2022 Student Essay Contest: Grades 6-8 Honorable Mention

“A Teacher Who Loves To Learn”

by: Indy Das Sarma (R.B. Chamberlin Middle School)

Interviewee: Adriana Dawes (The Ohio State University)

A bright-eyed girl examining a model of the night sky, her eyes running up and down the detailed imagery.

She became a middle schooler with a brilliant mind, intent on learning, proudly displaying her love of math and science.

She transformed into a high schooler staying up all night, the phrases and digits rushing through her head, the work taking her somewhere she’d been a million times before, but the feeling was fresh and exquisite each time.

She grew up to be an undergraduate student who was just beginning to find out where her true passions lay, navigating difficult obstacles, and continuing to hold on to her pure love of knowledge.

At this point in her incredible journey, she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Molecular Genetics at Ohio State University, with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. She still has the same ardent enthusiasm for learning as she did when she was a bright young girl, filled to the brim with curiosity. Dr. Adriana Dawes is a mathematician, a professor, a researcher, a scientist, and above all, a learner.

The subject of Dr. Dawes’s research ended up being quite different from that of the girl who looked up at stars, dreaming of becoming an astrophysicist. But the paths taken on her adventure to find herself as a student had converged and led her in the direction of her true passion: math.

Right now, Dr. Adriana Dawes and her students are researching cell polarization in worms, which can be used to figure out how cells develop and grow. “I do think that worms are quite interesting creatures,” Dr. Dawes says with a vibrant smile. The worm being used as the subject of study in her project is named Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans. Whether the worm is as elegant as the name suggests, we don’t know yet, but Dr. Dawes and her student researchers do know a lot about the cell processes occurring in the developmental stages of the worms’ growth.

Math is used to compute and process data gathered from the experiments on the worms. The information gathered from this research can potentially be used in curing diseases and growing new tissue using cells. It could even be fundamental in understanding how cancer cells grow, and preventing that from happening.

But when Dr. Dawes was in her undergraduate years, her attention wasn’t much focused towards worms, or even mathematics. Back then, she was taking four different honors courses in her first year: astronomy, physics, math, and computer science. “It was insane, in retrospect,” she laughed.

At the time, she was still interested in going into cosmology and working towards becoming an astrophysicist, so math was simply a course she took for that reason. At the same time, she was taking multiple subjects so she could discover exactly what caught her interest, if astronomy wasn’t all it was cut out to be.

This first year in undergraduate, with four difficult subjects to juggle, proved challenging, but was certainly a crucial turning point in Dr. Dawes’s life. It gave her insight into what really piqued her interest, and it was then that she discovered that astrophysics wasn’t written in the stars for her. Instead, it was math.

The mathematics course she took at the University of Toronto set off Dr. Dawes’s voyage into the vast ocean of math. It started with explaining basic math axioms; formulas and tools that at times may have been obvious. It then taught students how to use these building blocks to solve progressively difficult and rigorous problems, such as differential equations.

She loved this progression from simple steps to complicated formulas. The analytical yet beautiful way math works interested her. This was the first time she clearly saw math at its core; its gears twisting and turning, but always meshing perfectly. She knew the straightforward formulaic methods she’d been taught, now she knew how they fit together in the bigger picture. It was an immersive and delightful experience for her.

Although Dr. Dawes had a surplus of enthusiasm for mathematics, the subject didn’t come to her easily. She had to work for the solutions just like every other mathematician, but her newfound, growing love for it encouraged her to put in every ounce of effort it took to get there.

The workload in college was certainly strenuous at times, but the main problem she faced was not a math problem. “What I did find difficult was that, as a woman, you’re not always accepted, and your accomplishments are not always recognized. […] and I would say that the personal aspect of being a mathematician [as a woman], was more challenging than doing the work,” she voiced candidly.

The truth is that women in the field of mathematics, who have worked hard to earn their positions, are often disregarded and ignored. Dr. Dawes had discovered her love of math, but was also faced with the all too familiar hurdles of being a mathematician as a woman. These incidents could be subtle but insidious, or very bluntly apparent. A professor wouldn’t treat her quite the same way they would treat a male student. Nobody in the class would want to partner with her for a group project. A fellow student of hers even called her a “dumb girl”.

Despite what anyone thought or said, she persevered and became the successful mathematician that she was meant to be. This proves that math isn’t meant for just one type of person, it can be pursued by anyone with the passion to delve deep into the world of numbers and logic. Math transcends all boundaries of expectations and stereotypes, which should be recognized. One of Dr. Dawes’s all-time favorite quotes is “Math is the language of the universe,” by Galileo Galilei. And absolutely everyone should get the chance to learn and speak this language.

On the path of this learning, Dr. Dawes worked hard, but she certainly had some people who helped along the way. “Having somebody else say, ‘You know, I think you could do this’, can be really powerful,” she states.

Two of her biggest supporters were her parents. Both of them were musicians; her father was a violinist and her mother was a pianist. Dr. Dawes’s mother switched the school she was going to so she could work harder and achieve her full potential.

The new school instilled a rigorous work ethic in her, and surrounded her with people with the same love of learning she had always possessed. Additionally, because of her parents’ musical careers, music has always played a big part in her life. She still plays the French horn and piano, although just as a leisurely way to wind down.

Music is a vital tool in Dr. Dawes’s job as well. Whenever she works on a project, she puts on a certain song, and repeats it over and over again. The melody clears out all the other distracting thoughts rushing in her head, and allows her to focus on the task at hand. Repetitive, meticulous experiments, careful data analysis, along with classical music and C. elegans worms. A tranquil and peaceful scene indeed.

Along with music, another hobby of hers is knitting. Dr. Dawes likes challenging herself, even in her downtime. When knitting, she continuously keeps finding new and challenging patterns to do. “I like doing something until I can’t do it anymore, and then I figure out the next step,” she says. Pushing herself is how she improves, along with learning from mistakes.

She encourages her students to do the same, to take any and every setback as a challenge and every mistake as an opportunity to learn. In fact, Dr. Dawes believes mistakes are a crucial part of science, which may seem counterintuitive in the world of science, built on iron-clad facts and logic.

“Your experiments don’t always work how you expect, but sometimes they can fail in a way that’s really interesting,” Dr. Dawes explains. She tells students to come to her whenever they see something unusual in their research, even if it’s from a failed experiment, because failures can result in a new avenue of thought for their project. So, while the final answer of an experiment is factual and straightforward, the process is a spectacular adventure with research, analysis, models, problems, and solutions.


Every experiment is a dynamic journey bringing a thrill like no other, every equation’s answer found within a magic scroll perched above a towering mountain top.


And Dr. Adriana Dawes gets to go on that trip to the captivating and fascinating world of numbers every day. Even though she is a professor, she still finds a lesson for herself everywhere around her, that little girl’s eyes taking everything in afresh.