More Math-y Adventures

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I started this blog a year ago to help me get ready for two adventures that involved a whole lot of high-level math, in two places I’d never been, with a lot of people I’d never met. I was preparing for my summer at SMP in Minnesota and then my Fall semester at BSM in Hungary.

A year ago, I was questioning my abilities in math. I was in the depths of my Real Analysis course which was the first math class I really struggled in and had to work for. I was incredibly nervous about spending the next summer and semester surrounded by all this high-level math and all those math geeks. What if I didn’t fit in? What if I didn’t like math that much? What if wasn’t smart enough?

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined the ways in which SMP and BSM would change my life. I made so many new friends and met so many new people who I have laughed with, loved with, cried with, and worked with. These math people? They’re my people. I am now so confident in my math abilities and love of the subject. I’ve learned what it means to DO math, as opposed to just study it, and have found the joy in learning and doing as much of it as I can. I’ve become one of those people I used to joke about who read their math books for fun.

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever feel that I’d “outgrown” my liberal arts math department. Even though there are still courses I haven’t taken, I’m jealous of my BSM friends who go to University and have more than two options of 300-level math courses, and I miss being in class with other students who want to use their math education to be mathematicians. The level of intensity I learned while at SMP and BSM makes me feel like I don’t really belong here.

I’ve spent this semester transitioning back into New England, suburban, liberal arts college life. I’ve been taking a math course on optimization, learning the headaches of debugging hardware in my robotics workshop, writing for my journalism class, and trying to finish up my music minor.

And now I am SO ready for more math-y adventures!

This summer I am going to Boston to work in a bioinformatics lab group. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing or who I’ll be working with, but I am excited to live in the city that my sister calls home, and to be part of a research group again!

Just like a year ago, I can’t know what’s coming my way, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Me and my sister.

Me and my sister on the Bp metro.

Back to the Liberal Arts Version of Math

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My professor goes through a proof during lecture that requires the definition of a convex combination.


Situation A: BSM, Game Theory Classroom:

He sees our blank stares and says, “What? Weren’t you required to take matrix algebras before you came here? Don’t you know what a convex set is?”

A number of students pull out theirs phones to look the term up as he proceeds with the lecture. We all receive an email later that day with the subject title “READ” and a link to an explanation of convex combinations that everyone will know before the next lecture.


Situation B: Smith College: Optimization Class:

She sees our blank stares and asks if anyone knows what a convex combination is. I’m the only one who raises her hand (thank you, Game Theory Professor).

The lecture stops and a full-out definition of convex combinations begins, complete with diagrams of geometric convex sets and explanations of the necessary set notations. We don’t finish the planned lecture for the day.


imagesI find the two versions of this situation quite representative of the difference between my Hungarian mathematics experience and my liberal arts mathematics experience. Honestly, I’m not sure which I prefer anymore.

On the one hand, it was very easy to get lost in lecture at BSM (e.g.: you just missed everything that was happening when you looked up the definition of convex combinations on your phone), but my current math lectures are so slow in comparison. People ask SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. Like, people ask questions about other people’s questions.

In Hungary, the professor might actually tell you that your question is too basic and needs to be talked about after lecture. And we covered so much more ground because of it. But… we covered so much more ground because you never fully understand everything that was being taught.

I can’t say that one mathematics experience is BETTER than another; they serve different purposes.

Although I’m definitely missing my Hungarian mathematics very much right now.

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Also, snow. So much snow. :o

Liberal Arts Students in a Semester of Maths?

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I’ve never questioned my liberal arts education until this semester.

When I was in the process of searching for colleges I was torn between choosing to study music or to study something in the sciences– so I didn’t make a choice… I went where I could do both. I decided to go to a liberal arts college and became a math major with a minor in pipe organ performance.

I still feel like this was the right choice for me, but I am no longer as certain as I used to be. What if I had gone to a tech or research university instead?

Spending this semester at BSM is making me realize how much math I simply don’t know. And it makes sense: the students who go to university and take 4 or 5 STEM courses a semester where I normally take two should know more math and science than I do.

However, it’s causing me to struggle here. There are so many things I don’t know. So many “famous” proofs that I have not seen. So many “rudimentary” theorems I’ve not heard of before. I take longer on my problem sets than many other students because I need to do the background scut work at the same time. It makes me be the embarrassed student in the room who raises her hand during the colloquium in response to the question:

–Who doesn’t know that proof the area of a parallelogram on a grid is equal to the determinant of its two component vectors?

At BSM, unlike at home, I sit toward the bottom of the class here. I sit in lecture and feel kind of stupid in terms of my mathematical knowledge. My liberal arts education has not prepared me mathematically for the intense program at BSM. I’m having a hard time. I imagine this is what graduate school in maths might be like, and that I will have to work exceedingly hard to fill in the gaps in my maths education if I choose to pursue graduate studies.

However, my liberal arts education has given me breadth of knowledge, if not mathematical depth. It has taught me how to learn anything I want or need to, and it’s allowed me to follow my multiple passions.

I have to remember that although I might feel stupid in the maths classroom, there is so much else I get the chance to study that science-only students don’t:

  • I have classroom discussions on gender and sexuality.
  • I take advanced-level French and have become completely conversationally proficient.
  • I write papers on the importance of memorilization in a post-genocide society.
  • I give recitals and lead entire worship services from behind a pipe organ.

This is all important too!

I think that neither the liberal arts student nor the science student is better than the other– they’re just different. I am beginning to understand that we probably need both kinds of academic citizens in this world.





Feature Photo: Last Light, by Felix Gonzalez Torres. “The work of Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose family emigrated to the US in 1979, revolves around themes both personal and political, such as racism, homophobia, history, and international politics. Inspired by Christmas decorations, his lightbulb installations suggest both celebration and memorial. Untitled [Last Light] alludes to his friend Ross Laycock’s death from AIDS in 1991, evoking not only death but also renewal, bulbs always being replaced as they burn out.” (Le Centre Pompidou.)