The Academic Feminist: Amber Hathaway

DSC03069 - Copy - CopyWelcome back, Academic Feminists! The final two interviews in our Academic Feminist Student Series feature masters students who work on gender and sexuality themes. In addition to highlighting some pretty amazing work, these interviewees also offer some advice for those who might be making the transition to graduate school this fall (or who may be considering it!) First up is Amber Hathaway.

Amber Hathaway received her Master’s of Arts in Mathematics from the University of Maine in May of 2014.  She completed her undergraduate career at the same institution, graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Mathematics, a second major in Women’s Studies, and minors in Physics and Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy.  She plans to pursue a Ph.D. with a concentration in mathematics and spends her free time working on her horror novel, reading, and spending time with her wonderful partner Brian. 

Gwendolyn: What is your thesis about?

Amber: My thesis explores the role of noted German mathematician Emmy Noether’s theorem on integral invariants in the context of the history of mathematics, particularly the calculus of variations, with the aim of bringing attention to one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant (but too often ignored) mathematical minds. Although the later chapters are very mathematical, the first chapter is a biographical sketch of Noether designed to be accessible to a lay audience with an examination of how the various facets of her identity, such as gender, her Jewish heritage, her socioeconomic status, and her liberal political opinions affected the trajectory of her life.

What got you interested in the subject?

I have demonstrated a strong aptitude for and interest in mathematics since at least middle school, but as I progressed through high school and saw fewer and fewer women around me in my advanced math and science courses, this made me question my own abilities.  During my second year of college I took a course in the history of mathematics and my professor was awesome; he let me write my major paper on Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya even though her mathematics was too advanced for me to understand, so I basically got to write a gender studies paper for a math class.  I realized then that I wanted to do graduate work in the history of mathematics and that I wanted to focus on a woman mathematician so that other women (and people in general) could see that there are women who have made significant contributions to mathematics, and my professor was totally on board with the idea.

What is the one thing you are most proud of?

Citing Judith Butler. It may seem kind of silly, but my advisory committee consisted of three middle aged white men who probably were not familiar with her work before and most of the people who read mathematics are men, so I was glad that I could bring her theories and other feminist analysis to a new audience. I was a bit nervous writing the biography because I was afraid that some of my committee members might not appreciate my intersectional analysis, but they were all fine with it, so it turned out to be a very positive experience.

What was the most difficult?

Understanding Emmy Noether’s work enough to write about it. We’re talking about a woman who was revered by Albert Einstein for her talents, so it was from the outset an intimidating undertaking. I only focused on a small portion of her paper and I had to learn so much mathematics and physics to understand even that much, but it really broadened my understanding of both subjects.

What is the one piece of advice you’d offer to students who will be working on theses this year?

As soon as you have an idea of what you want to focus on, start doing research. This has worked well for me throughout my educational career, but it is especially important at the graduate level, where you will be expected to read a lot of scholarly works. For my undergrad mathematics capstone paper (which was on French mathematician Sophie Germain’s work on Fermat’s Last Theorem) I cited somewhere around 10 sources, some of which were websites, but for my master’s thesis I cited 80 books and journal articles, which was a lot of reading.

Photo on 2014-06-26 at 12.58Gwendolyn Beetham curates the Academic Feminist.

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 18, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    If you’re interested in Judith Butler, you probably will be interested in commentary by Alan Sokal, who is a progressive physicist and mathematician. If you google “judith butler alan sokal”, you will find lots to think about.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/24/opinion/l-bad-writing-has-no-defense-898155.html

    I’m also a big fan of Emmy Noether. One of the great things about her work, which probably is why Einstein admired her so much, is that it is not overly technical or intricate. On the contrary, her most famous discovery — the relation between symmetries of nature and conserved quantities (energy, momentum, etc.) — is simple enough to be in any modern textbook (for a graduate course on that kind of thing).

    I wish you had had space to describe your own research a little more. A PhD in mathematics requires you to go beyond where others have been, even others as deep as Noether.

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