Asuman Aksoy: Reserving the Right to Think
by Angie Wang (Claremont McKenna College)
Interviewee: Asuman Güven Aksoy (Claremont McKenna College)
On the cover sheet of each multivariable calculus exam, Professor Asuman Aksoy leaves her students a quote from Hypatia, one of the first woman mathematicians in human history: “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” Every year, nervous freshmen, moments away from taking their first college mathematics exams, absorb the quote with a sort of starry-eyed hope that quells their former feelings of fear and anxiety. Hypatia’s words, however, resonate with more than just Professor Aksoy’s students. These words also embody the essence of Professor Aksoy’s journey thus far—a relentless striving to reserve her own right to think.
Professor Aksoy was born and raised in Turkey. Her mother was cognizant of the reality that women had fewer choices in life. She dreamt of her daughter growing up to enjoy economic independence, which she believed could be achieved through education.
Growing up, Professor Aksoy kept this perspective in mind. She explored physics, biology, and engineering. “I realized I wasn’t going to understand motion if I didn’t know multivariable calculus well enough,” she says. And as she continued to learn about the world around her, she was captivated by the realization that mathematics was the queen of sciences.
That love for math continued to develop. As an undergraduate at the University of Ankara, Professor Aksoy’s experience in her differential equations course changed the way she approached mathematics. The class was taught by a progressive and exacting woman. The teacher insisted that whenever Professor Aksoy wrote “one over x,” she always remembered to write that x was nonzero. “Before, I thought mathematics was just being able to figure things out,” Professor Aksoy says. “She is the one who showed me that how you write is important because when you are writing, your mind is working and you are trying to understand something, so this is a part of owning the knowledge.”
And own the knowledge she did, as she graduated first in her class as a math and physics major—yet she was denied a spot in the University of Ankara’s Ph.D. program. “The decision was based on my gender,” Professor Aksoy acknowledges. It was assumed that because she was a woman, she would not finish the Ph.D. program, and instead choose to leave halfway to get married and start a family. In the eyes of the Ph.D. program, Professor Aksoy did not have the potential to succeed in mathematics. She was disappointed.
“I think you should be aware of the forces against you,” she reflects, “but you should not dwell too much in it. Give yourself the right to be intellectual in mathematics.”
Regardless of what others expected of her, she was determined to pursue the subject she loved. She transferred to Middle East Technical University, where she earned her master’s degree in mathematics. And later, through a NATO scholarship from the Turkish Scientific and Research Council, she had the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. She was one of five women in a class of approximately 100 graduate students, and in the mathematics building, there was no women’s bathroom. “I felt like the expectations were a little bit less of woman Ph.D. students,” Professor Aksoy also admits. “There is a teaching part, and there is a research part. I was encouraged more on the teaching part than on the research part.”
But it was also at the University of Michigan where Professor Aksoy began to learn how to do research—and she loved immersing herself in approximation theory, metric geometry, and fixed-point theory. “Research is exciting because it is a very personal thing,” she explains. “You do research because you have a problem, and you want to know the truth. It feels like you’re in a maze, you’re going off the road, and then you come back to the main road. If you are able to make a connection, that is extremely enjoyable.” She also loved navigating these mazes with others, as she pored over the previous work of mathematicians and collaborated with scholars from all over the world.
“The contributions of some people in mathematics are like big symphonies,” she says. “And there are others who produce small nocturnes and sonatas. These small sonatas are also very pretty and later may be used in big symphonies. They all contribute. That collective effort in mathematics for the sake of mathematics is beautiful.”
At the University of Michigan, Professor Aksoy discovered that she genuinely enjoyed teaching students as well. “I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives if I could,” she says. “Not necessarily making them mathematicians, but making them understand critical thinking.” She earned a tenure-track job at the nearby Oakland University. After three years, she moved to Claremont, California.
At Claremont McKenna College, she has not only dedicated her past thirty years to further exploring her research interests but also empowering students to dive into the world of mathematics and experience the joys of thinking on their own terms. “If something is worth knowing, and you are going to retain it, then it has to come from your own efforts,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean I cannot guide or show my students the strength and beauty of mathematics.”
And this she does. During every lecture, ranging from topics in multivariable calculus to measure theory, the rhythmic sound of Professor Aksoy’s chalk hitting the board is like music. Students absorb the examples, proofs, and counterexamples—all written with the precision that Professor Aksoy has carried with her since her differential equations course many years ago. Just as she did, her students write, and their minds are working. And as they contemplate the beautiful mathematics that Professor Aksoy guides them towards, they embark on their own journey of owning knowledge and fighting to reserve their right to think.