Patternmaster: The Inner World of a Mathematician

April 1, 2013


For Tanya Moore (front row, fifth from right), a PhD in biostatistics (from UC Berkeley) links her interest in math with her growing interest in improving health outcomes in society. Giving back to the community in another way, she has been an organizer of the national Infinite Possibilities Conference for minority women mathematicians; shown here are participants in the IPC held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in March 2012.
Careers in the Math Sciences
Tanya Moore


I love science fiction. Patternmaster by Octavia Butler, one of my favorite authors, is in part the story of Doro, a character born during ancient Egyptian times. With the ability to have his consciousness transferred from one body to another, he is immortal. Over time, he develops a network of telepaths that he can control with his thoughts, and this network becomes a matrix of minds that he is deeply attuned to, sensing changes or disturbances like a tug on a rope. The more minds in his web, the stronger he becomes and the more he is able to influence and create the experiences he desires.

Although my current career choice does not involve mind control or telepathy, some aspects of Doro's ability remind me of the types of skills mathematicians regularly call on to do their work.

As a young girl I always noticed patterns. Whether seeing the symmetry in the numbers of a street address, or observing that a set of related ideas was simultaneously communicated from completely different sources, or having fun guessing the next number in a series or sequence, identifying patterns became one way I oriented myself to my environment. Looking back, it's not surprising that I would ultimately be drawn to mathematics, but at the time I never would have imagined that it would figure so prominently in my life.

My aspirations included becoming an actress, a psychologist, and a revolutionary (I grew up in Berkeley, California). With all the theatre performances, political protests, and cheerleading practices, math remained an unglorified background singer to the main headliners in my life, despite a lot of A's and high marks on standardized tests. The only pattern I didn't recognize was the path I was on---I had so many interests but no one clear desire for a future career.

Had I not gone to Spelman College, I doubt that I would have majored in mathematics. I arrived at Spelman feeling diminished and limited by the words of my high school AP calculus teacher, who told me at the end of the course that she didn't think I belonged in a math class at that high a level. As a Spelman freshman, I initially decided to major in psychology. I had scored high enough on placement exams in math to be exempt from any math requirement for my major. But it felt weird not to take any math classes. What had been a staple in my academic schedule for many years couldn't now be casually tossed aside, and I decided to enroll in a calculus class.

Before the end of my freshman year, urged by my calculus professor to change my major to math or engineering, I decided to consider a different path for myself, one that explicitly included mathematics. That encouragement from my professor was the first time my ability and potential in mathematics were recognized by a teacher. Twenty years later, the words of many of my teachers continue to affect my view of what is possible for my life.

Spelman College is a Historically Black College for women. As a student there, I had the incredible opportunity to be under the tutelage of women who were mentors, role models, and great teachers. At that point I had no real appreciation for what it must have meant for them to earn doctorates in math at a time when not many women, let alone African American women, had the opportunity to earn doctorates, let alone in math!

Upon graduating from Spelman, I started graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, and I quickly realized that success would require more than A grades in undergraduate math courses. I struggled to feel connected to most of my professors, and I was intimidated by my peers, some of whom had started the program with master's degrees in related fields or had taken graduate-level math courses as undergrads. Comments by students and faculty---that I was sure to pass my qualifying exams be-cause the department needed more black students, that I had performed better than expected in class---made me self-conscious and shy about asking questions in class or seeking additional support; they challenged my willingness to try to be the best student I could be.

I decided to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley (Cal), and place myself in an environment where I felt I could be successful. Besides transferring schools and taking more responsibility for being a good student, I was able to complete my doctorate in large part because of the connections I maintained with my former Spelman classmates and professors. Their example and encouragement during graduate school were instrumental to my success.

I completed my doctoral studies in biostatistics at Cal, where I was fortunate to work under the supervision of Mark van der Laan. In my dissertation research, in the area of statistics called causal inference, I worked on statistical models that could be applied in analyzing data that arose from "non-textbook" situations. Van der Laan had a strong foundation in theoretical mathematics; for me, his ability to explain things and make connections was amazing---it was as if the depth of his mathematical understanding allowed him access to a playground from which he could create new models and theories. He gave me an appreciation for what one can discover by investing in learning and understanding as much information as possible.

The challenging and instructive experiences I had in graduate school, combined with the understanding that math provides a path to many careers, inspired me to share what I had learned to support other minority women mathematicians. After completing my doctoral studies, I worked with other women mathematicians and some of my former Spelman professors to create a national conference for minority women mathematicians, the Infinite Possibilities Conference (IPC). Nagambal Shah, Leona Harris, Kimberly Weems, Lily Khadjavi, Erika Camacho, and I have led teams of women to organize and host four IPCs, in partnership with Spelman, North Carolina State University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the NSF-supported math institutes SAMSI and IPAM; the National Security Agency, the National Science Foundation, and a number of corporations provided generous support. The conferences are modeled after experiences I took for granted as an undergraduate; they provide students and professionals with opportunities to connect, share their research and experiences as mathematicians, and interact with the numerous role models in attendance. As Nagambal Shah said in the freshman math course I took at Spelman, "You may have to make the journey alone, but you don't have to be lonely." My personal and professional networks have helped me over the years with everything from identifying job opportunities to maintaining hope when I feel discouraged. We are made stronger by our connections.

As much as I enjoyed learning math in school, there was a part of me that longed to be involved with work that would positively impact the lives of people. Statistics is a powerful discipline, and as the technological capacity to gather and store data becomes greater and greater, those who understand how to make sense of and interpret large amounts of information will be in demand. Biostatistics was one way to link my interest in math with my growing interest in improving health outcomes in our society. Still, I yearned to do work that would have a more direct impact on improving the lives of people.

I have carried with me a thought expressed again and again by my high school African American Studies teacher: No matter what we do in life, we should always remember to give back to our community. I don't think that he necessarily meant for us to take that literally; nonetheless, I currently work for the City of Berkeley. My first task for the city was to create strategies that would reduce health disparities; more recently, I've transitioned to a role that is focused on education.

How does this story lead to where I am now?

My primary role in my job is to work in partnership with the school district, our post-secondary institutions, and community agencies on initiatives that will eliminate the achievement gap that persists in our public schools. Despite Berkeley's reputation for a commitment to social justice and equity, there is still a need to end the racial predictability of student achievement in our schools. Looking back, I see that every experience, every interest I've had plays a role in what I do today. My experience performing in plays assists me when I have to speak publicly, my interest in psychology translates into trying to really listen to what people are communicating, spoken and unspoken, and my inner revolutionary is alive and well as I have the opportunity to do work that supports all of our youth in succeeding academically. But at the core of all that I do is my training as a mathematician. I make direct use of my math skills in different aspects of my work, whether I'm tutoring students in algebra at one of our recreation centers, or assisting with evaluation design, or analyzing data on student achievement. But mostly it's in non-obvious ways that my math training assists me in my work.

One of the reasons I like science fiction is that it dabbles in the realm just outside the world we know, just beyond the knowledge we currently possess. I remember reading an interview with Octavia Butler in which she mentioned that to create her futuristic worlds, all she did was extrapolate from values, priorities, knowledge, and technologies currently in play. As mathematicians, we often reach for that solution, that model, that theory that lies just outside our current understanding. We take the universe of knowledge and facts we have learned and, using our creativity and logic, embark on a journey to uncover the true relationship (that in some dimension already exists). It's a process and a skill that can be valuable in many fields and disciplines.

I'm in the business of solving problems (how to close the achievement gap), and if I assume that a solution already exists, then my job is to collect as much information as possible so that I can reveal the underlying connection. So I try to listen thoughtfully to teachers, principals, youth providers, public health nurses, students, and parents. I read as many articles as I can, and speak with educational experts about best practices. I analyze the data we have on student achievement and well-being and identify strategies for evaluating the impact of our efforts. Then, using logic, reasoning, and intuition, I try to uncover the connections, patterns, and possibilities so that as a community collaborative interested in the future of its youth, we can find and act on meaningful solutions. Part of the reason I am so passionate about education, and in particular about the need for all youth to have solid foundations in mathematics, is my hope that they can not only acquire practical skills, and access to numerous career options, but can become Patternmasters of their own making.

Sue Minkoff (sminkoff@utdallas.edu), of the University of Texas at Dallas, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column. She was the local organizing chair of the 2012 Infinite Possibilities Conference that was held at UMBC.


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