Carolina Math & Me: Martha Anne McKnight

Today’s guest post is by Martha Anne McKnight, M.D., a 1977 Carolina graduate with a dual B.A. in Mathematics and Chemistry. More information about McKnight and her support of Carolina Mathematics is available in the story about her establishment of the Ancel Clyde Mewborn Professorship in Mathematics.

While I had always planned to become a physician, I also knew that throughout my high school years, mathematics had been my most interesting and challenging subject. At that time, it was unusual for “girls” to major or consider careers in mathematics, but both high school teachers and later UNC professors encouraged my study of this challenging field. While I know mathematics majors are trained far differently now than in 1977, when microchips were but dreams and computers took up whole basements in Phillips Hall, the theories of calculus, linear algebra and the other more theoretical concepts remain largely unchanged. Much more has been added, which I confess, I have not kept current in learning.

I did become a physician, and I left the United States for Europe immediately after medical school and residency training to serve in the United States military. While it is difficult to explain, my mathematics training in learning to solve theoretical equations helped me through some very difficult times in areas of the world where combat medicine became my specialty by necessity. The “down” times in these areas is still one of heightened anxiety, and the logic and beauty of matrix theory and mathematical theory as I remembered it helped move me into a different world of thought than the geographical one where I found myself, and quite often made sleep come easier and the days more bearable. Once I was injured and required multiple orthopedic surgeries, this training was even more invaluable in these ways. I am especially grateful for the instruction that I received from Dr. Mewborn and Dr. Mann in helping me acquire these abilities. Besides mathematics, they also always demonstrated the highest standards of professionalism and dedication to their students.

It has truly been amazing to watch the developments which have transpired over the decades with applied mathematics, the integration of mathematics and computer science, and the growth of the Mathematics Department in both the number and quality of their professors and students. The number and the quality of the developments that the Department has made since my graduation speaks to both the wisdom and the foresight of the leaders of the Department. It is an honor for me to be able to say that I graduated with a degree in Mathematics from UNC.

— Martha Anne McKnight, M.D.

Carolina Math & Me: Ivan Kirov

Today’s guest post comes to us from Ivan Kirov, who graduated from Carolina in 2010 with B.A. degrees in both Mathematics and Economics. Kirov is now a Credit Trading Analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for which he was in Chapel Hill last night for a Summer Analyst Presentation Information Session.

Why math?  In 2007, sometime late in a hot Chapel Hill spring, I was asking myself just that.  To an 18-year-old me, mathematics was a series of equations and facts to be remembered; a strange symbolic litany as unknowable as lines of hieroglyphs.  I hadn’t taken a math class for more than two years  (and indeed was quite proud of this).  I’d planned well – my AP credits ensured I wouldn’t have to waste time memorizing my way through any university math.  My passion lay in economics and politics and literature; in understanding the beautiful complexity of the human social endeavor.  Economics in particular fascinated me.

They say that economics is the queen of the social sciences, and in that hot spring I came to understand why: it’s the math.  Barely past Econ 101 I began to encounter differential equations of which I had only the vaguest recollections.  If intermediate undergraduate macroeconomics was giving me so much difficulty, how could I hope to go to graduate school?  How could I hope to do meaningful work in the field?  The cruel logic of academic necessity admitted no shortcuts.  Two months later, I was in summer school Calculus II.

And for a time it was just as I’d remembered it – memorizing tables of integrals and formulae for curvature.  But then sometime in between discrete math and real analysis and differential equations, I came to a startling realization: that wasn’t nearly what mathematical thinking was all about.  In French literature and political economy and microeconomics I found myself thinking in strange new ways.  That’s not the direction of causation, I’d think to myself.  That condition is not sufficient.  This inductive argument can’t stand up to scrutiny.  My math courses hadn’t just taught me what an eigenvector was.  They’d changed the very structure of my thoughts.  Mathematics, it turns out, isn’t some ancient scroll to be committed to memory.  It’s a Rosetta Stone: a tool and a mode of thought that lets us tap human reason in a precise and powerful way.

Precision and internal consistency are at the core of the mathematical way of thinking.   To take a set of principles and carefully advance an argument, to build upon established postulates, to pull apart the Rubik’s Cube of life and puzzle out its intricacies – that is mathematics.  That’s why political scientists rely on game-theoretic models and why bridges can withstand wind shear.  It’s how we can securely send our credit card details to online merchants.  Mathematics isn’t Pythagoras’ Theorem and tables of integrals – it’s a culmination of the human mind.  Lloyd Shapely, one of the two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote in 1962 that “any argument that is carried out with sufficient precision is mathematical.”  Mathematics is a synonym for human reason.

That appreciation is the core of my UNC Mathematics diploma.  It’s an appreciation that’s widely shared – my UNC Math training gave me the analytical core I needed to be successful in finance.  I got many an interview in my final year just by virtue of my math major.  They may be dry at times, but mathematicians are universally respected.

So, why math?  And why Carolina Math?  Training in mathematics gave me an intellectual framework for life that I’ve found profoundly useful and meaningful: an appreciation for precision, careful thought and intense examination.  And the many brilliant and devoted professors at UNC instilled in me a commitment and passion that’s served me very well both professionally and intellectually.  Among many others, Dr. Goodman’s passion, Dr. Rimanyi’s rigor and Dr. Plante’s perspective  seem to me to be irreplicable.  A curious mind ought to drink deep from the draught of mathematics.  An enterprising one ought to do so at Carolina.

— Ivan Kirov