2017 AWM Essay Contest:High School Level Honorable Mention
By: Kailande Cassamajor Wheaton High School (Silver Spring, Maryland)
Dr. Bonita V. Saunders’ story about her journey to her current profession is one of evolved motivation and while direct, it was “hardly straight”.
Dr. Saunders was born in Portsmouth, Virginia during the year of the landmark Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. As an African American young woman, practically every aspect of her education and life had been affected by the case, the aftermath of protests, laws, and additional court cases.
In the mid-1960s the Portsmouth Public School System was one of the many school systems across the U.S. that implemented Freedom of Choice plans to integrate their schools. In practice this meant that some black children went to the white schools, but white children did not attend black schools. As a result, she attended segregated schools until she entered high school.
She attended the predominately white Cradock High School and first felt a bit uneasy about the new academic environment but her academic worries subsided once she received her first report card of 5 A’s and 1 B (in chorus). While she had a positive experience at Cradock High School Dr. Saunders states that, “I don’t think that attending an integrated school improved the quality of my education, but it did give me the confidence to believe that excellence could come in any color.” She graduated as valedictorian.
Dr. Saunders then went to the College of William and Mary to major in mathematics. Her goal was to become a high school mathematics teacher, but after working as a student teacher at a Williamsburg high school during her senior year at William and Mary, she decided she desired more of a challenge and she decided to go on to graduate school at the University of Virginia instead. She decided to earn her Master’s degree in mathematics and apply for a job but was unsure about whether she wanted to stop with a Master’s degree or obtain a Ph.D. She accepted an offer to teach at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia. Meanwhile, Dr. Saunders saw an advertisement for a new graduate program in Computational and Applied Mathematics at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk. Within a year or so ODU received approval for a Ph.D. program in Computational and Applied Mathematics.
One of her professors, Professor Philip W. Smith, mentioned the Ph.D. program, but Dr. Saunders told him she was planning to go elsewhere for a Ph.D. She had thought that perhaps it would be best to attend an institution that had a more established Ph.D. program in mathematics. A week or so later she received a letter signed by the ODU Math Department Graduate School Program Advisor congratulating her for her admission into the Ph.D. program in Computational and Applied Mathematics.
Having been surprised, she asked him why she was admitted to a program that she had not even applied to, with a sneaky smile on his face he told her, “Oh, we put all our promising students into our Ph.D. program!” And just as unexpectedly, Professor Smith became her dissertation advisor without her ever asking him.
She had the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia since it was only 20 minutes away. Dr. Saunders worked with Aerospace Engineer Robert Smith, a specialist in the field of numerical grid generation for solving computational fluid dynamics problems.
Dr. Saunders has worked for 27 years as a research mathematician in the Applied and Computational Mathematics Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Her research has included “numerical grid generation, materials and fluids modeling, mathematical function software development and interactive 3D graphics for complex 3D Web visualizations”. Her current projects still include many of these areas, but much of her work is either directly or indirectly related to the NIST Digital Library of Mathematical Functions (DLMF).
In 2011 Dr. Saunders was awarded a Gold Medal, the highest honorary award granted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, for her contributions as the lead graphics designer and leader of a team that produced more than “600 graphs and visualizations of complex mathematical functions in the DLMF”.
Dr. Saunders currently serves on the editorial board of the DLMF and also leads a follow-on project: the DLMF Standard Reference Tables on Demand Project. Her work has led to numerous journal publications, conference proceedings, and more than 15 talks at international conferences in 9 different countries.
Dr. Saunders does not let her work keep her from engaging in other activities that she loves. She is an avid tennis player and can usually be found at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York around the end of August. She also leads a tutoring/enrichment program for at-risk students on behalf of the Northern Virginia Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Dr. Saunders firmly believes that “the 3Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic are still key”. She also advises to “never use the color of your skin as an excuse for not achieving, and never assume someone is more capable because of the color of their skin or ethnic background”.
Dr. Saunders has a bright, outgoing, and uplifting personality. When asked, she surprisingly answers that her personality has “evolved over the years” and that she “was extremely shy and quiet as a child and during [her] early adult life”. Dr. Saunders’ strong religious faith and the love of family received from an early age are the two key parts of her life that have helped her through tough times.
She strongly states, “I believe a child who is loved can tackle almost anything”. Despite the fact that she has lost both parents and siblings, she concludes that “I’m often struck by the number of times their words and advice come back to me when I’m trying to resolve a particular problem, and I’m even more surprised to admit that what seems to de-stress me most is just remembering that they loved me”.
About the Student:
Kailande Cassamajor is a senior at Wheaton High School in Maryland and is enrolled in the Biomedical Magnet Program. Alongside her biomedical courses, mathematics is one of Kailande’s academic strengths. She is an aspiring medical professional, a self acclaimed poet and community advocate.