2019 Student Essay Contest Grades 9-12 Honorable Mention

Grace in Mathematics

By Lara Zeng (Belmont High School, Belmont, MA)

Interviewee: Grace Cook (Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, NJ)

What mental image comes to mind when you envision a math professor? A test developer? A statistician? Regardless of your preconceived associations, zombie outbreaks and multicolored hair probably aren’t the first things you identify with a career in math. But Dr. Grace Cook, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Bloomfield College, explores these boundaries of convention all while coordinating the freshman math program and supporting her amazing students. With experience in a diverse set of industries, Dr. Cook proves that hard work and innovative thinking lead to compelling results.
Dr. Cook knew from the start that she wanted to help others. Recalling that she was “the most serious child ever,” she was identified as gifted early in her life, starting school a year early and continuing on an advanced track throughout her education. Up until eighth grade, Dr. Cook wanted to be a lawyer. She credits her algebra teacher, Mr. Hicks, for helping her realize her true potential in mathematics. “Up until that point, I was just sort of an average math student. Mr. Hicks was an excellent teacher and it was the first time that I’d taken a math class I really understood.”
In high school, Dr. Cook began to take all the advanced math and science courses she could. At age 15, she signed herself up for community college so that she could fulfill the prerequisite of precalculus for AP Calculus AB and BC. Since she was too young to drive, her mother would drop her off at the bus stop. Dr. Cook describes how she would “get there two hours early,” then “go to the library and do my homework or read.” Her drive and initiative brought her to study in the Honors Program at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Dr. Cook earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time through the dual degree program. She also did co-op, alternating semesters of going to school and working. She considers herself an engineer at heart and is driven by the novelty of implementing math in other fields. “Seeing a real-world application just really kind of calls to me.” She was able to “see something happen with the math” by studying physics at college. “Whenever I needed an elective, I was like, ‘Is there a physics class I can take?’” With an overachieving attitude, Dr. Cook thrived at college. On top of her busy schedule, she played a varsity sport every fall and served in several leadership positions. “I was constantly busy. There was always something going on and I wanted to be a part of everything.” Dr. Cook graduated from Stevens with honors, earning a B.S. in Applied and Pure Mathematics, an M.S. in Applied Mathematics, and a minor in literature.
Additionally she completed a Graduate Certificate in Applied Statistics, attributing her interest in statistics to her beloved math advisor, the late Dr. Milos Dostal. Dr. Cook recalls that after struggling with theories sophomore year, her original advisor told her that she wasn’t cut out for math. “I walked in the registrar’s office and got a new advisor.” Dr. Cook ended up with Dr. Dostal, who recognized her talent and became an outstanding mentor to her. “I had a wonderful remaining three years at college thanks to him.” Great educators have had a tremendous impact on Dr. Cook’s life, and she dedicated her Ph.D. in General Education from Walden University to the teacher that started it all, Mr. Hicks. Her takeaway from the educators that have shaped her: “It’s really important to surround yourself with people who are going to uplift you.”
After college, she took on a series of jobs, looking for a good fit. She started out as an engineer at Lockheed Martin for nine months, and then took the first job she could find in New York City despite an insufferable boss. “I really don’t like not feeling like I’m contributing something to society. I think it came back to that whole ‘I think I want to help people thing,’ which is what eighth grade me wanted to do as a lawyer.” But Dr. Cook feels that these experiences gave her invaluable insights and new skills. At the Educational Testing Service, she worked on PARCC and the GRE. “I’m glad I stayed as long as I did, because I got to know the Common Core and that gave me a huge advantage for some other opportunities that came up.”
Based on her career experiences, Dr. Cook’s advice to aspiring mathematicians is to keep an open mind. “I worked as an engineer, and I worked on the stock exchange before I got into teaching. A lot of people go into it thinking they can only work for the government or only become a math professor and that’s just not true—there’s so many additional amazing things you can do.”
These days, Dr. Cook teaches at a small liberal arts school in New Jersey. She employs a variety of students as research assistants. Her team affectionately calls their current research project “zombie math.” (Dr. Cook is a big fan of zombie and horror movies.) She was inspired by a Simpsons episode to wonder, “What math would you actually need to survive in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society?” Compiling information from FEMA, the CDC, Reddit, and pop culture, she uses Dedoose, an application for qualitative data analysis, to teach students how to analyze massive quantities of data. She’s presented at MathFest with a manga style poster designed by one of her students, and they’re working on putting together a manga inspired website.
Currently raising a three year old daughter with her husband, Dr. Cook’s goal is to have more fun and mellow out, in light of her past struggles with anxiety and depression. “Now that I have a child, I’m really trying to just relax and smell the roses a little bit more for her.” She mentioned that her hair was blue earlier this year and purple over the summer; she’s planning on dyeing it red for the spring semester. In her free time, Dr. Cook plays soccer, runs, and practices Muay Thai. She is an avid Marvel fan, having “read all the Marvel fanfictions,” and is aiming to expand into the DC Universe as well. She reports that she “really liked Wonder Woman”—no surprise, given her own status as a strong role model. “I’m a little loud. I’m a little outspoken. I stand up for myself.”
Dr. Cook hopes that she is remembered for her dedication to her students. The majority of her students are not math majors, but she wants people to “feel comfortable and confident with mathematics,” and she emphasizes the importance of mathematics in education and in everyday life. When I asked what her younger self would think of where she is now, Dr. Cook replied, “I am doing exactly what teenage Grace wanted to do. All I wanted to do was math all day, and I’m doing it. I think teenage me would be very proud.”