Heather Russell ‘03 thinks mathematics, and mathematicians, are woefully misunderstood.
“A lot of people like to think abstractly and critically,” she says. “The fact is that math is very artistic. It’s nuanced and elegant. There’s a population of people for whom math doesn’t appeal, but if you can show it to them in a new way, they could be great mathematicians.”
Heather completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Iowa in July 2009, and is now a teacher and researcher at Louisiana State University. Her research field is in pure mathematics: she is a low-dimensional topologist focusing on knot theory.
She describes topology as “rubber sheet” geometry. It is the study of shapes and spaces, but imagined as flexible.
With applications in medical research, knot theory is useful to biologists because proteins and DNA knot themselves up. “If you can figure out how they knot up,” she explains, “you can distinguish different types of knots in proteins. This can help better our understanding of their properties and possibly even synthesize them.”
In her post-doc position supported by the National Science Foundation’s VIGRE program (Vertical InteGration of Research and Education), Heather is working to encourage greater numbers of people to pursue careers in the mathematical sciences. To do that, she draws on her liberal arts experience at Washington College. She says the College’s emphasis on writing and communication, along with the mentoring she received, was instrumental to her development as a mathematician.
Her success in demystifying math begins with her ability to communicate with students and to make learning fun. “Writing and publishing were made a little easier for me in graduate school because I had such a strong background,” says Heather. “I never had a problem competing academically with my peers, and in addition, I knew how to be a leader, I knew how to write and communicate, and I knew how to be an abstract thinker.”
The mathematics and computer science major spent one summer working with Professor Austin Lobo to write a program the chemistry department could use to conduct arson analysis. With a grant from the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, Heather visited Bletchley Park in London, where the Enigma machine cracked codes during World War II. Her senior thesis, jointly supervised by Louise Amick and Austin Lobo, explored how quadratic sieve factoring algorithms could be used in modern code breaking.
“I was completely inspired by my undergraduate professors,” she says. “That is where I saw how beautiful academic life can be. My students know I eventually want to go back and teach at a liberal arts school. They recognize how much I love what I’m doing and how much I want them to understand the material. They have my background to thank for that.”
- Class Agent (2003)
- Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows
- George Washington Medal and Award