A Mathematician and Me

Mathematician, Scientist, and Inventor Dr. Valerie L. Thomas (1979)

I made a choice and had to face the consequences. If I didn’t study and my grades weren’t what I thought they should be, I couldn’t blame anybody but myself. Also, what I needed to do was be in class on time, sit up front, be well rested, and, if I didn’t understand, ask a question.

That was part of the remarks of Dr. Valerie L. Thomas, a mathematician, scientist, and inventor who visited my class last week to speak to students in my 5th period class. Dr. Thomas has held high-level positions at NASA, including helping oversee the early development of the Landsat program, and is the inventor of the illusion transmitter, which NASA sill uses today.

Her visit was the culmination of an assignment I gave my students that was a tribute to Black History Month. It was called A Mathematician and Me. I stole the idea for the assignment from two school colleagues, one of whom is my antiracist penpal Stephanie Murdock. (Murdock and her co-teacher actually joined my class for Dr. Thomas’ visit.) The assignment asked students to research a Black mathematician of their choosing and write a short profile of them. In the profile, they also had to share why they chose the mathematician and how they can relate to them. To help them find a mathematician, I gave them resources like the Not Just White Dude Mathematician spreadsheet curated Annie Perkins, Mathematically Gifted and Black, and Mathematicians of the African Diaspora.

One of the silver linings of remote learning is that we’re all just a Zoom link away from each other. So, as an extension to the assignment, if my students chose a living mathematician, I offered them extra credit if they invited their mathematician to be a guest speaker at our class. (The mathematician didn’t need to respond for them to receive the extra credit.) A handful of students took me up on this opportunity and emailed their mathematicians to invite them to our class for a day. Dr. Thomas graciously responded to one of my students and volunteered to speak to us.

She talked to us about a lot. With a warm, calm, inviting demeanor, she told us about her formative years with mathematics and, as she got older, how mathematics became a bigger and more important part of her life. She worked hard and, although she took no advanced mathematics before college, she was insistently observant, curious, and precocious. For example, she shared how she would always sit in the front of the class and ask a question the instant the teacher said something that she didn’t understand. (This is precisely how she learned about proof by induction.) She shared several other interesting stories that were peppered with both insight and humor. She thoughtfully responded to all of my students questions.

If I’m honest, I’m still a little shocked that it all happened. I’ve never had a guest speaker in my class, let alone someone with such expertise and prestige. In addition, because her visit aligned with Black History Month, it provided an incredibly unique experience for my students and I that I could not have anticipated. With her visit, she not only shared her fascinating mathematical journey with us and offered up advice, but she helped all of the outstanding Black mathematicians my students researched this month come alive. She helped their stories and achievements travel through time and arrive at the present moment in the form of a Zoom call. She gave all of them a face and a voice.

I’m immensely thankful.


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