Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Antonia Bluher

    Antonia Bluher is a Cryptologic Mathematician at the National Security Agency. There, she has the chance to apply techniques in algebra, probability, and number theory to intriguing problems in cryptography, or writing and deciphering code.

    Bluher's attraction to mathematics stretches back to childhood, when, together with her brother, she figured out how to do calculations with an old slide rule and discovered how fractional exponents worked by playing with a scientific calculator. Her desire to pursue an intellectual career was shaped by an awareness of a family history that included many women and men of ingenuity, including her paternal grandmother who was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, in 1923, and her maternal grandmother, who was the director of a new school in Egypt before her marriage, and who started helping her husband print his own newspaper in Greece. Her father is a retired Professor of Classics at the University of Alberta, and her mother is a self-employed clinical psychologist.

    In addition to her family, another important mentor for Bluher was Professor Maynard Thompson, with whom she studied in an NSF-funded research program when she was eighteen years old. Thompson provided Bluher with a compelling problem in dynamical systems, which she was able to solve even though her background was limited to calculus. She recalls having the experience "of observing mysterious phenomena, struggling to understand the underlying cause, and finally viewing it in just the right way so that it all looks clear and obvious. That moment, when all is explained and the mysterious pieces fit together like crystals, is like a religious experience."

    Bluher has degrees from Indiana, Cambridge, and Princeton University, where she received her doctoral degree in mathematics in 1988. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships, including the Alfred Sloan Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (1987-1988) and an NSF Postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University (1992-1994). When she embarked on her career as a mathematician, Bluher assumed that she would become a research professor in a major state school, not realizing how hard it would be to publish extensively while raising a family. (Her three children are the "joys of her life" and her ideal day concludes with a walk with her husband.) She considers herself fortunate for getting a job with the government, "thereby solving the tenure problem."

    Bluher has found her research niche, but she keeps a flexible mind in approaching mathematics. Likewise, she encourages young people interested in the field to resist the tremendous pressure to become over-specialized, thereby closing their minds to creative solutions. Bluher counsels: "keep your curiosity alive, be playful in your approach to math, look for opportunities to collaborate, and keep your ears open to new problems."