Beth O'Sullivan

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1. In layman’s terms, explain what you do. 

After studying undergraduate and graduate mathematics at MIT, I have a deep knowledge and love of mathematics. I work on designing mathematics curricula with an eye towards what elements would engage girls and teach it in my classes.

I believe that there is a whole world of mathematics undiscovered because women offer a very different perspective than men do. I hope that the work I do helps encourage more girls to go into mathematics and make those discoveries and for this I also highly recommend Dr. Ken Fan’s Girls’ Angle www.girlsangle.org as well.

I am also, through participating with many other people in the founding of Science Club for Girls, convinced that providing a girl who is living in poverty and who will be the first in her family to attend college with STEM mentorship will play a significant role in helping her attain the dream of attending college. I believe that this mentorship and ensuing education will enable her to have a future free of the poverty she faced growing up.




2. What was it like for you to go to MIT in the 60’s?

I discovered a formula in high school and that opened doors. I was able to study math and physics at MIT and at Brandeis with extraordinary mathematicians.  My shyness was about as large a difficulty as my gender. I really didn’t feel like I belonged; I was too scared to even put my hand up in class. I left and when I returned to study graduate combinatorial theory there wasn’t enough housing for female students, so I worked as a nanny and a waitress, so I could afford an apartment because off campus housing was not included in my financial aid. It was very hard.

That said, I had some amazing teachers. Dr. Kleitman and Dr. Ankeny stick out in my memory. Despite how shy I was, we connected over our mutual love of mathematics. They both showed me incredible generosity, and their eccentricities helped me become more comfortable with my own.

I was there during the 60’s and early seventies, a decade of incredible change. With the Civil Rights Movement and cold war influences and with the anti-war movement and counter culture movements raging, it felt like the world was crumbling around me. As a teen, while I came from an activist family and was and am an activist and I agreed with much that was happening, I also sought refuge in a world of beautiful abstract order. I felt like math was the one constant.

 

3. What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?

As a mathematician, it is the project I tried and failed to solve. I wanted to find an operation – an operation that would work on three numbers simultaneously. Back in the 60’s when I was working on this, it was not a question – I didn’t find others interested in this. I was led to universal algebra, but that wasn’t really what I was searching for.

Money or lack thereof was also a challenge. Without the financial backing, succeeding in STEM is hard. Knowing this, and having grown up in the civil rights movement and understanding the challenges people face because of their race, drives me to pursue promoting equity in STEM.

 

4. How did you first get involved in SCFG?

The seeds for SCFG were sewn long before Mary and I started the first club.

I began working at the King Open school back when my eldest daughter was in kindergarten. While I was there, Bob Moses, a visionary educator and McArthur genius award winner was founding The Algebra Project. He worked to weave experiential learning into the algebra curriculum with the goal of increasing Math literacy amongst African American students. He also lay down the framework of a system where parents’ ideas could be executed at the school. 

A decade later, Mary Mc Gowan arrived with her own kindergartener when my youngest daughter was in Kindergarten. Together, with many other people joining us over the years, we founded Science Club for Girls with the goal of bringing girls, especially girls from underrepresented groups in STEM, into STEM. Through the hard work of many, and Bob Moses ability to galvanize the community and create a way to bring in outside funding and support, Science Club for Girls was born.

5. What does being a mathematician mean to you?

For me it is close to philosophy and even theology. In the debate over whether or not Mathematics is invented or discovered, I believe that mathematics is discovered. Appreciating and understanding beautiful patterns and theorems opens the door to a deep understanding of how the universe works. It is, in a way, quite spiritual.




6. What has been your greatest achievement in your career so far?

I have two big ones.

Raising a family with a man who was a graduate student at MIT when I was there and has always been supportive of my work in mathematics and fiction writing, was a really rewarding experience. When I was lucky enough to meet Mme. Curie’s granddaughter, Helene Junot Curie, I asked her how she saw the state of women in STEM. To my surprise, she said that it was worse today than in her grandparents’ day. She said that. at 5pm, her grandparents, and in turn, her parents would lock their lab, initially an abandoned high school chemistry lab, and come home together and play with their children, read and knit. She said that now many women face a dichotomy between a career in STEM and raising a family. It shouldn’t have to be a choice. As feminists, we often overlook how important having a supportive partner is to fully pursue our career goals.

I am happy that circumstances enabled me to found Science Club for Girls and The Mathemagics Workshop – a program where I teach students from first through eighth grades mathematics they would not usually be exposed to in their school syllabus. I have encouraged many children to go on in mathematics and given others a deeper exposure to mathematics than they would otherwise have had. I am able to include children who don’t have the means to attend most after school STEM opportunities. Through founding Science Club for Girls, I have been able to do the same thing for girls and science. Because these clubs are free, something I am not able to do for every child in my math classes, I am especially invested in our ability historically to uphold an 80% participation by girls from under-represented groups by race or economic background in STEM.




7. What do you believe is the most important thing for girls to know before pursuing STEM?

To learn not be afraid of confusion.

Sometimes, at The Mathemagics Workshop, I’ll show children math problems that require more exposure to mathematics than they have yet had. I’ll let them know that it is hard, that it is beyond their skill level and that I don’t want them to be afraid but rather learn to be comfortable looking at and observing things that feel confusing. Mathematicians look at confusing things all the time. It is a skill that can be applied to other fields as well.

While this is important for boys and girls, in my experience, girls tend to be more susceptible to backing away from material in STEM that seems confusing.

 

8. What problem would you like to see solved by STEM in the next 10 years?

 Most importantly, save the environment, achieve world peace and end the suffering of children. Whatever role STEM can play in these goals is crucial.

Secondly, I’d love to see the pattern of the primes and an operation that works on 3 and by extension, n numbers.




9. What motivates you?

Love. Love of mathematics. Love of people. I know it sounds cheesy, but it is true.

 

10.  How do you define success?

Exiting a room in better shape than you entered it. I think this applies to anything, no matter how big or small. I think that everyone can be successful. You shouldn’t have to be rich or famous to be successful, you just need to be a good person.

 

11.  What one discovery in science do you most admire and why?

Hawking’s radiation. Stephen Hawking predicted that a certain type of radiation would be emitted from black holes which brings us closer to understanding the interplay between quantum effects and general relativity. It excites me because we may be closer to a theory of everything.

  

12.  What one book do you recommend everyone read, and why?

As an author and literature fanatic, I can’t choose just one. Here are three outstanding books that I recommend.

Firstly, War and Peace by Tolstoy. I think that it completely revolutionized how authors wrote. He is the first person to truly capture the psychological complexities between people. Writers have been working to emulate that ever since then.

Secondly, Dubliners by James Joyce. To me it is James Joyce’s best work, and exemplifies the depth of feeling that he can bring out in his writing.

A page of Byrne’s translation of Euclid’s Elements

A page of Byrne’s translation of Euclid’s Elements

Finally, Euclid’s Elements. It is the 2nd most translated book in the world, and I wish every geometry student would read it. My favorite version is by Byrne published in 1847 during Ruskin and the origins of the Aesthetic movement.

It teaches logical thinking. The more access people have to logical thinking, the more likely they will be to make decisions that move us towards understanding, peace, healthy environmental policies and in general, closer to a cure for many of the difficulties we face.


13.  If you could invent anything or make any discovery, what would it be and why?

 

I would have liked to discover an operation that would work simultaneously on three members and then by extension, n numbers. I believe that we are unable to solve the three-body problem because we don’t have the mathematical language for it and this operation would enable us to solve it. We don’t have the mathematic language to do this yet, and I would love for someone to discover it in my lifetime, so I can see what it looks like.

 

14.  Who were your mentors? 

When I was very young, I befriended a family who had an organic chicken farmer. One of the boys was a true genius – two decades after we first met, he created a new type of light filter that was used in the Hubble telescope. He would tinker with tractors and many things and even though I was younger than him and a girl, he included me and helped me build a short-wave radio.  Those experience captured my interest in STEM. I got excited by being confused, and tinkering with things until they worked.

My mother was also a mentor to me. She grew up in abject poverty, but she was brilliant. She was the first woman in my family to go to college. Her father was a coal miner and she walked up a mountain every day to attend a state teachers’ college and became a daycare teacher. She broke all these barriers, so when I went to MIT and got into STEM, my achievement seemed much less shocking. I’ve always looked up to her.

 

15.  What draws you to Science Club for Girls? 

 

The need for it. It has the potential to reach so many more girls. I want to see SCFG as a movement. I believe the hands-on curriculum and tiered mentorship and all-girl programming, things I experimented with long ago in my math classes, are successful at engaging underrepresented communities in STEM. A thorough evaluation, I believe, will show that the girls we have reached are more likely to stay in STEM fields. My dream is that we will give this program free of charge to any community that wants to use it and who is reaching a significant numbers of girls from underrepresented groups in STEM and let them found their own Science Club for Girls within their own culture and in their own way so long as they utilize a few of our model’s principal factors and reach primarily girls living in poverty.

 

16.  What need do you see for women in science that Science Club can fulfill? 

Science Club for Girls could be instrumental in changing the exclusive culture of STEM jobs. We are training our mentors to go into the workplace and make change, also by continuing to mentor and pulling other young women up into important positions in STEM, changes that enable women to stay in STEM fields will become a reality.

17.  What do you do outside of work?

I write short stories – I am funded by two remarkable and generous women to write fiction in Paris. I bicycle. I walk. I read. I study Torah. I love to play with my grandchildren. I have also recently started a multigenerational writing group – which I love! Mostly I like to think.

18.  If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?

I was very very shy. I think that cut me off from a lot of opportunities. I did not have trouble standing up to opposition when there was an ethical cause, but personally I have never conquered this. I initially answered this question with the following:

As Eleanor Roosevelt best said, “Do one thing every day that scares you”, but in fact checking this, I found these sources and I find all of them helpful:

Always do what you are afraid to do. (1841) —Popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To do what you are afraid to do is to guide your life by fear. How much better not to be afraid to do what you believe in doing! (circa 1881) —Jane Addams

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. (1960) —Eleanor Roosevelt

 

19.  What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful in your field?

  •  Love of collaboration

  • Not being afraid of confusion

  • A gift for asking questions

20.  How would you say your gender has impacted your experience in your career?

 A quote attributed to Isaac Newton says “If I have seen a little further it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants”

For women, there are few female giants upon whose shoulders to stand. A woman is more alone. I believe that as women we have a different perspective than men have. I look forward to seeing what cures for diseases will be discovered because women have found them more of a priority than men, what new worlds of physics might be discovered because of the difference between men and women, and of course, what new mathematics will be discovered.

Shreya PatelComment