Student Essay Contest

Dr. Mary Emond: Solving Real World Brain Teasers

2015 AWM Essay Contest: High School Honorable Mention

By: Allison Kirkegaard, Downers Grove North High School

“What if math could solve everything?” The question captivated Mary from a young age. While she may have since come to see the world in greater complexity, this idea has still resonated throughout her career, whether in teaching basic math or researching sophisticated medical treatments.
Math has been an integral part of Mary’s life for as long as she can remember. In grade school, she saved her pocket money for books of brain teasers and looked forward to reading Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American. By middle school, she was exploring Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s writings on mathematical philosophy. Considering such early interest and talent, it hardly comes as a surprise that she eventually became an accomplished biostatistician.
Of course, that is not to say that Mary’s doctorate landed in her lap. As one can imagine, Mary’s preteen peers were more interested in celebrity gossip than theoretical math and they were quick to ostracize Mary with the label of “mad scientist”. Growing up in a rural school district with limited resources, few of her teachers appreciated her mathematical interest, despite the fact that she was a star student. Even Mary’s father emphasized to her how much more ‘practical’ and ‘rewarding’ the pursuit of medicine or dentistry would be over math. (He felt dentistry was ideal for a woman, since it was ‘easy’ to practice part-time and could provide good income almost anywhere.)
College presented new challenges. Having lacked the opportunity to study beyond pre-calculus in high school, Mary initially felt intimidated by better-prepared peers in college. When she caught up to their level quickly, others questioned her integrity because they refused to believe a woman could excel in math. This frustrating experience, along with her father’s urgings to follow in his footsteps as a medical doctor, led Mary give up math for biochemistry.
But before long, Mary realized she would only be happy in a mathematical career. She decided to earn a teaching degree and teach high school math. Unfortunately, though she enjoyed being able to bring math to other people, Mary was unsatisfied with teaching introductory courses. She returned to school, fulfilling her passions for both biology and math by studying biostatistics. Mary knew she had made the right decision when one of her professors noticed her talent in math- it was the first time she could remember anyone actually encouraging her to study math. She went on to earn her doctorate.
Mary is now a research professor at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on the mathematical aspects of genetic epidemiology and biomarker development by “determining the probability that a research result was a ‘chance event’ as opposed to the (more interesting!) alternative of being caused by the factor under study.” It seems to be the perfect match for Mary. In this position, she is able both to solve fascinating “brain teasers” that can actually help people in the real world and to bring math to others by teaching advanced topics to college students. Though her own challenges have showed her that women and men are “definitely not” treated equally in her field, she is optimistic for the future, remarking that gender discrimination is “so much less of a problem for women now” than it was when she was in school. She points out that “some [men] are supportive and very fair and very ready to point out the women’s contributions.”
While math has always played a major role in her life, Mary explains the importance of balancing math with other interests. She advises students that practicing math “should not be done to the point that it is not fun.” Mary provides an example by running, hiking, playing hockey and soccer, and spending time with her children in her free time. In her opinion, this time away from math even helps her with her work. “One has to get off one’s butt to feel good and to perform better with one’s brain,” she says.
Passionate as she is about spreading her love of math, Mary offers several suggestions for students. She encourages young women and men alike to follow their interests in math by practicing “a bit every day” with other people who share that interest. Mary enjoyed math from a young age, but she makes it clear that students who come to love math later in life should not feel discouraged. After all, math is not a race. Mary emphasizes the importance of not rushing mathematical research, saying, “One good paper that people trust and find useful is better than hundreds that are eventually ignored, or worse, send people in the wrong direction for a time.”
The perseverance and diligence Mary advocates have been the foundation of her own career’s success. She continues to meet new challenges with determination– even challenges as great as HIV. Aspiring to help create an effective HIV vaccine, Mary has not lost her dream of solving real world problems with math.
About the Student
Allison Kirkegaard is currently a senior at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois. Like Mary, Allison became interested in math at a young age; some of her earliest memories include happily practicing mental multiplication with her dad on long car trips. Her recent experiences in math include studying multivariable calculus and competing with the school math team. Next year, she will continue studying math at Pomona College, hoping to later use statistics in the field of education technology. Outside of math, Allison likes to play piano, sing, and learn foreign languages.