In defense of mathematics
Talea Mayo is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She expects to earn a degree in computational and applied mathematics in 2013. A Colorado native, she graduated from Grambling State University in 2008 as valedictorian. As an undergraduate, she held several internships, including one at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and another in UCAR's SOARS program. She recently received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports outstanding graduate students in scientific and technical fields.
What are you working on?
My advisor, Clint Dawson, works with a computer model called ADCIRC [Advanced Coastal Circulation and Storm Surge Model]. It’s used to model tides, and particularly hurricane storm surge. I’ve been working on data assimilation, which is a way of increasing the accuracy of models by incorporating data into the forecasts.
Were you always interested in hurricanes?
No, I didn’t really understand what a hurricane was when I was growing up. In 2005, my sophomore year of college, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I was living in northern Louisiana so we weren’t impacted directly, but so many people at school were from the Gulf Coast that I began to understand the catastrophic impacts. Then the next summer I did an internship at UCAR through the SOARS program, and I had the opportunity to do more research on hurricanes.
What do you like most about your research?
I love that no two days will be the same, and there will always be an opportunity to get better at what I do. With technology evolving the way it is, I think that how good the models get will depend on how quickly we can obtain data and how effectively we can incorporate it.
What do you like least about mathematics?
I wish it was more generally understood. Besides my colleagues, no one wants to talk about math. My friends from undergrad don’t understand the work I do or why I do it. When I meet people and tell them what I do, their first response is, “Oh, I always hated math.”
Why do you think people don’t like math?
They don’t understand what they can do with it. Math is everywhere; it’s not removed from things they’re doing every day. To take my own work for example, people care whether a hurricane will cause their homes to be under water or not, but I don’t think they realize that the prediction all boils down to how good the equations are and how well they can be solved computationally.
You started college as a criminal justice major. What made you switch to mathematics?
To me it wasn’t a big jump. I had done so much advanced math in high school that I had already fulfilled the requirements for my major, but I wanted to take Calculus 3 anyway because it was weird to me not to have a math class. My calculus teacher talked to me about switching, and the more I learned about math and what you can do with it, the more sense it made. The same logic that you use in law, you use in math to formulate proofs.
What do you wish you had learned earlier?
My first year in grad school was unbelievably difficult. I remember feeling like I didn’t know anything and wondering if I would even make it through the semester. I wish I had known then that it’s hard for everyone. The point of grad school isn’t so much about knowing as it is about learning.
What keeps you going in a hard time like that?
Knowing you’re not alone makes life a lot easier in general. People don’t always stop to think about how much we can do for each other. It would be easy for someone to look at me and just be negative about their own accomplishments—oh, I could never do what she’s doing—but I haven’t gotten to where I am by myself. People have extended their hands to me, and in turn I try to extend my hands to others. I have overcome some of my darkest days because of people who have taken the time to help.
What qualities do you think it takes to be successful in your field?
You have to be persistent and innovative. Research is constantly changing; there’s no single answer for every problem. You can’t get frustrated when things don’t work; you have to be open to trying new approaches.
What would you like to do after graduate school?
I used to want to work in a research lab. However, I’ve been at UT for two years and I haven’t had any black professors. This has made me seriously consider becoming a professor, so that someone else might have a daily reminder of what they can do and become. I would still want to have a career in research, so I would like to teach at a research university, but I’d like to be to someone the role model that I didn’t have myself.
Tell me something unexpected
I have a motorcycle license. I don’t own a motorcycle, though—no money.
What’s on your music player?
Gospel, R&B, and hip hop. I love Mariah Carey.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?
It's good to be well rounded.
People sometimes worry that they have to figure out exactly what they want to do and then do that and nothing else. Don’t be afraid to try different things; no one will think less of you. One of the judges for my recent NSF fellowship commented that my research projects were all so different that it made my application really strong.