Mathematical Research and the World of Nature
“Mathematics is a creative and intuitive activity,” says FernHunt, professor of mathematics at Howard University. “It is a human activitythat every sort of people, at one time or another in history, has engaged in.” Mathematics can be appreciated for its “beauty of internal structure,” shenotes, as well as for its important applications. “On the one hand, it hasinternal coherence, but on the other, it has important connections to the world of nature.”
Fern has a PhD in mathematics from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, a world-famous center for mathematical research. Her work focuses on a branch of mathematics called dynamical systems, which forms the conceptual basis for such phenomena as chaos and fractals
Using dynamical systems, Fern has investigated a number of problems in biology. Recently, for example, she applied mathematics to the question of how the genetic makeup of species changes in the presence of a deteriorating environment, such as when animals overgraze. In addition, Fern has become interested in the more theoretical topic of chaotic attractors, a phenomenon appearing in certain dynamical systems.
At Howard, a predominantly Black university in Washington, DC, Fern’s responsibilities include teaching, administrative duties, and research. “The advantage of an academic career is that you have a lot of flexibility in your use of time,” she notes. “People wanting to go into academia need to be very self-directed so that they will really be able to enjoy the freedom from an 8 to 5 schedule and the two or three months in the summer when they don’t have any specific duties… You also need to be able to work well with other people. And expect to travel! That’s really the way you continue to learn, by meeting and talking to other mathematicians.”
Fern grew up in a housing project in New York City. Her father worked as a mail handler and her mother as a transcribing typist. With the encouragement of her junior high school chemistry teacher, she attended the Bronx High School of Science. Fern read a great deal and has always had a fertile curiosity, but she confesses that in school her study habits were not always the best. “I never really liked being a student, when you come right down to it,” she remarks. “I never liked exams, or writing down just the answer you need to get a good grade. But I’ve always enjoyed learning and discussing ideas with people.”
Fern finds mathematical research very rewarding. “I think of myself as your average Jane,” she says, “and the fact that I can discover these connections—every now and again!—gives me a great deal of satisfaction. It means I’m participating in something that’s at the root of the universe. Mathematics gives you the opportunity to create.”
This brochure was published in 1991, so some information may be out-of-date.