2020 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

Cindy Lawrence: Leading a Math Museum & Leaving a Legacy

by Vanessa Sun (Hunter College, CUNY)

Interviewee: Cindy Lawrence (National Museum of Mathematics)

Screams of delight are a common sound at the National Museum of Mathematics, as groups of schoolchildren explore mathematically oriented exhibits. They ride tricycles with square wheels, adjust angles on a basketball launcher, and learn about cryptography in workshops. From the minute they walk in, visitors recognize that the museum is not focused on math in a “school sense.” It’s all boundless fun for children learning math outside the classroom and for staff who get to discuss mathematics with enthusiastic children. In a back room sits CEO and Executive Director, Cindy Lawrence, making sure it all happens. Once in a while, she steps out to enjoy the sights, chatting with visitors about her favorite aspects of the museum. Other days, she is preparing for a PR meeting, greeting a visitor like Jeff Bezos, or planning events with an art curator or even a Fields medalist. In the evenings, she frequently introduces visiting mathematicians conducting lectures and engages with the audience members. The everyday life of Cindy Lawrence is busy and colorful, but quite different than she ever could have imagined.
Cindy was a math enthusiast from a young age and recalls having an influential calculus teacher who opened her eyes to the beauty of math. She planned to major in math until an experience in a linear algebra class dissuaded her. She recounts, “I was taught some rules, which seemed like a random series of instructions. I could follow the instructions, and earned an A in the class, but rote memorization detracted from the essence of what I found beautiful about math.” Afterward, she decided to try an accounting class, in which she excelled, and continued along that course. For years, she worked as a CPA, first at a large public accounting firm, then at a newspaper, and later taught classes and became a national editor for a CPA review company. It was through her children’s activities that she first began to engage in mathematics again. With her children, she visited the Goudreau Museum, a math museum of games, puzzles, and 3-dimensional models. After its closure, a local mathematician decided to create a new museum, one that would revolutionize how people viewed mathematics and get them excited about math. Cindy helped organize volunteers, then spearheaded the effort to bring mathematics to the World Science Festival. The group hired a design firm and built a traveling exhibition that debuted at the Festival, then toured all over the country for five years. The exhibition, Math Midway, served as a proof of concept for a math museum, showing that exhibits about mathematics could be fun and exciting, and that people would enjoy them. A few years later, the museum was open and booming.
Cindy’s roles gradually expanded as the dream of a new math museum, the only one in the Americas, became a reality. She ascended the ranks as Chief of Operations, then Associate Director, then Co-Executive Director, eventually becoming sole Executive Director and CEO. She grew from being a volunteer without advanced math expertise and with no experience in not-for-profits, to leading the nation’s only museum of math. Cindy simply walked in as a math lover and did all she could to share that love with others.
Today, her job is to do everything and anything in order for the museum to run properly. She oversees operations, programming, finances, and much more. One of her most intriguing responsibilities is meeting mathematicians, inventors, and others, finding ways to help them connect with visitors. She also meets with and learns from leaders of other science centers and museums. This is probably her favorite aspect of the job: getting to meet so many different people, from visitors with various backgrounds to experts in the math community. Her role has also allowed her to collaborate with many interesting people and to work on many meaningful projects, including serving as a founding member of the Global Math Project, which encourages educators to introduce a fun, innovative math lesson to their students.
Cindy’s lack of a mathematics degree hasn’t held her back from engaging with and building relationships within the mathematical community. In fact, during the exhibit design process, her role as a non-mathematician was critical, as she ensured the ideas provided by mathematicians would result in exhibits that were compelling to a primary audience of non-mathematicians. After all, a goal of the exhibits and events is to make sure that people who may not have the best relationship with math do not feel overwhelmed. Cindy has also learned a lot about math along the way; working at MoMath has helped her figure out what exactly she loves about math.
“To mathematicians, math is often an aesthetic pursuit,” she claims. “There’s a beauty in finding an elegant solution that can be appreciated in a similar way to how one might appreciate fine art. Working with mathematicians helped me conceptualize this in my own mind, which in turn allowed me to ensure that MoMath highlights and shares that beauty with others.”
MoMath’s impact has rapidly expanded on a local, national, and global scale in the few years of its existence, and it just goes to show how Cindy’s work is an integral part of the math community. This is especially prominent when Cindy attends math conferences, such as the Joint Mathematics Meetings, where she continues to maintain an active presence in the math community and renew relationships. It might be at the individual visitor level that Cindy’s work at MoMath matters most, though. You’d think it would take more than one trip to change people’s views, but a recent visitor experience study indicated that even after a single visit to MoMath, people left with an improved perception of math.
Asked what her legacy would be at MoMath, she said, “Just the fact that MoMath exists, that there was nothing before, and that I got to be part of the process of building this amazing place. Knowing that we have touched the lives of millions of people—that is enough.”