“The Integration Two-Step”
by: Karin Anderson (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)
Interviewee: Tracy Bibelnieks (Ecolibrium 3)
I first met Tracy Bibelnieks in the winter of 2016. At the time, she was leading the Duluth section of UMTYMP (University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program), and I was an eighth grader looking for a challenge. By taking a chance and allowing me to enter the program months after the other students, she completely changed my life. When she and I sat down for an interview a few weeks ago, she told me a similar story from her own life. A time when a professor saw her and realized she might be capable of more.
In high school, Tracy played alto saxophone and thought she was going to go on to be a music performance major at St. Olaf College. “I didn’t even want to apply to any other college,” Tracy explained, “I just wanted to go to St. Olaf for music”. However, after taking an advanced musical theory class in her freshman year, she realized that she no longer felt the same way about her future and started trying out lots of alternatives. The one constant in her course load was math classes. She took the math courses in sequence for a math major because she had several math major friends in the classes. During Real Analysis, she was called into the professor’s office after the first test. She told me the meeting started off in an interesting way: “He asked me, ‘Who are you?’ and I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m Tracy’, but he said, ‘No, I meant what’s your major?’”. She said that at this point she thought she had completely failed the test, but he explained that she had done really well and he didn’t have her on his radar. “And that’s when Dr. Paul Humke said ‘Well, I think you should be a math major…’ So that was the turning point.”
She went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from St. Olaf, and was then accepted into graduate school at Clemson University in South Carolina. There she received an M.S. and a Ph.D. in the mathematical sciences, doing research first in theoretical linear algebra, then moving on to a project involving yarn manufacturing. In this second project, she and her advisor found ways to apply different mathematical methods to determine when the equipment was defective. They did this by collecting data concerning the variations in the thickness of the yarn and using that to help pinpoint defects in the machinery more efficiently.
Tracy hasn’t stopped in her pursuit of knowledge either, and has focused on projects with significant social impact. One recent project of hers looks at the social determinants of health, and more specifically, food access. In this research, she and her students address the flaws in the USDA definition of a food desert and give a better way to identify food deserts. They specifically looked at Duluth, Minnesota, focusing not only on population and stores, but other factors like whether people have access to transportation and how long it would take them to get to a grocery store. They came up with a map of the landscape that was radically different from the one that would have been generated given current guidelines. She has been using these findings to apply for grants that would significantly improve food access in the areas of Duluth with the highest levels of poverty and disparity.
While research has always been of interest to her, she tells me that what drew her to math was the ability to pass on her passion for the subject through her teaching. She has held positions as Associate Professor at both the University of Minnesota Duluth and Augsburg College, Executive Director of the Minnesota High School Mathematics League, and coordinator of UMTYMP at UMD. As I mentioned earlier, I know her best in the context of being a teacher, and she is unparalleled in her dedication. She teaches with such excitement and passion that it is impossible to not be hanging on to her words. During a particularly memorable class in single variable calculus, she even had us all stand up and do a dance with her which she had dubbed “The Integration Two-Step”. A teacher that can persuade twenty exhausted kids of ages 11 to 16 to get out of their comfortable chairs to do a two-step with her is an impressive teacher indeed.
“That has always been at the heart of my vocation as a professor, trying to help my students find their own vocation, their identity.” Tracy is an inspiration to many, and her journey of falling in love with mathematics reveals an important lesson for us all. She shows us that sometimes all you need is a nudge in the right direction from someone who cares, and I was lucky enough to be one of the many people she helped in finding their way.