Q&A with Mathematics Professor Emma Norbrothen Wright

Professor Emma Norbrothen Wright chairs the new Computational and Applied Mathematical Sciences (CAMS) discipline. An algebraist, Wright is a pure mathematician who, as she explains, “does math that serves other math.” She completed her PhD in mathematics at North Carolina State University after earning her bachelor’s degree at Gettysburg College. Through PSU and the Mathematical Association of America, she became a Project NExT fellow and explored advanced pedagogy. She received the Theo Kalikow award in 2017 for her efforts in strengthening women in STEM, is an ambassador for the University System of New Hampshire’s Academic Technology Institute, and develops open resources for the mathematical community. Wright was the 2018 Wixson Professor of Mathematics.

What’s the biggest misperception about your field?

People think you have to teach, or go to grad school, or be an actuary. Students who aren’t math majors often believe there’s only one right answer and only one right way to get there, and if you don’t understand it, too bad for you; memorize it. Math is really about creative problem-solving, and working with limitations and structures, to get to where you need to go. That’s what “wicked problems” and modeling are trying to address: that there are messy problems, and math can analyze them and tell you what influences the issues. Math can conclude that solutions don’t exist or that multiple solutions might exist.

What are the key skills college math students need today?

They need mathematical skills, and they also need to be able to communicate and work with others in multiple capacities, whether that’s in group work, peer work, or informal or formal presentations. CAMS is great because it gives mathematicians the ability to speak the language of other disciplines. For example, a CAMS major can take biology courses and learn the language of that field.

What issues do math graduates face?

Mathematician is not a common job title, but there are lots of people with degrees in mathematics in other jobs that don’t necessarily scream math. If you graduate with a math bachelor’s, you can have a hard time figuring out what to do next because you can’t just search for math jobs. Most employers assume that mathematicians are smart and good problem-solvers and want to at least interview them. I can see putting mathematicians into any field of interest so they can model, problem-solve, and analyze complex scenarios.

What do you see as the future of your field?

Any field that has messy questions will always involve math. Certainly the sciences but also the social sciences. Health, science and technology, climate change—the “wicked problems.” Math doesn’t give you one-word answers like yes or no, do this or do that. What math can do is help you understand the connections and make choices based on conditionals.

What’s special about the PSU math community?

PSU math does a really great job preparing students to learn how to learn, work with others, and have the confidence and skills to express themselves articulately. We focus a lot on workshops and giving your peers constructive feedback, and on presentations, posters, and conferences. There’s a perception that a mathematician is someone who just sits at their desk and computes numbers, like a real Dilbert. We’re not necessarily preparing that student; we’re preparing someone who can jump into another industry feet first and say, “I’m a mathematician and can help you analyze this.”

What do you say to prospective math students?

In most undergraduate programs, math students start in many different classes, and it can take a while for the majors to get to know each other. At Plymouth State, we have small classes, including Introduction to Formal Mathematics that’s for all new majors regardless of where they start in the calculus sequence. It’s where we set expectations about communal learning, workshops, peer feedback, and culture points, and it forms a cohort that can stay together for all four years.

If you’re interested in math, you should come to PSU! The Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, in a 2019 report, affirmed that we’re delivering the right kinds of courses.

As long as you’re open minded and want to work with others and have a general curiosity, that’s enough to get your foot in the door with us. We produce students who are capable of great work.

■  Peter Lee Miller