Happy New Year 11111100010!!! My #mathematicalmodel Monday posts have taken a break for the past two months, but I'm so excited to kick off the very first post of 2018 with the amazing Katy aka @astronomouse! Continue reading to learn about her love-hate relationship with math over the years, and how she ended up in a career in astrophysics, where she uses math every day in her work.
Math has had quite the omnipresence throughout my life. I’ve gone from your (unfortunately) typical ‘Math is scary’ girl, to math-obsessed teen, to aspiring sci-fi actress, and finally an astrophysics grad student. I am in my second year in the Astronomy & Physics Department at the University of California – Irvine, studying galaxy evolution using both telescopes and universe simulations. I’m finally learning to embrace all the excitement and struggle that is math.
While I now use math every day in my career, I definitely didn’t start out using it or even liking it! I have never been a fan of just memorizing anything STEM-related, and in grade school I constantly unconsciously mixed numbers around (i.e. 18 would become 81), and the illusive negative sign (–) has always been my nemesis. My very first calculus class in 11th grade, though, was the very first time I fell absolutely in love with math. My calc teacher showed us how to derive. I could now figure out math and really learn math tools instead of just memorizing them. I was so excited that at home that very day I told my parents – “I want to major in math!” To my dismay, my parents just looked at me funny. My dad asked what I would do with a degree in math. I really had not thought about doing anything, I just wanted to study math. Disheartened, I too easily gave up that dream and focused on more *creative* interests – I’d become a sci-fi actress.
After years of doing something I enjoyed but was not invigorated by, I decided to completely change course in my mid-twenties! I decided to become an astrophysicist! During the time between my high school math affair and falling out of love with my creative interests, I rekindled my childhood intrigue with astronomy and realized I could marry my math love with my scifi admiration into one happy nerdy passion – ASTROPHYSICS!
First though, I would need to complete a Bachelor’s degree and I did so in Physics. Once settled into my Bachelor’s of Science program at California State University – Long Beach, I decided to honor that plucky math loving teen I once was by adding on a math minor. Finally after years of secretly loving math, I was taking hard core math classes like Numerical Analysis and Intro to Math Analysis (both requiring a type of creativity all their own!). Numerical Analysis is a hybrid of rigorous math and computer programing – the goal was to learn how to create scripts in MatLab to do iterative math processes. I excelled! Math Analysis on the other hand is learning how to rigorously derive math principles – the basis for creating new math. I entered the semester wide-eyed and eager… but left essentially defeated. I quickly realized while I really do love math, I am not particularly built for pure math.
Meanwhile in my major courses, I was struggling with the same problems - I loved Quantum Mechanics and did well. At the entry levels, at least, Quantum is a lot of statistics - applications of math principles to discuss probabilities of various quantum states. Again, on the other side of the coin, there was my Electricity and Magnetism course – lots of derivations to really understand how electromagnetic forces work and interact with the world around us. This should have been the more intuitive class but I was *almost* hopelessly lost. E&M and Intro to Math Analysis taught me the value of group study sessions.
At the very end of undergrad, I finally learned how to be vulnerable enough to learn from and with my peers, which is one of the most invaluable skills that I now use constantly in my PhD research! Though most of my days are spent coding in Python – aka using math logic to get giant files of numbers to give me information on how galaxies evolve, I still take time to honor my inner math freak. On occasion for the pure sake of learning and exercise, I derive complex astrophysics functions from ‘first principles’. First Principles are foundational relationships that all of physics are built upon – think Newton’s Laws like F = ma.
It’s often a nice break from the grind of research. I am currently finishing up my first research project where I am investigating the role a specific set of galaxies plays in the big cosmological picture to better figure out the fate of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. I use (and in the future will take!) observations of nearby galaxies to create an IRL sample of the phenomena I want to investigate. Then I find a correlating sample of galaxies in an N-body simulation to bolster my sample to win with statistics. Since it takes galaxies much longer to do well anything than, ya know, one woman’s lifetime – studying galactic phenomena in real time is just not feasible. This is where cosmological simulations come in handy. They allow astrophysicists to study large quantities of galaxies in ‘real time’. This way we can take a small real sample and compare it with a simulated sample large enough for the differences between the two samples to be statistically insignificant. So I use math (statistics) to pull information out of first principle physics concepts (N-Body simulations) to further our collective knowledge of astronomy (galaxy evolution)! All of this can help us figure out our own fate!
Just as math is the language which helps scientists figure out where humanity is headed, math is a common thread in figuring out where I’m headed! I went from hating it to being obsessed, took a detour then plunged in the deep end of the big math pool. Through struggling with pure math and even rigorous physics math, I learned how to preserve and be vulnerable in a group learning setting. This is an invaluable skill I use daily in grad school – where I couldn’t be happier: I get to do hard math for fun, apply math logic on the daily in coding for my research AND am offered wonderful opportunities to share my science (like in this blog and on my own SciComm social media pages: IG @astronomouse; FB - fb.com/Astronomouse)