Student Essay Contest

How to Math?!: An Interview with Laura Taalman

2015 AWM Essay Contest: College Honorable Mention

By: Ellen Li, University of California, Berkeley

It’s usually easy to guess the plot of a typical Disney movie. A princess in distress needs to be saved, the prince saves her, and they live happily ever after. Predictable? Perhaps. But even though we know what happens in the end, we still watch because each journey to save the princess is different and unpredictable.
In this sense, these cheesy love stories are analogous to the more profound discipline of mathematics. Math tends to be a source of grief for many people, but it is also a world of adventures to find solutions to some of those age-old problems that have plagued humanity.
In math, finding an answer isn’t as important as the journey to the solution. As in Disney movies, the most important lessons in math are learned by overcoming obstacles in the way of the metaphorical princess. According to Dr. Laura Taalman, “Feeling lost, confused, and stupid is the number one job of most mathematicians.” One day, the math problem might be solved, or it might not be. Even if the journey seems hopeless, learning lifelong skills such as thinking, collaborating, analyzing, and failing is a priceless experience.
That is the lesson that Laura is trying to impart to her students today.
Laura usually works as a professor at James Madison University (JMU) in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, where she has been for the past 14 years. Before that, she attended college at the University of Chicago and then earned her Ph.D. at Duke University, where she studied singular algebraic geometry. Her interest in math stemmed from her love of puzzles and other difficult things, and math proved to be quite a challenge!
“I love being stuck on a problem and thinking about nothing else but that problem,” Laura said. “I particularly like being stuck on a problem that a group of people are working on, because it is really fun to spend time talking about a math problem, trying to find a solution, working together.”
These days, she does research in knot theory, a field she switched to at JMU so that she could involve her students in her research. She likens her role as a professor to a three-legged stool of teaching, research, and service, and it is evident that she is passionate about engaging her students in all legs of her academic stool.
For the teaching leg, Laura especially enjoys teaching the calculus-with-precalculus course offered at JMU. Although she likes teaching upper-level courses like abstract algebra and topology, she finds it highly rewarding to work with students that are struggling and to help them “get the confidence to succeed where they thought success was impossible.”
As for the service leg, one of Laura’s big contributions was setting up the new JMU 3-SPACE 3D printing classroom. Laura caught the 3D printing bug several years ago when she wanted to print some 3D models of specific conformations of knots. She obtained a 3D printer and taught an independent-study math course on 3D printing. Learning alongside her students was a lot of fun, and from there they set up a 3D printing lab in her department, which became a whole classroom in the fall.
Before she went on leave, Laura was teaching more 3D printing courses in the 3-SPACE 3D printing classroom. It was an amazing experience for her to work with students from all over the university (not just math and science majors) and watch people try, fail, try again, fail AGAIN, and eventually try until they had designed printable models.
The JMU 3-SPACE classroom has become a fantastic STEM recruitment tool since then.
This year, she is working as the Mathematician-in-Residence at MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics, in New York. At MoMath, she has continued doing some 3D printing, with workshops and some talks at schools to engage students in the wonders of mathematics.
When asked for advice for students interested in pursuing a career in the mathematical sciences, Laura said this: “Try and fail and try and fail and learn to love to be stuck. Learn to accept feeling stupid. Do as many puzzles as possible, of whatever type you like the best, because it is doing the puzzle that is important, not the solution of the puzzle at the end.”
In many math classes, students are more obsessed with getting the right answer than trying to understand what steps are necessary to reach the correct answer. Laura’s approach focuses on the latter to achieve the former, even if it means repeated failures. Doing so has allowed her students to gain confidence in their own mathematical competency and learn how to be okay with not knowing how to do something (yet).
Truly, educators like Laura are unsung heroes in the quest to share and do math. In her own mathematical journey, Laura has helped countless others embark on their own adventures. Who knows where she and her students will go next?
About the Student
Hello! I’m Ellen, a second year statistics major at UC Berkeley. I continued taking higher level math courses in college because I liked math, but I never seriously considered majoring in anything math-related until I got a C+ in my Intro to Econ class. I took probability theory with a wonderful professor the following semester and fell in love with statistics. Now, I’m planning to do a concentration in public health as well. In the future, I want to go to graduate school for biostatistics to work on applications in epidemiology.