Remarks at the AAUW Math-Science Conference
Colleges can be sort of mysterious to some people, frightening to others, and yet exciting for a lot of people if they give it a chance.
The first time I ever set foot on a college campus was when I was just a bit older than you. I think I was 14 or 15. It was an all-day Saturday event called Math Field Day at Occidental College, over in the foothills north of Los Angeles. It was a competition made to feel like games. I remembered being awed by all the old buildings and how it felt to be in huge classrooms and auditoriums. We heard old guys like me give talks, and we participated in lots of written and oral competitions, all focused around mathematics. We answered instant questions with instant answers about all kinds of geometry and algebra and trigonometry and even some calculus. I remembered feeling it was so over my head. But I was thrilled to see what college felt like. One odd thing I recall was a professor trying to tell us what a person could do if he or she were a mathematician. For some reason, all he seemed to come up with was that you could be a math professor at a college, or you could be an actuary. I had never even heard the term actuary! It’s sort of an arcane job not many people would want to do, maybe only one of you in the huge crowd today. Actuaries try to figure out statistics of large populations and what happens over time, the kind of thing that matters to companies who sell insurance, or people who plan cities for the future.
Anyway, I thought to myself, it’s pretty easy to figure out what it must be like to be a chemist or a biologist or a physicist. You sit in some sort of lab all day and work with scientific equipment doing research. Even though there is some truth to that, it’s wrong. What do biology and chemistry majors actually end up doing? They become doctors of course (like me) but they also become lawyers and teachers. And don’t think just “labs.” People who go to college to study science can end up working in science in forests, or oceans, or government policy agencies, or can take the liberal breadth of their education out into the world and become scientifically literate doers of almost anything. That’s the beauty of a great college education in what is called the liberal arts, like what we do here at Redlands – you can do anything you want! Take me for example: I began as a high school science major, then majored in psychology and chemistry in college, then went to medical school and became a neurologist, and here I am, a university president. Life can be an interesting journey.
But back to where I began my story, mathematics. What do students who study mathematics in college end up doing with their lives? They end up as bankers, computer scientists, engineers, consultants, insurance managers, and lawyers. So don’t think you’re tracking yourself down some rabbit hole when you go to college and choose a major. Instead, think of yourself as a great experimenter in life about to jump off into anything you want.
One last story about mathematics. Mathematics is so abstract. The old joke about what mathematicians actually do goes like this: mathematicians sit and turn coffee into theorems. It sounds like the life of the mind. I always thought I liked it a lot, but found it so very hard to do. Maybe many of you are like that today. Let me tell you about a young woman named Leslie Cheng. She was born in Taiwan, then moved to this country as a young child with her family. She moved to Connecticut. When she went to college, she went to a pretty famous small college for women near Philadelphia, called Bryn Mawr College. She wasn’t thinking she would experiment, because her family told her to do something practical and get the requirements out of the way first. I think she started out in French, thinking she would be a high school teacher. But she took one course in calculus from an absolutely terrific professor named Rhonda Hughes, a woman who made it her special calling in life to convince young women that they really could do mathematics, no matter how abstract or cerebral it seemed. Young Leslie was smitten. She took another course. And another course. She changed her major to mathematics. She went to the University of Pittsburgh to study some more and eventually got her PhD in mathematics. She went back to that Bryn Mawr College and became a teacher there, passing on her love for mathematics to another generation of young women. Math became one of the most popular majors at that college, and Leslie, like her own mentor, changed many lives. When I came to Bryn Mawr College years later and led it as its chief academic officer, I mentored the then grown-up Leslie, and she climbed the academic ladder from assistant professor, to associate professor with tenure, and eventually full professor. Last week she came here to my inauguration ceremony as president, and she marched in the procession to honor her profession as college teacher, represent her college back at Bryn Mawr, and honor me. It was a complete circle for me in mathematics.
Remember my essential point. Science and math are great interests and great goals. But dream big! You can do anything you really want, if you really want it. And experiment! You’ll be so very surprised how you turn out. And it will make all the difference.