Dramatis persona*

helenhead Helen Chick

I've always wanted a bumper sticker that said "I'm a female, LDS/Mormon, Scout leading, geocaching, piano-playing, bicycling, mathematics educator with a PhD in maths ... and I VOTE"!

I think this makes me a minority group of cardinality 1!

* Since there's only one of me and "personae" is plural (I think), I've gone with dramatis persona.
November 2020
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A personal mathematical history – Part 3

[Note: This four-part series is a blogged version of a talk I gave in 2011 at a conference which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Mathematical Association of Tasmania. Some of the anecdotes shared here were not included in the original talk … and, given that I’m writing this up over three years later, I’m quite sure there were bits included in the talk that are missing from this version of things.]

I had wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up, and my choice to go into maths and science teaching was partly due to my interest in the subjects but helped by the fact that there was a shortage in these areas and so my likelihood of getting a studentship and a job was increased (there are elements of naivete, conservatism and ignorance of other options associated with all of this, but there are no regrets). Thus it was that I started a science degree, doing maths, physics, chemistry and geology in my first year and then specialising in maths and physics in second year. I was a diligent and generally very competent student …


… but I wasn’t always totally diligent! (I also wasn’t always totally competent, either!!!!!)


At the end of my undergraduate degree, having completed majors in each of maths and physics, I had the choice of doing honours in physics, honours in maths, or going straight through to my Diploma of Education and on to teaching. Despite a vague (and also naive!) wish to go to Antarctica — a path that might have been possible by pursuing physics — I decided to do honours in maths. In addition to coursework, the maths honours program involved doing a reading thesis, in which you had to read up on recent research on a particular topic and produce a coherent account of the field. My supervisor, however, posed some extra questions to explore, with the result that I came up with some new results and after putting these together with some of his own ideas I found myself in the rather exciting position of being an author on a mathematical paper. Although I still had an obligation — as part of my studentship — to go out and teach, I started to countenance the idea that maybe I could go on and do more work in mathematics.


At around the same time I started to get interested in fractals, thanks to an A K Dewdney article in Scientific American. I had my own 64K Amstrad computer and programmed it to produce my own versions of the famous Mandelbrot set. It was fun doing my own programming, and then there’d be the patient wait of hours and sometimes days for the pictures to be produced.


The topic of fractals has been an ongoing interest over the years and I have always enjoyed giving talks about them and messing around exploring some of the exciting phenomena. The technology has, of course, grown ever more powerful allowing ever faster and more accurate depictions. A part of me would like to have the time to learn enough programming for contemporary computers to re-produce some of the little programs that I used to have that could show some of the patterns that occur.


After completing honours and doing my Dip Ed I went out and taught at a senior secondary college for a couple of years. While there I totally failed to discover a very interesting thing about my immediate boss and work colleague, something which only became evident some years later when I was helping to run some professional learning in that part of the state. One of the presenters was discussing the birthday problem or paradox, which highlights the fact that — despite the fact that there are 365 possible days for birthdays (not counting Feb 29!) — it actually doesn’t take very many people before there is a 50% chance that two of the people in the group share the same birthday. In fact, you only need 23 people (my use of 24 below is due to faulty memory!). I wasn’t in the room when the presenter ran the activity to see if there were any matches among the group of teachers who were participating, and apparently there were no matches. When my old work colleague told me about this we asked each other about our own birthdays to discover that we matched. We took advantage of this on the night of the MAT conference talk that forms the basis for these blog posts, because the night of the talk was, in fact, my birthday and my colleague was also present, so we could get nice mathematical and dramatic effect from the occasion.


After two years of school teaching I decided to return to university to embark on a PhD. I managed to get a half-time tutor/lecturer job in the maths department so I could keep teaching (and pay my way) and pursued half-time study in ring theory (a branch of algebra). Along the way I got sidetracked with a few things, such as a big professional learning project which resulted in a few chapters in a book. I was also involved in the Mathematical Association of Tasmania, spending three years as the editor of its journal and redesigning the cover, as well as designing a few mathematical calendars for the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.


Eventually — after longer than I would have liked, but with good experiences along the way — I managed to finish my PhD. I tried to get the Head of Department to submit the following piece of doggerel to be read out at graduation but he went with the rather more traditional and incomprehensible abstract one.


I look at my thesis every so often, and I confess I no longer recall very much of it, but I enjoyed doing it. I was not, however, a brilliant or quick mathematician. I plodded and enjoyed the search for patterns, but I didn’t have the ready recall of results that might allow me to come up with new theorems efficiently. I enjoyed research, but I could already tell that I wasn’t going to be producing enough of it to be held in sufficient esteem as a mathematician and I knew this was a problem. The other difficulty was that we had algebraists in abundance, and I was still only part-time, and so if I wanted full-time work, something would have to change.


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