- What is your current job/career?
I am a freelance math and science writer. The vast majority of my articles are about math, but I do occasionally get to write about physics, engineering, and other sciences. I have regular monthly blogging that I do in addition to articles for websites and magazines. I blog for Scientific American at Roots of Unity and for the American Mathematical Society at the Blog on Math Blogs. My work has appeared in Slate, Nature News, Smithsonian, Undark, Nautilus, Science News for Students, and Muse Magazine. I recently started a math podcast called My Favorite Theorem with Kevin Knudson. It’s been fun to stretch myself by working in a really different medium. My writing process is slow. I let things roll around in my head for a while before I put them on paper, and after I’ve written them, I rewrite and tinker a lot before I feel like something is ready. The podcast is a spontaneous conversation, and I have to think on my feet a lot and not get too upset if things don’t come out as polished as my writing is. I’ve grown a lot by doing it, and I must say I’m very proud of what we’re creating.
- How do you use math or mathematical problem solving in your work? How does your math background help you in your job?
Many math and science writers don’t have a math background, but for the way I think and write, my math background helps me every single day. One important way is that I understand how mathematicians think and what questions they tend to find interesting. I think that understanding helps me when I interview mathematicians for articles I write. Mathematics is a very broad discipline, so there are many areas of math I know almost nothing about, but even in those areas, having that baseline common point of view helps me ask the right questions.
- What motivated you to study math?
I went to the Texas Academy of Math and Science, a public high school where students enroll in college classes for their last two years of high school, so I graduated high school with a lot of math and science credits. I wasn’t interested in math as a major or career, but I was very close to having a math minor in college just with my TAMS credits, so I took a few more classes to get that major. In one of them, an introduction to proofs class, I fell in love with math. I hadn’t seen it as a creative subject, and I think of myself as a person who needs to be doing creative things to feel satisfied. Once I saw math as creative, I wanted to go further and further in it. I had a lot of interests in college, including biochemistry, classics, music theory, and music performance. It took a lot of soul-searching to decide to do math as a career, but that class is what set the ball in motion.
- What would you say to a student who is thinking about studying math but doesn’t want a typical teaching career.
In college and graduate school, our role models in math are all teachers and professors, so we sometimes think that is the only or best math career option. We also have some offensive ways of talking about that: “leaky pipeline” comes to mind, describing people (usually women) who leave the academic track. I “leaked” out of that pipeline into a career that makes me happier than I was in academia. Should I feel like a disappointment for that, or should my mentors feel like they failed? Perhaps it is a useful metaphor at a community level, but I think it also hurts people who are considering other careers. All of that is to say I think a big barrier for students interested in math is the idea that there is one preferred career path — academia — and everything else is a consolation prize.
If you aren’t interested in an academic career, you’ll want to look outside the math department for information about those careers and advice about how to prepare for them. The BIG math network is one resource students might look at to start. I wrote about that and some other resources in a post for the AMS called “What are you going to do with that?” [Link if you want it: https://blogs.ams.org/blogonmathblogs/2017/05/15/what-are-you-going-to-do-with-that/ ] If you know alumni of your program who have gone into other careers you’re interested in, talk with them too.
- Other advice or comments?
Ask for help when you need it. I was sort of cocky as a student, and when I started having trouble in grad school, both with math and with my mental health, I felt like I had to cover it up. There’s no shame in getting help when you need it.
Explore other Math Career Spotlights and share them with your students.