Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Margaret Symington

    Symington studies manifolds, which are like surfaces but have four instead of two dimensions, with a special property that gives them the name "symplectic". In particular, she studies ways to build new manifolds out of old ones in a process analogous to cutting open surfaces and then gluing them back together in a different fashion. "While the work I do is abstract and is done in my head, I think about it as if I could carry it out with scissors and glue (or tape)," Symington explains. Perhaps her concrete thinking about abstract ideas derives from her early training in mechanical engineering: after double majoring in mathematics and engineering at Brown University as an undergraduate, Symington went on to pursue her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering at Brown. But four years into the Ph.D. program, she realized that she was much more interested in mathematics than engineering. After taking a break from graduate school to teach math and physics in a very small alternative high school, Symington started graduate school over at Stanford, where she earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1996. She then received a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship at University of Texas, Austin. Currently, Symington is a visiting professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on leave from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

    Symington admits that studying mathematics can be difficult and frustrating, but she advises others interested in this career to be tenacious: "if you are sufficiently interested, the struggle will be part of the attraction." The "payoff" is the insight that follows the struggle for understanding. Like Frances Hellman, Symington emphasizes that mathematics is a community activity, not something done in isolation. She relishes traveling and sharing ideas with other mathematicians. The primary misconception about mathematics that Symington would like to see dispelled is that it is a dry subject. In her view, mathematics "is far from dry": "It is an extremely rich and varied language with many dialects"--the "richness allows one to express and appreciate deep and beautiful ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible." In addition to symplectic geometry, Symington enjoys hiking, back-packing, and camping in the mountains, as well as road biking, playing tennis, cooking, and lavishing her three cats with attention.