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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Interviewing a Math Student

Do you want to major in mathematics?

As freshman students spill through the doors of their respective colleges each fall, they are faced with a whole new world of opportunity, excitement, and exploration. However, before even taking a step on campus, some students are asked to select their major or program of study. This can be a daunting task, as choosing a college major begins a path of education specialized towards a particular career. This decision revolves around a personal inventory of skills, interests, and goals. A heavy demand for employees in the STEM fields has caused many students to select a major rooted in the math or science department. Sometimes, students are unaware of the career options they may have, preventing them from launching themselves into a math or science program. Mathematics can fall into this category, as many students don’t fully understand the major or opportunities it may lead to. Even students who have an affinity towards math may shy away from it at the college level wondering, “What does a mathematician do, anyway?”. At the Center of Math, we want students to embrace mathematics. We thought, what better what to see what a college math major is like than to speak to someone in the program! We interviewed Northeastern student Chloe Weiers, an intern at the Center of Math, to field our questions about college mathematics. 

WCoM: So Chloe, tell me about yourself briefly.

Chloe: I'm a rising third year student at Northeastern, and I'm a Music and Math double major. I play the flute. Also, I'm from Minnesota.

WCoM: Music and Math? That’s a very interesting combination. Did you know before you started college that combination was possible?

Chloe: No, going into college I thought I was just going to be a music major. I had always liked math but never considered it as a major before college. I've always thought math was beautiful, but not in the same way as music. Then I got the chance to look at math and music under the same light, I was better able to appreciate the symmetries and beauty in both and how they complement one another.

WCoM: What exactly made you change your mind and add math to your major.

Chloe: Once I got to school I had a great class called The Algebra and Geometry of Music, and after the course finished was invited to do research with the professor of the class on a topic of my choice. I chose dynamical systems and mathematical modeling, and then ran with it. After than, I got really interested in math and added it as a second major.

WCoM: Okay so I’m going to gear in a little more on the math side of your major now. Do you feel that you were aware of the career possibilities that were possible for math majors when you entered college?

Chloe: No, I had no idea what the options were. Many people seem to know going in, "Oh, I want to do specifically this or that", or like, "Oh, I want to be an actuary or an accountant or a professor", but I had no idea.

WCoM: Did that make you nervous at all?

Chloe: No, because I never really thought about it in that way. It seemed natural that I should add it as a major, because it’s one of those things where the more you learn, the more really interesting stuff you realize you don’t know, and its kind of addicting. I couldn't imagine never taking another math class. I have to keep growing as a mathematician.

WCoM: You mentioned 3 careers so far– becoming a professor, actuary, or accountant. What would you say to someone like yourself, who isn’t necessarily interested in any of those specific fields?

Chloe: Well, it's important to consider all the options, and sometimes that involves taking things into your own hands. There are tons of jobs that use math, but they aren't necessarily going to come to you- sometimes you have to seek them out. But when you do, the magnitude of really cool options is very encouraging. Also, when I was a first-year undergrad, my math professors kept encouraging me to learn some mathematical computing skills, like MATLAB and Python, and even LaTeX for typesetting mathematics. I was so reluctant, because I never considered myself even the slightest bit competent with computers. But it's so necessary. Even just learning the basics of something will help you get your foot in the door and help bolster your confidence. You don't have to be some coding expert, but having the ability to tackle new challenges with confidence instead of shutting down is an excellent thing to have going for you. The modes of thinking involved with all of these programming languages is completely logical and can even help you streamline your thought processes in other ways. So it's a win all around.

WCoM: Have you had a moment yet that you realized, yes I definitely made the right decision?

Chloe: I would say it’s less a moment than a series of realizations, usually coming when I’m working on or solving problems. That feeling you get of accomplishment is a really powerful, albeit selfish, indicator for me that I’m doing the right thing. Also, when you get into courses like Real Analysis and Number Theory and start learning the derivations behind the mathematics you have known and accepted your entire life, and then turning it inside out with new axioms or rules just kind of blows your mind. It’s also always very challenging and very interesting, so you’re never idling. Mathematics even helps me think rationally and logically in other areas of my life.

WCoM: Wow, so it seems like you have no regrets about your decisions so far, academically speaking. Is that correct?

Chloe: Definitely.

WCoM: So there is heavy discussion about women in STEM, or lack thereof. Do you notice this in your classes?

Chloe: Yeah, definitely. I mean, most of the time less than 30 or 40% or the class is women, often even less. It’s not necessarily a lack of opportunity for women in college, but rather a lack of opportunity and encouragement leading into the university setting that I think prevents many women from even considering math as a potential career field.

WCoM: Obviously there isn’t necessarily an easy fix to this issue, but what do you personally think can be done to encourage women in the field?

Chloe: I think that it needs to start much earlier than college. If you are looking at trying to get college-aged women into STEM fields you’re already too late. It needs to start as early as elementary school. Girls should be encouraged and celebrated as active participants in their math and science classes, so they can build confidence with their own abilities and learn about their options early on.

WCoM: Building confidence from an early age definitely makes sense. Do you have any advice for students thinking about majoring in mathematics, male and female alike?

Chloe: Try to get as involved as you can with extracurriculars and such. When I say extracurriculars, I mean pretty much anything- robotics, math Olympiads, just recreational math at home or with friends, coding, whatever. It doesn’t have to be these high level competitions you see kids doing. Math competitions aren’t for everyone, and they’re certainly not for me, so don’t feel pressured to participate in math like a competitive sport. There are often cool summer programs that I wish I would have known about as a high schooler, and they’re offered all over the summer, so definitely look into those if you’re interested in really finding out what interests 

WCoM: It’s nice to hear you so encouraging to young mathematicians. So what have you been up to lately at the Center?

Chloe: I've been working with Ruairi, who works with digital media here at the Center, to create a video series on mathematical music theory. We're calling it Musimathics, and it will be available soon on our Youtube channel. The videos give an overview of some of the especially interesting areas of mathematical music theory, explained in a casual setting by myself. You don't have to be a super advanced mathematician or skilled musician to understand what's going on the the videos. They're meant for everyone! So stay tuned for more information about that.

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