Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wise and heartfelt words from a veteran

Kate Rudolph, one of last year's top ten winners at the 2009 Math Prize for Girls, and now an MIT freshman, came back to speak with this year's participants at the 2010 Math Prize for Girls award ceremony, held in the historic Cooper Union Great Hall.

The gold-fringed velvet covered podium in the Great Hall is an imposing and intimidating place for a young woman to speak, even one as accomplished as Kate. (MIT describes her as a "world class mathlete.")

In its 150 years of history, "rebels and reformers, poets and presidents" have spoken at that podium. Many great orators--Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama, the leaders of the antislavery,civil rights, and women's suffrage movements have all made impassioned speeches in that hallowed hall. Not exactly easy acts to follow!

Kate stepped up to the challenge with poise and passion, defying the stereotypes and demonstrating her gifts with words as well as numbers. Her enthusiastic words of encouragement and advice resonated throughout the Great Hall, giving new perspectives to the hundreds of girls and parents anxiously awaiting the results of the competition.

Here is an excerpt from the inspiring, passionate, and thoughtful speech Kate had clearly put her heart into composing to share with the 2010 contestants.

[A]ll of these competitions, including the one you took today, have something in common: you’re solving “solved” problems. Someone else has already thought about the problem and knows the solution before you even get to see it. Imagine what it must feel like to be the first person, in the world, to solve a math problem.

Well, that’s what the future holds for all of you. The point of the Math Prize for Girls is to get more girls interested in math, but what for? Moving forward, the point is NOT to get you winning more math contests. It’s not even to get you writing good math contests (which is considerably harder.) The point of bringing you here and exposing you to these problems is to get you interested enough in math that eventually you want to do NEW MATH.

But how do you get there from here? You’re on the right track: seeking out challenging problems and pushing yourself to do well. What’s next? I have three main pieces of advice.

The first: work hard. Nothing worth achieving is easy to achieve. Math is not easy, and it gets harder, but you can solve any problem you come across with enough effort.

Next: do what you love. At some point during your life, there will come a time when you break down, or burn out. If you spend your time doing what you love, you will have the foundation to build yourself back up again.

Finally: work with other people. This seems sort of opposite to the concept of competition math, where you’re primarily working individually, but I can tell you that there are math problems that are so hard, if you didn’t combine forces with other people you wouldn’t get anywhere.

Look around. You may know some of the other contestants here: you may have met them in summer math programs or they may be from the same area as you. But I challenge you not to just let this be a reunion of people you already know, but a chance to meet more math girls and expand your network. When I say “work with other people,” THESE are some of the best “other people” you could find!

Finally, I think I need to acknowledge that yes, we girls are a minority in the field of mathematics. However, this is not a curse but a blessing, and I challenge you to use it! As a girl, you will have more opportunities (heck, you’re taking advantage of one of them right now!) If people set lower expectations for you because you are a girl, that is an opportunity to blow them away.

Good luck on this competition: I know you’re all anxiously waiting for the results. But more importantly, good luck as you pursue mathematics beyond this competition, beyond all competitions, and start doing some NEW MATH of your own."

1 comment:

lz said...

Kate is phenomenal. I loved the perspective of her speech - the insightful reminder that successful and powerful mathematics is discovered as a result of working together with others. After thinking about her speech, I realized that math is one of the means through which we can strive toward contributing to society. At Math Prize, we are so lucky to have a community of similarly talented and committed girls, and we can achieve so much with the goal of striving toward a greater good, of using our knowledge to ultimately help others.

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has made Math Prize possible.