Student Essay Contest

The Path to Success

2016 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Nikki Heinen Maple Grove Senior High (Maple Grove, Minnesota)

If you have ever taken geometry, you know that the easiest way to get from point A to point B is a straight line. However, this is not to say that the easiest path is the best path. Dr. Samantha Schumacher is living proof that the path to success is not always a straight one.
As a child, Dr. Schumacher was surrounded by math and science. Her father has a PhD in Computer Science, and he always tried to make math an integral part of her life. She remembers him randomly quizzing her on her multiplication tables in the car. He took her to science fairs and built towers out of tape and toothpicks with her. Despite her father’s efforts, she remembers not liking math as a child. She suggests that this was probably due in part to the fact that she was dyslexic; her learning disability made math a bit of a struggle.
By the time high school rolled around, Dr. Schumacher was on the advanced math track in school and was performing quite well in all of her classes. However, she still didn’t really enjoy math. Pursuing a career in mathematics definitely wasn’t on her radar at this point. During her high school years, she spent the majority of her free time taking dance classes and participating in theater productions. So, when it came time for her to decide what she wanted to do after high school, she resolved that going to school for theater would be the right choice. Not seeing any reason to stop learning math, she also decided that she would minor in mathematics.
In 2005, after receiving her undergraduate degree in theater and her math minor from Smith College, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts, she started working in theater professionally. It only took two years for her to grow disenchanted with her new career. “I was basically making below the poverty line,” Dr. Schumacher admits. “It was very stressful.” The biggest thing for her, however, was that “it stopped being exciting.” Every production she was a part of started to feel the same. Ultimately, she realized that she wasn’t getting paid enough money to do something that she didn’t enjoy. After she became aware of the fact that “theater wasn’t for [her]” and that “[she] wasn’t for it,” she started to think about what else she was good at. She remembered how much she enjoyed college math and all of the positive things her math professors at Smith College had to say about her and decided that she would go back to school for mathematics.
Dr. Schumacher enrolled in the Post baccalaureate Program at Smith College in 2007 to take a surfeit of math courses and prepare herself for graduate school. She then went on to receive her PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Minnesota in 2014. Although she did well in all of her courses, she did encounter some challenges in college. “There were definitely times I considered quitting graduate school,” she explains. “The work was difficult.” However, she was always very persistent. She would work hard problems over and over again until she got them right. She wasn’t afraid to ask for help when she was stuck; she says that all of her professors knew her name. “Wanting to quit happens all the time,” she says. “It’s what you do after you want to quit that is going to tell you if you’re in the right place.” At present, she is working as a Senior Analyst on the Supply Chain Team for Target Corporation. Basically, she is using math to try to find ways to maximize Target’s revenue. Dr. Schumacher says that she loves her job and that her favorite thing about it is that she is able to use math “in the real world.” Despite loving her job in math, Dr. Schumacher is not at all regretful that she went to school for theater. She says that her background in theater has actually helped her a lot in her current career. At Target, she has to present her data to non-mathematicians, which can be a challenge. She has found that people are often intimidated by those who know more math than they do. Less dramatically, they just don’t understand what she’s talking about. Because of the presentation and communication skills she learned while studying theater, she is able to effectively present her mathematical findings to non- mathematicians without oversimplifying her work. “If they don’t trust me or understand my work,” she summarizes, “they won’t use my results, which is why communication skills are so important.”
Dr. Schumacher says that she has never really felt limited or discouraged by the fact that she’s a woman. She doesn’t believe that anyone should feel as though they have restrictions on them because of their gender, background, or race. “You can be good at math no matter what you look like. You can be good at math no matter what your background is. You can be good at math no matter what language you speak. Math is universal.” On a related note, her advice to students pursuing a mathematical career is to be persistent. She explains that it takes hard work. However, she says that it’s definitely worth it.
In conclusion, Dr. Schumacher didn’t travel directly from point A to point B. She took a detour and explored theater before she realized that mathematics was her true calling. However, that detour ended up helping her immensely in her current career. Dr. Samantha Schumacher has shown me that the best paths aren’t the shortest ones, but the ones paved with hard work and perseverance.
About the Student:
At present, Nikki Heinen is a junior at Maple Grove Senior High in Minnesota. She has always been intrigued by science and mathematics and is currently taking Calculus 3 at the University of Minnesota through a program called UMTYMP. In the future, she wants to go to medical school and become a doctor. In her free time, she enjoys participating in extracurricular activities at her school, volunteering, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.