Jean E. Taylor


I didn't know I liked math until I took the Kuder Personal Preference Test and a course in algebra, A typical question in the Kuder Test is: would y ou rather grow a flower, sell a flower, or develop a new breed of flower? The test told me that my interest in computation was at the 96th percentile. Discovery of my interest in math (according to the test) surprised me because I had thought that math was boring and also because no one else in my family was interested in math or science. Then I discovered algebra. It gave me a powerful tool to solve the kinds of puzzles I enjoyed doing anyway, so I was convinced that math could really be interesting and useful .

I took algebra in the 9th grade, geometry in the 10th, algebra II in the 11th, and two math courses in the first semester of my senior year -- trigonometry and solid geometry--and calculus the second semester(a rigorous, epsilon-and-delta course!). I always got A's in math. The only science I took were chemistry and physics. I was nervous about taking physics, because I though it was a "boy's subject." but my counselor convinced me to try it and I became the best student in the class. I also took two semesters of drafting in high school, one of them in summer school; that remains one of my proudest accomplishments, since I went from F's on all my early work up through D's, C's, B's, and finally A's.

I went to Mount Holyoke College because I wanted to go East to college, having grown up in California, and at that time it seemed to me that the best colleges in the East that accepted w omen were women's colleges. I did not specifically want to go to a women's college, but it turned out well for me because I learned there to "tak e myself seriously" and to plan on a research career.

When I went to college, I was debating between mathematics and chemistry as a major (and planned to become a high school teacher). But during the first year, I found math boring again- I was re quired to repeat my high school calculus. Chemistry, on the other hand, was challenging-in fact, I got advanced placement in chemistry purely on the basis of my math skills ! After toying with the idea of majoring in psychology, I finally decided to major in chemistry, although I did take two years of calculus and a year of abstract algebra so I'd know about symmetry groups and the like. After a fascinating course in Parties and Politics, I almost spent a summer as an intern for Senator Alan Cranston in Washington, DC, but at the last moment opted for an NSF(National Science Foundation) program in chemistry research instead.

After two years of graduate school in chemistry, during which I had passed all the required PhD exams but only begun my thesis work, I switched to mathematics. I found the subject of differential geometry(curves and surfaces) absolutely fascinating! Since I had to work very hard to catch up, it helped that I had taken or audited several math courses(including complex analysis, algebraic topology, and differential geometry) while I was a chemistry grad student. Throughout my graduate study I had an NSF graduate fellowship, and I am really gra teful to NSF because that fellowship stayed with me through my change of subject and then two changes of university.

I eventually got my PhD in mathematics at Princeton University. I was an instructor at MIT for a year; I've been at Rutgers University ever since the, and I've been a full professor sine 1982.

My old interest in chemistry and physics now manifests itself in the type of mathematical problems I work on, shapes of surfaces of crystals, and I use a < FONT COLOR="#FF0000" SIZE=+7>computer to do my "drafting" as part of The Geometry Center. Articles about my work have appeared in Scientific American (July 1976, October 1993, November 1993), Science News, and other magazines and books; I ha ve also written and published nearly 60 papers and two videotapes.

I have two step-children (I joined the family when they were about 10) and another daughter. All three of my children are interested in mathematics. The old er two already have PhDs and work n applied mathematics, whereas the youngest began taking math classes at Princeton University when she was in the ninth grade and is at this time still in high school. Maybe our kids like math because my husband (also a mathematician) and I talk about it all the time and communicate our enthusiasm to our kids.

I enjoy lots of things other than mathematics, like skiing, scuba diving, wind-surfing, kayaking, hiking, and mountain climbing. I used to be a pretty good rock-climber, and I even learned how to fly an airplane. But it is in mathematics research that I enjoy the intellectual freedom of trying to make new connectio ns, develop new theories, and understand previously unexplained problems.

Excerpt from the book She Does Math! by Marla Parker
Parker, Marla; She Does Math!; Washington, D.C.;The Mathematical Association of America; 1995