Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beautiful Ideas




Waiting for the train yesterday, I met a charming young woman.

She was slight and looked more like she ran a health food store.

She was a grad student at Yale doing computing and stats in the life sciences. She want to a small Eastern Seaboard liberal arts college.

She never had a fondness for math. Many courses were just “do this, do this, do this—there was no Big Idea."

But as she took courses, she founds some inspiring professors.

What made a good math lesson?

“I had a professor who would start with a big idea. Something important and inspiring and impactful. He would point to research or a photograph or news story to show the impact of something mathematical. It inspired you and made you see the beauty of the topic.”

How did you sustain your attention?

“If I knew the Big Idea, and then I could see some of the pieces, then I could do all the work—because I knew how it fit together. Then, no matter how tedious or hard it was, I knew what I was doing, where I was going."

Now this young woman uses computers and statistical methods to do genome sequencing and analysis in order to cure and prevent cancer. “I’m not really a math person. I just love beautiful ideas and doing something meaningful."

--Edward R. O'Neill