Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our mathematics majors.

Izzy Thomas ’21

Hometown: New York, New York
Major: mathematics; minor: physics

What was your motivation to major in math? Was there a specific inspirational experience?

I had always been interested in STEM, but I was unsure about exactly what direction I wanted to go in. The moment I decided to major in math was when I sat in my first calculus class while my professor explained the concept of the derivative. I was in awe of both the ways in which mathematics could be used to describe an instant, to truly capture properties of a moment, and by the fact that my professor could convince me that the equations on the board were beautiful. The math professors at Oxy are extremely brilliant, passionate and patient. They are eager to help students see the beauty that lies in math as they see it themselves.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

Last summer, I participated in the Summer Research Program at Oxy researching dwarf galaxies with Professor Sabrina Stierwalt in the Physics department. The research I worked on analyzed images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to determine the qualities of their star cluster populations. Since math is such a versatile and essential subject, I was able to branch off and work on a project in astrophysics even though it is not my major.

What do you find most compelling about studying math?

To me, the most compelling thing about math is its universality as both a language and an art. Once you learn the vocabulary, rules and techniques, you can really run with it and explore a variety of different careers. Everywhere you look, problem solvers are needed and math is an excellent way to practice this skill.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a math major?

Really take advantage of all of the resources Oxy has to help you along the way. Office hours are fantastic—the professors are there to help you and are excited to do so. Oxy also offers peer and faculty tutoring for math majors which can be extremely useful. Lastly, go to the career center, ask your favorite professors about research opportunities and try your best to explore what you love outside of the classroom.

Melissa Gutiérrez González ’21

Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico and Philadelphia, PA
Majors: mathematics, philosophy

What was your motivation to major in mathematics?

My interest in mathematics stems from my artistic background. At first glance, each subject seems to be the antithesis of the other; but on closer inspection, both share the characteristic of being realized through imaginative synthesis. The skills I learned as an artist—such as turning an abstract thought into something concrete, attention to detail and visualization—have greatly helped me in my mathematics career. I first became deeply interested in mathematics when I learned about the usage of ratios, symmetry and geometry in Renaissance art, but my interest developed into something larger when I learned about unsolved problems such as Toeplitz’s Conjecture.

Can you describe your working relationships with math professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The great thing about going to Oxy is that you have the ability to know your professors personally due to the small size of the school. Professors at Oxy always have their doors open and are eager to help, whether it’s with homework or advice on applying to graduate school. I met my mathematics advisor, Professor [Gerald] Daigle, by walking into his office (without being enrolled in one of his classes!) and discussing research opportunities. A standout class I’ve taken has been “Discrete Mathematics” with Professor [Gregory] Tollisen. His enthusiasm for the subject can be clearly seen in every lecture, and as the mathematics expert for Oxy, he is always willing to help with any math homework you have.

Have you taken part in any math research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

Here at Oxy, I’ve worked with Professor Daigle in researching non-minimal factorization in numerical semigroups. During the summer [of 2019] I will be working in the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, CA, researching problems in applied discrete mathematics and combinatorics.

What do you like most about studying math?

My favorite thing about studying math is the imaginative process hidden underneath the fabric of the subject. Plenty of times, I’ve felt completely awestruck when reflecting upon the creativity that was needed to succeed in proving a theorem. Moreover, problems often demand that you think about the logical consequences of a theorem or axiom, and that in itself is an exercise for the imagination.

What are your career plans or ambitions post-Oxy?

I plan to enroll in a Mathematics Ph.D. program immediately following my undergraduate career and work in academia. As a liberal arts school, Oxy has opened my interests and allowed me to utilize my mathematical thinking in other fields of study. A unique part of the Oxy curriculum is the CSP program, in which freshmen take writing seminars on a topic of their interest. After taking CSP 57 with Professor Klausmeyer, I saw the overlap between mathematics and philosophy, which encouraged me to take more philosophy classes. Without the liberal arts approach, I would not have found my love for philosophy, and more importantly, my range of academic interests would not be as wide.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in math?

When first studying math, it may seem as if the subject is solely grounded on rote memorization of technical processes that result in a numerical answer. However, as the subject becomes more complex and abstract, these processes vanish. The most important advice I have for a mathematics student is to go to office hours! Meet with your professors frequently, ask plenty, plenty of questions, and make sure you understand every theorem and its proof until you have the ability to replicate it yourself. Most importantly, be curious about the material that you learn—always!

Mary Zhang ’21

Hometown: Diamond Bar, CA and Tianjin, China
Majors: mathematics, economics

What was your motivation to major in math?

Math was initially a difficult subject for me as a kid in elementary school. However, I wanted to prove to myself that I am capable of overcoming this challenge. I discovered my true passion in math when taking calculus classes in high school. They motivated me to explore additional subjects in mathematics. My coursework at Oxy has shown me the endless applications of math. I would feel wrong not taking a math course during a semester.

Can you describe your working relationships with math professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

I really appreciate the math faculty at Oxy. All the math professors are extremely intelligent, accessible and understanding. I like to visit them during office hours to ask questions, talk about future career plans, or simply have light and funny conversations. I firmly decided to major in math after taking “Linear Algebra” with Prof. Lal. The course “Complex Analysis” taught by Prof. Brown encouraged me to study math more rigorously in “Real Analysis” with Prof. Lawrence. I also enjoy talking to Prof. Lengyel with other math students during his office hours.

What do you find most compelling about studying math?

I originally liked math because of its ordered and systematic ways of problem solving. I rarely questioned the underlying theorems or procedures until I started taking the 300-level elective courses. Specifically, I had a tough time understanding and writing formal proofs in “Real Analysis.” However, I found it amusing and rewarding after I connected the dots and constructed a proof independently.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

Oxy’s liberal arts education allowed me to explore the interconnections between different fields of study. The applications of math inspired me to major in economics. My coursework in the Math Department, such as “Multivariable Calculus,” “Linear Algebra” and “Mathematical Statistics,” enabled me to better understand economic theories and research methods. Therefore, taking advantage of my math background, I plan to study economics further either as a research assistant or as a graduate student.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a math major?

My advice for any students considering a math major is to take advantage of the small class sizes. Talk to the professors about their research. Reach out to them and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Math can be challenging sometimes, but never hesitate to ask for help. Another tip I have is to keep an eye on course counts. Some courses are only offered every other year. If you are interested in a particular course, make sure to check the prerequisites and plan your schedule accordingly.

Natalie Folks ’21

Hometown: Easton, Pennsylvania
Major: mathematics

How did you decide to major in math?

I originally came to Oxy thinking that I would want to be a chemistry or an economics major. After taking a few classes in those departments, I realized that the only aspects of the classes I enjoyed were the math parts. I was already planning on being a math minor, so I decided to just become a math major instead.

Did you study abroad? How did it enhance your college education in general?

I participated in two study abroad programs. One was two months in London over a summer where I studied healthcare and completed an internship, and the other was a three-week mentorship program over winter break that took place in Madagascar. Although my London program was not math-focused, I really enjoyed the experience of doing an internship in another country. In Madagascar, I mentored Malagasy high school students on SAT math topics, and it was enjoyable to be able to teach math in that context. Overall, I would recommend studying abroad, even if it doesn't necessarily fit with your major. I really enjoyed the opportunity to study something that I was not familiar with while also getting the experience of living abroad and meeting new people.

What do you find most compelling about studying math?

What I find most compelling is how the many different areas of math relate to one another. With every additional math class that I take, I realize more connections to classes that I have taken in the past. Furthermore, I think that studying math is about so much more than just solving problems. It teaches you how to think logically and how to approach difficult problems. The first 200 level math course that I took at Oxy was discrete math, and it was very different from any math courses that I had taken. It was my first class that involved proofs, and it showed me a side of math I had not been exposed to before, which compelled me to want to take more math classes and explore as many different areas of math as I could as an undergrad.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

After graduation, I want to go into hotel and restaurant management. This desire comes from working in the hospitality field and becoming one of the managers at Oxy's student-run coffee shop, the Green Bean. I think that the well-rounded education you receive from a liberal arts college teaches you how to consider many different perspectives, and it opens the possibility to do many things in the future that may or may not be directly related to what you major in. Math teaches you how to approach problems in a logical fashion, and I think that is something that you can apply to pretty much anything you want to pursue.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a math major?

I would advise them to go for it! Math is a subject that gets more interesting the more you learn about it. It teaches you how to think logically and approach a problem where the solution may not be immediately evident. I would also advise students to go and talk to their professor during their office hours! Oxy's math department has great professors that are always willing to talk to and help out students.

Kate Grossmann ’20

Hometown: Spokane, WA
Major: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in mathematics? Was there a specific inspirational experience?

I came to Oxy with a hunch that I'd want to study math, but without really knowing what that meant at the college level. In the fall of my junior year, I studied abroad through the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program, which is uniquely rigorous and 100% all math, all the time. More than ever before, I became certain that I'd chosen the right major. I saw what it means to seriously pursue math, and returned to Oxy with a newfound drive and appreciation for our own math community.

Can you describe your working relationships with math professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

I absolutely adore the math faculty at Oxy. What are meant to be quick trips to the math offices often turn into entire afternoons spent chatting and laughing with whatever subset of the math community happens to be around. My favorite Oxy math courses have been “Discrete Mathematics” (which everyone should take), “Abstract Algebra” and anything taught by Professor [Ramin] Naimi.

Have you taken part in any math research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

I conducted research on Positional Game Theory with my adviser, Professor Eric Sundberg, and fellow math major Ben Pagano ’21. We began our research as an independent study in the spring semester of my junior year and continued on through the summer via Oxy's Undergraduate Research program. Asking new questions and conducting research in math is, I think, an invaluable experience for anyone interested in the subject. It lets you experience the aspect of discovery that is vital to the spirit of math, and is so often missing in standardized math education in the United States.

What do you like most about studying math?

Though I love going to a school where I can take a really wide range of courses, I always come back to math. I'm continually surprised by the extent to which my math courses inform my understanding, not just in STEM, but also history, religion and philosophy. On its own, besides being profoundly beautiful, math is an incredibly rewarding field of study. The moment that an intricate proof finally clicks in your mind almost feels like you've invented something all over again.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in math?

My advice to any new or potential math majors is to take the weird courses! Math as a field is so remarkably multifaceted, and you never know which off-the-wall course might spark a newfound interest or exercise your brain in a totally novel way. Allow yourself to enjoy learning for learning's sake, and often applications will crop up where you least expect them.

Junepyo Lee ’20

Hometown: Cheongju, South Korea
Major: mathematics; minors: economics, computer science

What was your motivation to major in mathematics?

I’ve always liked math since I was a kid, and I enjoyed participating in math competitions. So it was a natural decision to major in math at Oxy.

Can you describe your working relationships with math professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

I work as a TA in “Statistical Data Analysis” for Professor [Tamás] Lengyel, and I have been a grader for several professors. The class “Real Analysis” class taught by Professor [Gerald] Daigle last semester was great for learning and understanding why and how everything we learned up to calculus works.

Have you taken part in any math research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

I am going to take part in summer research at Oxy with Professor [Jim] Brown. The topic is Siegel modular forms, and I am currently learning about the related material since this will be a new area of research for me.

What do you like most about studying math?

Until calculus, I liked math because there was a correct answer for each problem. But as I take more upper division courses, I realize that math is more about developing logical thinking skills. It can be stressful when you can’t determine an approach to a problem, but once I find one and finish my proof, it’s very rewarding and I like the feeling of gaining more insight.

What are your career plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I am planning to pursue a Ph.D. in math after graduation. At Oxy, I improved my communication skills and gained more confidence overall. A lot of professors here are caring and helpful. In my freshman year, when I felt very alone, I had a long chat with Professor Lengyel, who understood my difficulties as an international student. Since that time he has always encouraged me, especially to pursue and study math more deeply.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in math?

If you decide to be a math major, you will have more insights when you take courses from other departments, too. Approach your professors and ask them if you can be involved in any of their research, or ask them for help with a research topic. Take advantage of being in a small school.

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