Literature is Part of the Equation for Mathematician Jessica Sidman

Posted: December 8, 2006

As a high school student, Jessica Sidman, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Mathematics, envisioned attending a college like Caltech or MIT. Then, as a junior, she had the epiphany that her academic interests were in male-dominated fields. "Even my high school math and science classes offered few opportunities to study with girls," she said. "I didn't want my college experience to be more of the same." Sidman decided to apply to women's colleges and graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Sidman found the liberal arts environment at Scripps a comfortable fit and appreciated the chance to develop friendships with other women. "I really enjoyed the range of classes I took and the opportunities that the Claremont Colleges Consortium offered. For instance, I had a wonderful class on African American literature and read books that I might not have discovered otherwise."

Literature is, in fact, one of Sidman's passions. She speaks as enthusiastically about fiction, from novels by Charles Dickens to Jhumpa Lahiri, as she does about her research areas of combinatorial algebraic geometry and computational commutative algebra. She's from a family that always has read and discussed literature; during weekend phone calls, Sidman, her sisters, and their mother still talk about books. "One of my sisters and I just discovered that we're both reading novels by Henry James," she said.

For Sidman, being an avid reader and a professional mathematician go hand-in-hand. She has never subscribed to the notion that the sciences and the arts are mutually exclusive domains. "As a teenager, I participated in some math competitions, but I also played violin in an orchestra and was active in speech and debate. The portrayal of mathematicians in the media can be very one-dimensional, and it's hard to get a sense of the diversity of our field. However, I know of a mathematician who has written a novel, and one who has written an opera, and most mathematicians that I know have a wide range of interests. Certainly, most of my math students at Mount Holyoke have a minor or even a second major in one of the humanities," she said.

Teaching math to women at a liberal arts college was precisely what Sidman had in mind when working on her doctorate in mathematics at the University of Michigan. "I felt that teaching women to think more critically and analytically in a numerical sense would be a good thing to do with my life. And I wanted to do it at a women's liberal arts college."

Since coming to Mount Holyoke in 2003, Sidman has been helping students recognize their own possibilities. She teaches introductory classes as well as advanced ones and also offers a weekly lunchtime problem-solving seminar. Some of the seminar's participants compete in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition, a notoriously challenging annual math competition that attracts students from throughout the United States and Canada. According to Sidman, Mount Holyoke students perform very well in the competition. She's not surprised, given the amazing work she sees students do in her classes. "Sometimes a student will tell me that she's not good at math but is succeeding only because she's 'working really hard.' I tell her to instead think of herself as a very smart, very successful person. Women need to give themselves permission to be confident about their abilities."

Sidman admits to needing to remind herself of that lesson before taking the podium to introduce Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder to a full auditorium at Mount Holyoke this fall. She had served on the committee that selected Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains for the incoming class's common reading program and was invited to speak at his campus reading. "I drew on my high school training as a public speaker," she said. "It was very exciting to introduce him."

And that brings Sidman back to the topic of reading. She said she did have a year or two when she tried to read more nonfiction. This past summer, however, was devoted to contemporary literature, with the exception of Great Expectations. "I just was brought up to read," Sidman said. "In high school someone once asked me what my family talked about. The answer was easy: 'We talk about books.' "

Related Link:

Jessica Sidman - Faculty Profile