Professor Kathy Davis is the undergraduate mathematics advisor and associate chair of the Department of Mathematics. She has been on the faculty for 30 years and is a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
This is an odd generation that we are living in. We seem to be looking for the roots of everything. We can ask questions like, “What does the Universe have to look like?” and that’s the Poincaré conjecture that was recently solved. “How did the universe begin?” Steve Weinberg in physics knows about this. “Where do we come from? Who are we?” That’s the human genome project. All of those problems require very serious mathematics. Math is the language of science.
How do you connect with students, especially non-majors, who might not be inherently interested in math?
I like to show people what math is, and a lot of that comes in the applications of math. For example, it surprises my students that the math they’re doing in calculus is encoded in their mp3 players. You wouldn’t have them if the calculus hadn’t been done.
My most recent work was as a biomedical signal processing consultant. We were trying to make what I like to call the “war pod,” which is probably why I’m no longer on that project [laughs]. It is designed to be a little medical monitoring device so that soldiers in the field can be reporting their health all the time. There’s this thing called the “golden hour,” and if you can reach that soldier within the golden hour you have a good chance of saving him. So the goal is to monitor the health of soldiers in the field constantly. Even this is a very complex mathematical problem.
I like to tell students about those examples.
There’s a lot of talk about failings of the public school system in teaching math. Are students more or less prepared now?
At one level, this doesn’t matter for us, because as a public university, our mission is to teach whoever we have. And whether students are ill prepared or well prepared, the real issue is that they need to transition from high school-level thinking to university-level thinking.
I came from Omaha, Nebraska and I thought I was pretty hot in Nebraska! But I went to Cornell and then to Princeton, and at each of those I found out that there were these people who were so much sharper, so much faster, and they thought deeper.
So part of university, for every student, is a personal journey. They are becoming more than what they were after they left high school, and that’s different for everybody. The university is stretching the student to do more than they ever thought they could, and understand more deeply than they ever thought they could. This is one of our big missions at a large university like this.
It’s not really about how smart you are. It’s more about whether you fall apart or you overcome when you have a difficult problem.
All that being said, we just have exceptional students here.
What does it mean to be an undergraduate advisor for math?
I’m the principal undergraduate advisor and associate chair for the math program. What does this mean? One of the members of our department told me that the Math Department is the largest academic unit west of the Mississippi River. Everybody coming in to the university has a math requirement. We have around 12,000 students a semester. So it’s a vast project to organize that. We have a very high profile program, and we want students entering the university to have a good experience with math. That’s one part of my job.
The other part of my job is seeing the math majors, and that’s a lot of fun, because I get to talk with students about their hopes, what they want to do with their life. It’s where I can talk about how things were for me and what I did, all the mistakes I made and I warn them not to do those. This is a really fun part of the job, to talk to the majors. The students coming to The University of Texas at Austin are really the cream of the crop, and these are the best of the best. So they are really neat people.
Are there any joys inherent to teaching math?
I love it. I can go in on one of the worst days possible and I leave the class just smiling and feeling wonderful. I love explaining things. I love when students see something that they haven’t seen before. It’s like taking them on a mission to the moon. They say, “Wow, I never thought about that before.” It’s great. When I take time off and I don’t teach, I miss it.
It doesn’t sound like you have much free time, but what do you do in the minutes (or seconds) that you do have?
One of the things that I do when I’m very stressed is I write fan fiction. Most recently I’ve been writing about “Kim Possible.” She’s a teen heroine—a Disney cartoon—but it’s one of those things that has a strong adult, sophisticated commentary. When I come home after a hard week, I like to turn on the TV and watch it. But fiction writing is tough because you have to be so self-critical. My partner and I at one time were thinking about writing a mystery novel, “Sister Truth ‘Splains It All.” We have the plot, but just haven’t found the time to write it yet.
This article also appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Focus magazine.