2021 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

The Poetry of Mathematics

by Ingrid Ren (Brown University)

Interviewee: JoAnne Growney (Bloomsburg University)

“When I look around
the room—if I don’t
know in one glance how
many women are
there with me, I smile.”
-JoAnne Growney, “Counting the Women,” a 5×5 syllable-square poem
Dr. JoAnne Growney is a mathematician and a poet. Her path in connecting the often-estranged sciences and humanities, mathematics and poetry, is one that, although unexpected to most, feels intuitive to her.
Growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania as the eldest of three siblings, JoAnne spent much of her young childhood milking cows, gathering eggs, and raising baby sheep with her father. After her father passed away when she was 10 years old, JoAnne grew up under her mother’s stricter parenting. She missed out on much of teenage social life and decided that she wanted to find freedom by leaving home to attend college.
Having always been studious, JoAnne was naturally skilled at math and creative writing. When I ask her why she ended up only studying math in college, she explains that as a junior in high school, “Sputnik was sent into orbit. The United States suddenly started giving out scholarships in math and science, and so that was a way for me to go to college.” Despite her passion for creative writing, her financial situation pushed her to pursue an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Westminster College.
JoAnne went on to earn a master’s degree from Temple University and a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in mathematics, as did her husband, a former college classmate. While completing her dissertation, JoAnne gave birth to their first daughter.
When I ask what she was like as a student, JoAnne says of herself, “I don’t know where it came from, but I was someone who, in class, had the nerve to ask lots of questions. In fact, when we were in graduate school together, my husband told me that I should stop asking questions, that I was showing off.” She continues, laughing, “I was so amused by that because I thought that I was showing what I didn’t know.”
Throughout her life, JoAnne notes two female mathematicians who served as inspiring role models. “I had a very outstanding woman as a teacher for my junior and senior year [of high school]. She was great at not caring what people thought of her. A number of girls from my high school class continued in math because she gave us the model so that we didn’t have the attitude that women can’t do math.” This juxtaposed the inherent belief that JoAnne grew up with that boys were simply smarter than girls. Later on, in graduate school, JoAnne was drawn to studying abstract algebra and became close with her advisor’s wife who was an inspiring algebraist.
These role models are particularly memorable because of the loneliness, more so than any feeling of being outright unwelcome, that JoAnne experienced as a woman in math. As her 5×5 syllable-square poem alludes, JoAnne was often the only woman mathematician in the room. When I tell her about my insecurities in pursuing math as opposed to English or creative writing, two fields with significantly more women, JoAnne offers me some advice. She tells me that as a woman in math—or broadly in the sciences—it is incredibly encouraging and important to actively search for, reach out to, and become friends with other women in the field. These social connections, these friendships and solidarity, are essential to succeed mentally and academically.
JoAnne describes herself as never having been a deep scholar but rather finding an interest in a broad range of mathematical topics. As a professor at Bloomsburg University, instead of completing typical math research, JoAnne completed scholarly work and created a resource list of over 300 books and articles pertaining to math and the arts. When speaking to me, JoAnne has an evident passion for teaching and explains that in her classes, she would introduce poems, biographies, and visual art to elicit organic and original discussions among her students relating the two fields.
After a very full and satisfying career in mathematical academia, JoAnne pursued her other passion: creative writing. Without the financial burdens that prevented her from studying the humanities and the arts as an undergraduate, JoAnne earned a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Hunter College.
“While I was teaching [math], I started getting involved with the history of women in mathematics. My first important poem, and I don’t think it was the first one I had published, but the first one I felt was really important to me was one about Emmy Noether called ‘My Dance is Mathematics.’ In a way, that became a statement for me. Learning about her and her isolation helped me find my voice.”
Ever since, JoAnne has continued using mathematics to guide her poetic endeavors. Through her blog, Poetry with Mathematics, JoAnne collects math-related poems such as square-syllable poems, Fibonacci-syllable poems, and proof poems to explore the precision, beauty, and mysteries found in both mathematics and poetry.
“It seems to be a compulsion of my mind or my thinking style to connect things,” JoAnne tells me sincerely. “Because I know a lot of math and because I have also studied poetry, I try to connect them, and I do think that it’s important that the sciences and the humanities be linked.”
JoAnne also encourages me to look into The Bridges Organization, which she admires in promoting interdisciplinary work in mathematics and artistic disciplines including visual arts, music, poetry, architecture, and culture. An annual international Bridges conference brings together mathematicians and artists like JoAnne to appreciate these intersections.
In the future, JoAnne hopes that more members of the scientific community open up to the humanities and the arts in order to communicate with the rest of the world. She leaves me with this thought: “Often, the arts are a way of developing love of beauty and importance of values. Science needs to incorporate both beauty and values.”