Where are you from?
I was born and raised in White Plains, New York. I earned a bachelors degree in Economics from Yale University and I was the third black woman to earn a PhD in Mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.
I am a mathematician because of my father. He was an electrical engineer. To hear my mother tell it, I was helping my father remodel the house we lived in (which he had built) back when I was so young that I barely remember it. Although I’m sure I was not very helpful then, I began to learn how to construct things, understand how they worked, to think logically, and the importance of patience and perseverance. I also learned it was ok to make mistakes. One just had to figure out how to salvage the project.
I didn’t realize that this had much to do with math until I got to graduate school and learned what mathematicians actually do.
I am fortunate to have had many mentors along the way. I would like to acknowledge Wilfrid Gangbo, also featured this month, for his interest in my work and his steadfast commitment to ensuring that career opportunities are available to talented black mathematicians.
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?
I have held research and/or teaching positions at University of Texas at Austin, Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal, Dartmouth, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and others.
When I became interested in interdisciplinary work, consulting was a great fit. I’ve worked on projects involving math, statistics and machine learning combined with (to name a few) public policy, pharmacology and math education. Most recently, I have begun working on the mathematics of redistricting and gerrymandering. It is gratifying to work with other mathematicians, lawyers and political scientists around issues of fairness in our democracy.
What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?
I believe it is important to find ways to nourish your soul while being a positive force on your world in any small (or large) way that you can. In one of my volunteer efforts, I help rescue and care for stranded marine mammals. Primarily injured elephant seals and sea lions. We see everything from young pups who’ve been separated from their mothers to animals suffering from shark bites or gun shot wounds. I work with a team to help them recover so that they can be released back to the wild. I find it particularly moving to watch these animals return to the ocean once they are healthy and able to survive on their own.
I also help teach young black and brown girls to surf. We try to instill confidence, perseverance, an appreciation for nature and belief in each young person’s abilities through surfing.
Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.
I once read of a poet who said “Love is never wasted”. I’m not sure whether I believe that or not. But I do believe that knowledge is never wasted. Whenever I’ve had to stretch myself to understand something challenging I’ve always found it useful and rewarding. Whether it achieves ones immediate goal or not is peripheral. So whatever you’re doing, find something about it that is interesting and enjoy the ride to understanding what you’re thinking about. You’ll be surprised at the ways this will serve you.