Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Nancy Kopell

    Kopell grew up on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Her father was an accountant and her mother and older sister majored in mathematics, so it was no surprise when she decided to go into math. Still, she had to overcome a number of psychological obstacles in pursuing this line of study, primarily because she lacked certain kinds of role models: she knew no one who had gone to graduate school, and there were no female faculty and few other female graduate students at U.C. Berkeley where she earned her doctoral degree in 1967, studying ``very pure mathematics".

    She describes herself as having been ``rescued" by her thesis advisor, Stephen Smale, at a time when she was considering dropping out of graduate school. The most challenging part of her career came when she graduated and decided to switch to Applied Mathematics, but had no idea how to precede; again, she had the good fortune to find a supportive mentor, L.N. Howard, who helped to retrain her. Now part of her professional effort goes to helping students who want, just as she did, to take non-traditional paths in science.

    Over the last couple of decades Kopell has been working at the crossroads of two established fields--math and neuroscience--and helping to create a new one, computational neuroscience. This interdisciplinary work has been exciting for Kopell, for it has allowed her to be independent and self-motivated, and yet involved in a heterogeneous community of biologists, neurologists, and mathematicians.

    Specifically, Kopell studies the dynamics of the nervous system, trying to understand how individual neurons talk with one another, and how the network of neurons in the brain produces the patterns of activity that correspond to thinking and moving. She uses math to try to understand how the structure and behavior of individual cells lead to network behavior that cannot be explained just by measurements from individual cells.

    Kopell has received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, and is a member of the National Academy of Science. Currently, she is Professor of Mathematics and Co-Director of the Center for BioDynamics, an interdisciplinary research and training center, at Boston University. In addition to her rewarding career, Kopell has engaged in many interesting pastimes over the years, such as folk dancing, metal sculpture, pottery, and gardening (she describes herself as a ``serial hobbyist"). She is married and has two granddaughters.