“I’ve always loved math, but I don’t think it always loved me back,” said MAA Member Dr. Ranthony AC Edmonds as she shared her mathematical journey for our Member Spotlight. Although she always enjoyed mathematics, she found it challenging to become a part of the mathematics community.
MAA: Can you share your journey into mathematics?
Ranthony AC Edmonds (RE): I was always drawn to puzzles and captivated by mathematical thinking and trying to understand how things work. When I was little there were Magic School Bus books with information bubbles. I would try to write them down and learn about all of the cool facts while I was in recess. I have always been a curious person.
I never thought of myself as a mathematician. I went to a performing arts school from the fourth to the eighth grade. Most of my formative years were spent in classes where there was creative dance, piano and art. I was a creative writing major at that school. There was math happening but this was in no way an environment of STEM that I’ve experienced today.
In high school, I got accepted into a magnet program. I switched to a different school because I had heard this program was like my art school but just for math and science, I thought it would be interesting to see how that would turn out and it didn’t go so great. I was dismissed after the first year because I didn’t get high enough grades in geometry and statistics, and this was a program where you couldn’t get C’s and I got C’s in those courses.
I’ve always loved math but I don’t think it always loved me back.
Ranthony AC Edmonds
Performing poorly to me meant that even though I like this [math] and if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, I would be getting higher grades or presenting as some sort of math genius. I lived my life and wrote for the school newspaper, and when I went to college, I started off as a pre-med major in biology and quickly switched to pre-med and English.
Tutoring Sets the Stage
Pre-med was a series of tracks, I started tutoring calculus and my mathematical journey really started to begin. I started going to study groups and a couple of interesting things happened. My husband was in one of them and I learned that I loved teaching math. I realized after a certain point that these study groups were the highlight of my week. I loved being a peer tutor and I loved learning new things in classes even if I hadn’t taken them yet.
One summer I decided that I wanted to change my major. It took me a while to do it. I declared my math major as a second-semester junior.
This is a little later than most and I think this is something that has characterized my journey. I always feel like I started late and that maybe I missed something and that my background is never going to be as good as someone else's.
Feeling Left Behind
During freshman year, I felt like I was behind, and had a little chip on my shoulder because I wanted to prove that I could still do this. The point is I graduated with a degree in math. It took me an extra year.
I didn’t get into any of the graduate programs I applied to and when I got into one master’s program that was fully funded they lost their accreditation and shut down. After all of that I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. I had an early exposure to art which made me love communities in general and inclusive spaces and in high school I didn’t experience that so I thought that math wasn’t for me.
I came back to it in college. I didn’t really have any mentorship or connections in undergrad outside of a postdoc. I didn’t know what to do with this love for math. I was cold-emailing schools nearby to see if I could take classes and one of them emailed me back and said I could come there and do a masters. So I went to Eastern Kentucky and got my masters and that was where I took advanced classes I didn’t get to take in undergrad.
That was really a turning point for me, I went to my first math conference and this was the route that helped me get there.
I was self-directed in that I just decided that I wanted to be a mathematician. It's something that I started to realize when I started interacting with more people. I noticed that a lot of people had mentors that inspired them and it helped them navigate the steps to get there. Then I was thinking about all of my cold emails and it was like no one ever told me that this would be a good idea.
I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Iowa and I felt like I thrived there. I finally got connected with some mathematical communities. I still do a lot of work with storytelling in mathematics so the English major in me is still there and is still in my work. Now I’m a postdoc at OSU and I’m in this big research transition and it’s kind of similar to when I was like “I want to be a math major.”
I was on a clear trajectory to graduate, but I wasn’t feeling it and made a big shift. Similarly, this is my second postdoc. I was on a trajectory in a particular research field with the goal of working with particular types of schools but I do a lot of outreach and I felt like the research I was doing was so disconnected from society at large.I thought how am I going to tell these kids that math is cool and that you can do all of these things, but the only things I can talk to you about is esoteric or abstract things. I wanted to feel like those two sides of me were connected. Now I do a retooling like a data scientist and applied mathematician. I want my research to address issues related to inclusion and society.
My journey is weird because I feel like I operated in the complete absence of a mathematical community.
Ranthony AC Edmonds
So I didn’t know what a lot of things were, all I knew was that I wanted to learn math more. I used to think that was a bad thing because no one felt the need to give me insider knowledge but I think it was turned into a superpower because if you can pursue something that you love without external signals about how you’re supposed to be doing things, you can move with pure joy and excitement.
MAA: How has the MAA impacted you?
RE: I always think of how I can build mathematical communities because it’s something I didn’t have when I was younger. MAA MathFest was a way to identify different mathematical communities I could join as a student. I think it’s been a really great place for development. I’ve made a lot of connections through MathFest.
I was also in Project NExt when I started my postdoc and it was helpful to be in a community with other new teachers that offers an ongoing community of support.
MAA: What is the best advice you have ever received?
RE: Spiderman is my favorite superhero, so uncle Ben said “with great power comes great responsibility” and I think that the ability to do math, especially the level that you are required to do for advanced degrees is a gift. I think that with that gift comes the responsibility, to use your skills in mathematics for the betterment of society. I mean that broadly because we all work best when we operate within our strengths. For example, if your strength is that you’re a wonderful mathematical researcher then you have the responsibility of making sure that your research communities are more inclusive and a place where new mathematicians can thrive. I’m around mathematicians all of the time and sometimes I don’t think we step back and realize what a gift it is to do this daily and to be able to understand math at this level.
MAA: What advice would you give to someone who also wants to be a math educator or further their math career?
RE: I would ask them what communities or support they currently have access to because having those communities is essential in sustaining and building mathematical capacities whether it be as a teacher, researcher or as a student. It’s very difficult to do mathematics alone. Another thing is, a lot of people give up before they begin. It’s very common to focus on background and the perception that my background isn’t good enough and everyone else gets it, but I don’t. The best thing you can do is start where you are and don’t be afraid to be your own green light. Don’t be afraid to join a community.
MAA: Who inspires you and why?
RE: I find great passion and interest in what I’m studying and learning. I'm very intrigued with the idea of building a career that utilizes more traditional research tools in the service of issues in society related to equity. I want to be able to use these mathematical gifts to make a difference.
MAA: What does the MAA Community provide for you?
RE: The MAA Community provided helped me have a platform for my work holistically as a mathematician. I’ve helped organize sessions at MathFest on diversity, inclusion, and discipline. I appreciate the open space for a more contemporary view of what it means to be a mathematician and what inclusive teaching looks like.