been challenging at times, when she feels she is under more scrutiny, particularly in a leadership position, as an academic, and a woman. She has learned the skills necessary to cope with imposter syndrome, the frequent feeling of not deserving her success and being a failure despite all her achievements. She strives to change the face of math and science in the future. She has already achieved this at Harvey Mudd. In 2005, the college’s computer science department was only 10% women, but after Klawe joined the administration, it is currently at 40% and growing. The Harvey Mudd class of 2018 has an impressive 46 to 54% female to male ratio, in contrast with the national ratio of 19 to 82% in engineering programs.
Her second goal is to show people that it is okay to lead multidimensional lives with different interests. As she progressed through her STEM career, Klawe found that the pressure to perform increased. She needed an outlet. She had been an artist all her life, but feared that exposing her paintings would make her less of a credible mathematician. On her 40th birthday, she decided to go ahead and frame several of her own pieces at her office and home. Now, she regularly paints during meetings, which she finds an effective tactic to be a better listener, a skill, she points out, that becomes more important as you transition to more senior positions. She holds watercolor painting lessons for Harvey Mudd students. Her other interests include hiking, kayaking, skiing, playing video games, among others. Every real world problem we have to tackle, she says “requires more than science and engineering,” so it is important that students today are more “broadly educated.” We can create better solutions, since diversity brings different perspectives.
President Klawe strives to make the world a better place, from the level of the individual student to the larger scale, demonstrating that women can do well in all areas of math and science. One of her aims as president of Harvey Mudd is to raise the visibility of the college so that “other institutions worldwide can adopt our unique techniques to improve their own STEM programs.” She defines success as “being able to open doors for people to be successful themselves” and advises aspiring mathematicians and scientists to “keep on learning,” and to not be afraid of challenges.
President Klawe is my role model. She is a strong, successful woman who knows how to really make a difference in the world, while balancing her mathematical pursuits with other interests. Her support and encouragement goes a long way. She has taught me that I “can never go wrong as a Mudder,” even if I’m not the typical engineering student.
About the Student
Ramita Kondepudi is a freshman at Harvey Mudd College hoping to major in either math, engineering, or computer science. She really enjoys the systematic approach that math and science offer to problem solving and wants to use these skills to address sustainable living and environmental advocacy. In her free time, Ramita likes to bake, read, and spend time with her dog.