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Melanie Wood: The Making of a Mathematician

Melanie Wood has won praise from both the math and theater studies faculty

On a sunny, spring afternoon, with graduation barely three weeks away, Melanie Wood learned she'd won yet another scholarship to Cambridge -- bringing the total to three prestigious awards that would pay for her year there.

Settling her nearly six-foot frame into a chair, the Duke math senior took a moment to absorb this latest bit of news.

"I've just won the Fulbright to Cambridge," she said calmly. "And I've just decided I'm going to Princeton, though I'm going to defer for a year and go to Cambridge first."

With the Gates Cambridge scholarship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship already in hand, Wood said she would need to work out the details of who would pay for what.


Wood's reaction -- understated, pragmatic -- may be a result of having achieved so much in her young, promising career.

Profiled at age 17 as "The Girl Who Loved Math" by Discover magazine, Wood has a prodigious list of successes, including her recent naming as Putnam Fellow by the Mathematical Association of America -- making her the first American woman, and the second woman in the world, to be so honored.

But Wood is not simply a math prodigy. Last year, she won the Faculty Scholars award in Theatre Studies; assistant directed "MacBeth," the Duke Players winter show; and produced a musical.

"I think it gives me a fuller life that I can do both things," she said of her twin loves, math and theatre.

While at Duke, she also ventured into psycholinguistics, physics, economics. "It may be interesting sociologically to see why I ended up that way, but you don't find the typical male math student ending up that way," she mused.

The fact that grade-school boys who did math for fun were tolerated as nerds, whereas girls proficient at math or science were pressured into becoming well-rounded, might have something to do with it, she said. "I was already popular in middle school, and so it didn't matter if I wanted to do some nerdy things."

But gender also concealed opportunities from girls. "If it hadn't been for a teacher asking me, 'Hey, do you want to come to this math competition,' I would have never stumbled into it naturally because my friends weren't in a math club after school or anything," said Wood, who went on to win math competitions from middle school on.

Still, it was hard for her "to separate the gender divide from the ability divide" through grade school, even as she found herself "drastically better" than anyone else at math. It was in high school, after she won the USA Math Olympiad, that the gender divide hit home. Winning that Olympiad shocked her.

"I thought, Why am I so surprised? And then I realized that it was just that I had this image of the people who won this competition -- and that image was of boys."

Female role models in math are scarce. "If I listed the top 20 faculty members in the country I might work with in graduate school, they are all male. And probably, if I listed the top 50, they are all male."

At Duke, Wood valued the opportunity to talk with Andrea Bertozzi, the only female, tenured faculty in the math department . "Having a woman in the department has been important to me. There was a point at which I needed to talk to a woman mathematician to deal with something, and I could, and that was great."

The fact that Bertozzi is leaving for another university is a blow for Duke because "there's a big difference between one and zero," said Wood.

Gender became an out-and-out confrontation while Wood was shopping for colleges. At one university, a professor said dismissively, "I hear you're supposed to be good, but I've never had a female student who really understood the mathematics I do."

Yet Wood is careful to distinguish the person from the institution. Women have cautioned her about specific departments and universities, citing serious, almost institutionalized discrimination. "I, personally, have never experienced that," Wood said. Instead, she has "experienced specific people who have had attitudes about women doing mathematics that were very negative."

As she prepares to leave what she says is a very nurturing environment at Duke, she's learning about other issues confronting professional women mathematicians. At a recent lunch at another university, she learned that getting maternity leave is "a particular wall" for women in the tenure track process. And while daycare options are becoming standard at most academic conferences, math conferences are still not family friendly.

"It's frustrating," she said, "but I really want to do math. I'm just hopeful that I'll be able to deal with all of this because this is what I really love to do."

Because of her understanding of the gender divide in professional mathematics, Wood intends to lend help to other women. "I don't think that sheer numbers have a chance of stopping me. I now believe that I can do this even if I'm the only woman.

"I think that it's easier for a girl to see me and say, 'Oh, I want to be like she is.' I get a lot of emails, but I'm particularly concerned with younger women who are interested in math and want to know what I did and how I did it."

Written by Deepti Scharf.