Professionally, I call myself a mathematician, and I am married to a mathematician. Math is baked into our lives. For example, even when my husband would spend an afternoon at our family art table with our kids, he’d end up with the most mathematical-looking play-doh pie I’d ever seen. I love that about him, and I love that about our family. Our kids don’t plan to be mathematicians, but they have grown up seeing and appreciating the mathematics in almost everything.
Throughout my life, I have liked looking at fashion magazines without actually wanting to own anything in them. I’ve never sought owning that kind of glamour – I appreciate looking at beautifully made things, but I’ve never wanted to take care of them. I’ve never wanted to own a $4000 purse, or have to think about whether or not I was wiping blackboard chalk on $600 pants. Logo-ed items don’t make me feel wealthier or more successful. Same with art: I love fine art museums and I would not want to be responsible for something that was so precious. I’m not knocking ownership of those things – people spend money on what makes them happy. Just … that’s not where my own happiness lies.
But being a mathematician? That was the kind of glamor I could get behind. When I was in college, I looked at the mathematics graduate students’ offices, at their blackboards full of inscrutable theorems and calculations. They had wisdom and insight and brilliance, and I wanted to be one of them.
And eventually, I was one of them. I had my own chalkboards full of theorems. I created my own mathematics. I finished my PhD. And as I neared the end of that degree, I knew that being a traditional mathematician was going to feel like a Birkin bag – something I could continue to admire, but something that would cost me more than I wanted to spend. I finished my PhD, and started to think about how to stretch the definition of mathematician – what was out there, beyond academic mathematics?
Recently, I was invited to give a talk in the math department of a prestigious university – the people were welcoming and generous, and they gave me my own office to use while I was visiting. I had the same feeling I had when I used to house-sit for friends with a very glamorous house – I loved being there, in that office, for the day. I loved the views of the college campus. I loved making friends with an astrophysicist in the women’s bathroom! I loved the people – mathematicians are my people, for sure.
I held an office hour for graduate students who were considering alternative careers, or who wanted to know about my math-adjacent research, or who just wanted to hang out for a while.
One of the graduate students asked me, “when did you decide that you didn’t want to be a mathematician?”
I laughed. I never decided that I didn’t want to be a mathematician – I always wanted to be a mathematician. I loved it, and I truly loved the moments when – after hours and days and months and years of work – I would have some insight that felt new to me or even new to the field.
It’s just that I wanted to be other things, too – a writer, a student of how people learn, a person who could contribute to communities in multiple ways, a wife, a mother. I wanted a kind of flexibility in my life that being a traditional university mathematician would not give me. I had to work at traditional mathematics research – it didn’t come easily to me. There would have been endless late nights and weekends and stress – not because the job is necessarily designed that way, but because that’s how I would have taken it up.
So I went to work at a non-profit with other mathematicians who wanted their lives to be a lot of different things. Over time I’ve been able to build my job around doing lots of things I love. Including, occasionally, getting to hang out in a mathematics department with the people I see as having the most glamorous job in the world. And always, always getting to see some of the amazing mathematics in the world around us. Even in the play-doh. Even in the pie.