Rebecca Goldin is a professor of mathematics at George Mason University. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She taught at the University of Maryland as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow before joining George Mason in 2001. She currently serves as Director of Research for the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit media education and watchdog group affiliated with George Mason.
When she's not thinking about statistics in the media, Goldin pursues her research interests in group actions on manifolds and symplectic geometry. In 2007, she received the Ruth I. Michler Memorial Prize, presented by the Association for Women in Mathematics.
Ivars Peterson: When you were young, were you interested in mathematics?
Rebecca Goldin: I was interested in mathematics, but I wouldn't have called it mathematics. I remember having a big argument with my father, telling him, "That's not math." What I really liked were logic puzzles, kind of like mathematical games. But I didn’t like school math. I thought school math was really boring. Adding large sums seemed to me an infinite waste of time.
IP: How did you interest in puzzles and brainteasers arise?
RG: My dad is a physicist, and that is a tremendous blessing. In fact, many women mathematicians and scientists whom I know have fathers who are scientists. He was always very supportive of me. He always believed in my abilities. That's also very important when you're a kid. He was a real source of inspiration about what mathematics really was.
IP: What was your experience as an undergraduate at Harvard like?
RG: My experience at Harvard was a mixed one. The math program there is incredibly challenging, incredibly intimidating. At the time, I felt that it was also somewhat sexist. Yet, you got this amazing exposure to ideas and to many people who felt the way you did about math.
Listen to the rest of Rebecca Goldin's response.
IP: Were you also interested in the teaching side of a career in mathematics?
RG: Absolutely. Until high school, I always wanted to teach the grade I was in. And when I applied to college, my college essay was about how I wanted to teach high school. That was to me one of the greatest things you could do. I love mathematics; I love teaching it; I love talking about it.
IP: What is STATS?
RG: STATS is a nonprofit organization that's affiliated with George Mason University. It has as its mission to educate journalists and the public about the appropriate use of statistics in all sorts of fields. It also serves as a media watchdog group. So when the media gets something wrong, sometimes we'll pursue what we believe to be more representative of the science behind the topic. This happens with some frequency.
IP: How did you get involved?
RG: The dean of the college at the time asked me if I was interested in doing something like this. I was curious to see what goes on here. I had a fairly naïve view about the press, about how journalists work. As I got into more involved, I started having strong opinions about how things were developing, opinions about how science was being presented, and how these kinds of things impacted the public. I saw a place where I could really make a difference.
The goal is to provide not just a sound bite or a way to get your ideas across about your own research. Rather, it's to get across a theme about how to think about something, a way in which you can be analytic. We have a belief that understanding a scientific idea at more than a superficial level makes our lives better. Readers can get complicated mathematical ideas if they're explained in the right way. It gives us more power to make good decisions, gives us more power as a voting body to put money where it's needed and not be wasteful of our resources.
IP: Are your continuing your mathematical research?
RG: Yes. I'm very busy, and I have four kids, so that makes it even busier. One of the things I learned from journalists is how to be extremely efficient about your work. That's really key if you're trying to balance a really active research career and have a family that you're committed to, and have other interests, whether it's teaching or my work with STATS, or anything else that I might do. But I really enjoy it; I like being this busy.
My research is on group actions on symplectic manifolds, mostly.
IP: How do you see the role or place of women in mathematics?
RG: I take the attitude that being a woman and being visible is really important. And I also take the attitude that it's very important to address the fact that there are few women in mathematics. Why is it that there are so few who have succeeded in getting to the best universities or becoming university professors?
Mathematics is perhaps the most evenly balanced undergraduate major between women and men. That's an amazing fact when you consider how few of those women decide to do advanced degrees in mathematics or engineering, as opposed to, say, going into teaching, which I love and respect and wanted to do myself.
IP: Where do you see yourself, say, 20 years from now?
RG: I've asked myself that several times. I could imagine myself doing a lot of different things.