2024 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

“Dr. Maria Klawe: Pattern and Connection”

by: Mithra Karamchedu (Harvey Mudd College)

Interviewee: Maria Klawe (Math for America)

What do graph theory, art, and STEM outreach have in common? The answer, according to Dr. Maria Klawe, is finding patterns and forming connections.

Maria—as she always asks others to address her—is an esteemed mathematician and computer scientist, known for her contributions to discrete mathematics, functional analysis, and theoretical computer science. But she is also well-known as an enthusiastic watercolorist and for her outreach with underrepresented groups in STEM. From 2006 to 2023, Maria served as the president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, and in November 2023, she began her new role as the president of Math for America. In her endeavors as both a mathematician and president, I’ve noticed the many different ways she links together mathematics, art, and outreach across her work.

“I think the thing about both art and mathematics is that patterns are important. And they’re important in different ways,” she explains. “It’s not that I think about math when I’m doing art or art when I’m doing math, but it’s clear to me that there’s a similar part of my brain that responds to that.”

I first met Maria in the spring of 2021 and in the years since I’ve been deeply fortunate to get to know her in a personal and mathematical capacity. At the time, Maria and my brother had invited me to join them on a mathematical project they were pursuing, in an area of graph theory known as Ramsey theory. Quite literally, graph theory is the study of connections: it probes the nature of graphs, mathematical objects that are simply defined as a collection of vertices connected together by edges. Within the scope of graph theory, Ramsey theory is a way of characterizing the patterns that appear in a graph, by asking how large a graph can be before some substructure will inevitably emerge. Thus, Maria’s mathematical research forces her to study pattern and connection in a very direct way. But working with Maria has shown me some of the inner workings of the mathematical process and the role that pattern recognition plays therein—asking questions like “How can we generalize this graph structure?” or “Are there any other graphs that behave like this one?” As Maria suggests, doing mathematics is infused with searching for patterns. And even though they are a little different from the patterns you see in art, they feel motivated by a similar spark.

And Maria’s artistic work sometimes becomes mathematical too! Recently, Maria was commissioned by the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute in Berkeley to paint portraits of female mathematicians, with an emphasis on women of color; these portraits included Marjorie Lee Browne, Cathleen Morawetz, and Maryam Mirzakhani. Maria explains that a common challenge of doing mathematics is its insulation: many students feel like the only way to become excited about math is by starting from an already-mathematical place. In response, she encourages students to look for gateways between mathematics and other fields, just like she uses math to practice her artistic pattern recognition and her watercolor portraits as a reason to celebrate math. If you are interested in math alongside something else, you can develop a unique way of approaching both fields, a new perspective that deepens the power of both.

Along these lines, however, Maria has noticed a shared reaction people have to both math and art: as “insulated fields” you have to be good at or not. “I’ll be doing art and some will say, ‘Oh, I’m really not artistic at all,’ and it’s nonsense! Everybody can be good at math. Everyone can be good at art. It’s persistence and hard work and willing to take chances on learning something that make it a huge difference.” In Maria’s experience, students are unfortunately discouraged from thinking of themselves as artistic or mathematical, even though everyone is a unique kind of artist and mathematician simply waiting to find the right gateways in. “Everybody learns things at different speeds, and we unfortunately tend to connect speed of learning with ability. And they’re not particularly related. But we encourage people who learn something quickly and we discourage somebody who takes time to learn it. But in the long run, the person who takes a long time to learn something might actually have insights and perspectives that somebody who just learned it without even thinking just won’t have.”

Maria has been involved in numerous outreach endeavors to try and hammer this point home. After taking a gap during her undergraduate degree in math, Maria realized that she wanted to connect her work in mathematics with social change: “The way those things came together was to try to combine my love for mathematics, and for science and engineering more generally, with working hard to bring people who are underrepresented—particularly women and people of color—into these disciplines and thinking of that as a way to change the world.” For instance, in 1991, Maria co-founded the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) and has served on several boards and committees aimed at increasing female participation in STEM fields. As the Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia (from 1998 to 2002), she increased the proportion of female CS majors from 16% to 27%, and during her presidency at Harvey Mudd (from 2006 to 2023), the student body went from being roughly 30% female to 50%. For Maria, math can be a powerful reason to become passionate about social outreach, and outreach can be a powerful reason to be passionate about math.

And I think the lesson from Maria’s enthusiasm across her many interests is to look for the connections. Mathematics, art, and really all of science and engineering are fields that thrive on new perspectives—and everyone has something new to offer. As Maria says: “Everybody’s ideas matter. Everybody’s perspectives matter. And the more that we can actually encourage people to explore those possibilities for themselves, the better off the world will be.”