At the age of 12 years, Dr. James Curry found a physics book in the library and thought it was "the most amazing thing I had ever seen." "Of course, I didn't understand it," he admits, "but I was fascinated by the mathematical symbols and equations. In high school, I realized that mathematics was a special language that can be used to understand much of the universe. I set a goal for myself to learn calculus and take the advanced college placement course." Curry received the support of Mary Perry-Smith, a mathematics teacher at Oakland Technical High School in California. "She coached me and convinced me that I could have a good future in mathematics," he says.
Curry went to the University of California at Berkeley for his undergraduate work and stayed there to earn his Ph.D. degree in 1976. In graduate school, he further developed an interest in computers which began when his high school received a donated machine. "It was old and slow, but I thought it was marvelous," he remembers. "And the teachers let me do whatever I wanted with it."
When Curry went to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado on his first postdoctoral fellowship, he arrived a few weeks before a new Cray supercomputer. "It was a wonderful machine, and it steered my research into the computer-assisted study of dynamic systems." After he took a faculty post at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he applied for an [National Science Foundation] M[inority] R[esearch] I[nitiation] grant to use computers to help understand complex systems such as weather, flame propogation, and basic mathematics. "The MRI award gave me an opportunity to integrate myself into the mathematics department, and to develop my own research projects," Curry comments. "It freed me from the arduous task of searching for funds, a tough and time-consuming job for a new professor." Curry is now a professor of mathematics and the associate director of the Program in Applied Mathematics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
To bring more minorities into science and engineering, Dr. Curry thinks that there must be more Mary Perry-Smiths and programs such as NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates. "We have to reach out to junior high and high school students and convince them that they can have an exciting and fulfilling future in science or engineering," he asserts. "They must realize that they can be the Magic Johnson or Walter Payton, not of basketball and football, but of mathematics, physics, biology, or electrical engineering."
[Source: National Science Foundation, "Models of Excellence," (NSF 90-28), Washington, DC, 1990.]