2023 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

“The Power of a Mathematical (Role) Model: Dr. Rachael Neilan’s Journey Through Mathematics”

by: Lindsay Moskal (Duquesne University)

Interviewee: Rachael Neilan (Duquesne University)

Mathematical models are recognized for their abilities to represent complex, real-world problems important to science and society. Their power lies in their influence, especially in decision-making processes: They provide useful predictions and insight for naturally occurring phenomena. One female mathematician, Dr. Rachael Neilan, an Associate Professor of Mathematics, is an expert in these models as her research focuses on population modeling in diverse fields, including oceanography, infectious diseases, and neuroscience. Currently, she is developing a model to simulate the behavior of neurons in the amygdala.

Arguably, some of the most important mathematical models (i.e. educators, researchers, mentors, etc.), however, model actions and behaviors, not complex natural phenomena. Rachael can tell you this from her own experience. Their power also lies in their influence as they provide inspiration that awakens us to the possibility of things that we might otherwise have thought we were incapable of accomplishing. Out of all the mathematical models that Rachael has worked with throughout her career, the most important was a mentor: her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Suzanne Lenhart.

Currently, Rachael is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and serves as Assistant Chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Duquesne University. This year, her twelfth at Duquesne, she hopes to achieve Full Professor, the highest rank. Previously, she served as Chair of Women in STEM (WIS), a Duquesne organization that she and six other female faculty members started after recognizing a need for it. WIS’s mission is to promote and support women in STEM career paths at Duquesne. Since its creation, WIS has truly blossomed and flourished. In fact, most recently and notably, WIS led efforts that awarded $300,000 in scholarship grants to Duquesne from the Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) Program for Women in STEM. Nationally, the CBL Program strives to increase the number of females in underrepresented STEM fields, and at Duquesne, it promises to help females recognize their abilities and enable them to succeed. The CBL award is, as Rachael described, a tremendous accomplishment and major deal to WIS. It is also just one instance of the positive influence of WIS–and Rachael’s efforts–on the Duquesne community.

Rachael’s other admirable scientific achievements are not limited to her efforts as a leader of WIS. She is often recognized for her outstanding mentorship. In fact, she was recently recognized by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for her contribution and dedication to the development of mathematics undergraduates as scholars. Her natural mentoring abilities certainly shine through the undergraduates that she conducts research with, as many receive outstanding research awards at conferences. She has accomplished all of this while balancing the demands of a family and a career, a significant challenge that many females in academia face. Being an all-in-one researcher, educator, and mentor during the day and then coming home to soccer games, dinner, and a family can be intense, overwhelming, and exhausting. Yet, Rachael doesn’t use any of these words when speaking of her job: instead, she says it is rewarding watching her students grow, discover their passion, and accomplish bigger things. Her smile and pleasant demeanor confirm this. It is clear that she has found her passion and talent.

Despite her outward success and demeanor, Rachael has faced a great deal of uncertainty throughout her mathematical journey. She never thought of herself as a professor–that was never something she thought she was capable of: “That was never a thing that I knew that I could be,” she admits. With the help of a mathematical (role) model, however, she was able to find her passion and talent.

Her mathematical journey began with her fascination of the utility of math. At a young age, she would help her dad, a skilled carpenter, with the mathematical requirements of his work: algebra and calculus. When she decided to pursue a bachelor’s in mathematics, she was an 18-year-old who yearned for a different environment. After growing up in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania, she wanted to explore city life and found herself in Philadelphia at Drexel University. A new environment wasn’t the only thing Rachael had to navigate, however. Neither of her parents had attended college, making her a first-generation college student. Without previous experience, her parents could not offer advice during the application process or reassure her that she would succeed in her classes. Thus, she had to figure out how to navigate the ins and outs of college on her own. It was a “very big step for me to take,” Rachael says. Yet, with unwavering support from her parents, she remained steadfast, courageously daring to venture onward despite uncertainty.

During an eye-opening Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Tennessee, she met her mathematical role model and soon-to-be Ph.D. advisor: Dr. Lenhart. This REU allowed her to discover, “Wow, there is a career path using mathematics”. Watching her advisor be successful in mathematical biology, a field which is male dominated, enabled Rachael to start seeing herself in Dr. Lenhart. This motivated her to pursue graduate school and eventually, academia: “When I went to graduate school, my Ph.D. advisor was a huge mentor to me, a very big part of my life and my decision to pursue a career in academia,” she describes. Dr. Lenhart’s model allowed Rachael to recognize that she, too, was capable of succeeding as a professor of mathematics and a researcher in the field of mathematical biology: “If I hadn’t met [Dr. Lenhart], I’m not sure that I necessarily would have chosen this career path or really known what it entails,” she explains. Because of the inspiration from her mathematical role model, Dr. Lenhart, Rachael had confidence in her own abilities, allowing her to eventually thrive as a professor, researcher, mentor, and woman in STEM.

Rachael’s mathematical journey is one of triumph and scientific achievement despite uncertainty. She found inspiration from Dr. Lenhart, her mathematical role model, and ultimately, her passion and talent. While she might not know it, Rachael is a natural mathematical role model herself.