Student Essay Contest

If the Parameters Change: An Interview with Irina Kogan

2015 AWM Essay Contest: High School Honorable Mention

By: Kina Sekito, Troy High School

The year is 1989; the feeling of change is in the air. More and more people are questioning the government and listening to Western radios. The Soviet Union is on the verge of a collapse that will finally open the world to many curious minds.
Dr. Irina Kogan, associate professor at North Carolina State University, grew up in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the restricted freedom of speech, the carefully supplied necessities, and the inability to leave the country, Irina says, “It was a happy childhood.” She recalls going on many trips inside the country with her family as a child and listening to underground musicians singing against the Soviet ideology during her teenage years. “From my perspective, life was pretty good. For adults, it was much harder because many everyday services were dysfunctional.” And for Irina, it was not only good because of the safety and the travelling, but also because of the educational opportunities: as she says, “Going to a high school that specialized in mathematics was the best thing that happened to me!”
With parents and grandparents who were engineers and scientists, Irina learned early the importance of education while also developing her love of mathematics. Reading math books her mother would bring her from the library, solving entertaining math problems for kids, and joining clubs like Math Circle, she says, “I pretty much all my life wanted to do mathematics. Pursuing a career in mathematics was a very natural choice.”
Despite her strong academic records, however, Irina was not accepted into her dream university because of her Jewish background. Instead, she attended the Institute for Petrochemical and Natural Gas Industry where she earned a Diploma of Higher Education in Applied Mathematics in 1993. She left Russia in 1994 and earned a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Minnesota in 2000. She then accepted a postdoctoral position at Yale University until eventually joining the Department of Mathematics at North Carolina State University where she now teaches and advises students and researches the applications of geometry.
I, as a student guilty of doodling in math class instead of working on class work, wanted to try to understand the light Irina saw in mathematics. So when she was talking about Emmy Noether, famous for contributions in abstract algebra and mathematical physics who inspired Irina “because she had very beautiful work and she was a female mathematician,” I had to interrupt and ask what she meant by the beauty of math.
“Math is beautiful when someone has a result which tells that a bunch of seemingly unrelated phenomena is governed by a common rule, and this rule can be presented in a relatively simple form…. That looks beautiful,” she replies. And not only is math beautiful to Irina, but she also says, “It has taught me honesty. There is no ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’ in mathematics. You have to be unambiguous. In other sciences, you may be tempted to rig your data to support your claim, but in pure mathematics, that is impossible.” However, math does not always seem beautiful and is actually quite frustrating as she has found that while she researches mathematics, she is confused about 80% of the time, and she has found that the more she learns about mathematics, the more she realizes how little is actually known. Although this may seem intimidating, she advises both students and teachers not to be afraid of uncertainty, saying, “It’s normal to be confused and you shouldn’t stop there.”
After listening to Irina speak about her life, it is difficult for me not to be curious about the open questions and the “what ifs.” Irina cites her interest in math as mainly curiosity: “If you change something in this formula, what happens? In math, something is true under certain conditions. If you put another set of conditions, then you can have a completely different story.” Because of Irina, I too wonder the same question, not only about math but also about the world: If the parameters of freedom are extended, what new discoveries can be made? What other curious minds are waiting for their own doors to the world to open?
About the Student
I am a senior at Troy High School in Ohio. Although I do not see myself in a career exclusively involving mathematics, I find that I enjoy reading about the complicated history behind its numbers and shapes─why people became interested in mathematics, how the perspective on the “truth” of mathematics has evolved, and what mathematics has the potential of achieving. As for my own future, I think I would consider myself successful if I am somehow involved, possibly through music and/or the advocation of human rights, in helping others realize their own potential within themselves and the world.