2021 Student Essay Contest: Grades 6-8 Honorable Mention

From Mangoes to Math

by Meera Srini (Columbus Academy)

Interviewee: Padmini Veerapen (Tennessee Tech University)

“Why do you study math? Numbers don’t exist in reality. You cannot find the number one or two written somewhere on a table. There is no need to understand numbers.” That is what a friend of Dr. Padmini Veerapen once asked her at a coffee shop. While the notion of math seems abstract, she said that math is everywhere, and that there are a lot of real world applications for math. The impossible and abstract aspects of math are what inspired and sparked Dr. Veerapen’s curiosity in the subject.
Padmini Veerapen was born and raised in Mauritius, a small group of tropical islands off the coast of Madagascar near the African subcontinent. Mauritius is home to Dr. Veerapen’s favorite fruit, mangoes. She had an active childhood living in a large city. Her family took advantage of the beach and went there often during summer vacations. Dr. Veerapen grew up with three brothers. Her two older brothers went into engineering and her younger brother studied management engineering. In Mauritius, they use the British learning system, which is more memorization-based compared to the US learning system, which she later found as a key difference between her background and that of her peers. As a high schooler, Dr. Veerapen had test anxiety, but worked hard to manage her anxiety by studying extra hard for tests and doing several practice problems. In class, when her teachers asked her hard questions, she was able to get them right.
Dr. Veerapen’s parents emphasized the importance of education, and her grandfather once told her that “no one could take away your education. It’ll be with you forever.” Her parents worked hard and saved for her higher education. Since Mauritius is a small island nation, Dr. Veerapen’s parents were concerned that she would not get sufficient exposure and knowledge there. As a result, she was motivated to leave Mauritius after high school to pursue college in Canada. She was excited for the new experience, and her zest for education drove her decision to move to Canada. When she arrived, Dr. Veerapen was nervous because her family was not there anymore, and she was all alone. In Canada, she started engineering school at the Carleton School in Ottawa. After two years, she decided to move to Texas to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Arlington. She stayed at the university to complete both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Math.
She faced obstacles during her educational journey and career. She observed that the people in the field of math were primarily white males, and being a woman of color, Dr. Veerapen said that “I didn’t see myself in these people and I didn’t think I would fit into that environment.” Dr. Veerapen speculates that some girls do not go into math because in their childhood, they are given little encouragement to pursue careers related to math. Due to this lack of encouragement, Dr. Veerapen indicates that girls tend to go into other jobs not related to math. However, because of Dr. Veerapen’s persistence, she was not willing to give up her interest in math.
Dr. Veerapen never thought that she would be a math professor because she did not realize that a professorship in math was a career path option that she could pursue. However, she was interested in learning more math. Her advisor in graduate school helped her find opportunities where she could use and apply her math skills, and she considered academic and industrial jobs. Dr. Veerapen was initially interested in working for the National Security Agency (NSA), but as she learned more about the job of a math professor, she became more interested in it as a career path. She said, “When I was young, I didn’t know it was a job to become a math professor.” She had a good professor who encouraged her to follow her dreams and interests in math.
After Dr. Veerapen graduated in 2013, she went to Tennessee Tech University to become a professor. Dr. Veerapen received tenure after five years, and her current position involves many different activities. These include teaching classes, conducting research, advising Masters’ graduate students, giving math talks, and doing outreach activities such as talking to students who are interested in math. She is currently researching a field of math called Noncommutative Algebra, which focuses on operations that are not interchangeable. When asked by non-mathematicians about what Noncommutative Algebra is, Dr. Veerapen describes it with the metaphor of doing laundry. “When you do laundry, clothes must be put in the washer before being dried in the dryer and straying from this order would not work.” Topics like this are what motivate Dr. Veerapen to continue exploring unanswered questions in the world of math.
When Dr. Veerapen is not teaching or studying math, she likes to spend time with her seven-month-old daughter, running, and baking. She sometimes sees math intersecting with her hobbies such as baking, which involves units and precise amounts, or when she plays with her nieces and baby daughter, she finds patterns. Dr. Veerapen enjoys talking with students who have an interest in math. She advises them to do what they want to do and not be discouraged in following their dreams. She also said that one of the best pieces of advice someone has given her was to “seek out people who can encourage and support you” and find others who have similar interests who are like you. This helped her overcome some of the challenges she faced in being a person of color and a woman in a field with few women and minorities.
Dr. Veerapen has many accomplishments in the field of mathematics. Due to her educational journey with obstacles as a minority female, Dr. Veerapen is motivated to help and encourage women and minorities to pursue careers related to mathematics. As a respected professor of mathematics, Dr. Veerapen provides guidance to many students in their educational journeys.