Student Essay Contest

Excellence = Math Circle2

2018 Essay Contest: Middle School Level Winner

By: Bronwen Roosa, Harvard-Westlake Middle School (Los Angeles, California)

Dr. Olga Radko is a woman on a mission to share the beauty of mathematics with future generations of students, as well as encourage students who are interested in math, especially young women like myself, to explore math-related careers. “We have students in the Los Angeles Math Circle (LAMC) who have no other way to pursue their math to the level they need to,” Dr. Olga Radko noted. “I thought I should attempt to do something like this for kids here. It is very difficult, for multiple reasons. But very rewarding, because you can really make a difference in people’s lives.” It was a rarity, a chilly winter day in Los Angeles. I am on school break, interviewing my role model, Dr. Olga Radko. A woman mathematician and educator, Dr. Olga Radko is an academic administrator at the University of California, Los Angeles and Founder and Director of UCLA’s LAMC. LAMC is a top-tier math circle created to nurture and educate K-12 students interested in math and willing to learn.
“Last year,” Dr. Radko continued, “we graduated a student who was homeless for a period of time while studying at the math circle.” Gifted in math, he had attended a poor school. But he was driven. He was always in class, he was always solving problems. He really liked math. With the support of the LAMC, he is now attending college on scholarship. Dr. Radko proudly noted that he had just texted her to share he had received a ninety-six on his math class final. His story is not unique to LAMC but provides an important perspective on the success of her program. Math has the power to change lives. Dr. Radko grew up in Moscow. The daughter of a physicist, Dr. Radko’s father had an encyclopedic knowledge of math, science, history, and literature. Reflecting back, Dr. Radko recognizes that dinner table conversation at her house (for example, discussions of elementary particles and how they collide) was very different from others’ families. As a woman, Dr. Radko is very grateful for the early exposure her father gave her to mathematics and science-related topics. This early exposure sparked a love of mathematics and physics and led to her wanting to pursue a math-related career. Realizing her luck, it also made her passionate about providing the same opportunity to all children.
Dr. Radko’s lower school education was typical – she attended a local elementary school. Elementary schools throughout Moscow had a uniform curriculum, with no classes for gifted children. Recognizing her talent and interest in math, a middle school teacher encouraged Dr. Radko to apply in 7th grade to a “special math and physics school.” This was daunting. She was required to pass many exams and be interviewed by the principal of the school. She passed and was invited to attend the following year. But upon seeing what the school was like, she begged the principal to allow her to start immediately. Amazingly, he agreed. Her journey, which she describes as the great opportunity to do more math and physics, began. Dr. Radko would receive a gold medal for straight As in all subjects and for academic achievement. 7th grade was also critical in Dr. Radko’s development as a woman mathematician for another reason. It was year Dr. Radko first attended Moscow State University’s Math Circle. “It was amazing to just to walk in the math building,” she remembers. “It was so beautiful. It was a privilege to be there, to be in the University Math Department.” She further explains, “I always liked books. I liked to learn new things, I liked challenges.” For Dr. Radko, attending Math Circle was important because it showcased areas of math she had never seen before. It was also wonderful for girls, who received equal treatment. “The smartest student in my math circle was a girl. And when we both went to summer camp, there was another student who was even smarter who was a girl,” she said. This experience had a profound effect on her.
Years later, she would be driven to replicate the experience to help others. After high school, Dr. Radko was accepted at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) graduating with B.S. & M.S. in physics. In the 1990s, graduates of MIPT generally quit science to work in industry or applied to attend U.S. graduate schools. For a young woman who neither owned a computer nor had a checkbook, applying to U.S. Ph.D. programs was hard. But Dr. Radko was determined. She was ultimately accepted to eleven programs, including UC Berkeley. While at Berkeley, she met her husband, Dr. Dimitri Shlyakhtenko, a fellow mathematician. Dr. Radko would then receive her Ph.D. from Berkeley, her area of research being Poisson Geometry, an area of Differential Geometry. In 2007, while teaching college students, Dr. Radko finally had the opportunity to move forward with her dream to begin a math circle. The program’s goal was to teach math not found in school curriculums, but understandable to students who had a talent for math, as well as to encourage young people to become mathematics educators or researchers. She began with a small program for high school students. Over time, she noticed there were younger children, waiting in the corridors for their siblings. They were eager to try the math. It became Dr. Radko’s mission to expand the program to all ages. Now, LAMC enrolls students from K-12 and includes mentorship, Math Olympiad training, off-site satellite programs, etc. Dr. Radko and her co- author Dr. Gleizer also wrote a book together entitled Breaking Numbers into Parts, which is based on the work of LAMC. “It is really hard to explain why you like math. You just do. It is beautiful,” Dr. Radko notes. This is the message she shares with thousands of students in Los Angeles. I know. I am one of them.
About the student:
I’m Bronwen Roosa, and I’m currently an eighth grader at Harvard-Westlake. I’m currently taking Algebra Two Honors, and have really been enjoying it. I’ve recently been learning about recursive functions, and graphing, which has been so interesting. I also have been participating in the Los Angeles Math Circle for the past five years. I have learned so much, and gained information way beyond any school curriculum. The Los Angeles Math Circle allows for a deeper understanding of topics we would normally learn a couple years from now, overall making the program interesting and fun to be in.