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Mathematics Overview - Overview PowerPoint - Podcast

Bonita Saunders

National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD

B.A. - Mathematics, College of William and Mary
M.S. - Mathematics, University of Virginia
Ph.D. - Mathematics, Old Dominion University
Mathematician, conducting research and providing technical leadership within NIST in computational methods for solving scientific problems of interest to industry.
Although very busy with her career, Bonita finds time to tutor, helping elementary, secondary, and college students in mathematics.
"Learn to communicate and write well.  Take advantage of internship opportunities."

"One thing I've noticed since I've been in my position is that I've used just about all the math I've learned. I can't say that there's anything I've taken, any math course I've taken that was completely irrelevant. It just seems like sooner or later, everything is important. And that's sort of a surprise to me. And the other thing that's a big surprise, when you get into the working world, not just here, but any type of job, is how important communication is. I actually worked in private industry for a few years before I came to NIST. It was really surprising how important it was to be able to write well, to speak well, to communicate your ideas. And I think if one thing is underemphasized in school it's that you really need the ability to write well and communicate well for any job you're in."

Saunders: "I actually enjoyed working in all three environments. Teaching was very rewarding, but it was a lot of hard work. In the private sector, well that was interesting, but I guess the main thing you notice about the private sector is you always feel sort of a lack of security. You'd go from one project, and then after a while that project's over, the funding is over and so you wonder: OK. What do I do next? In a government research lab it's a little bit different. No job is completely secure, but from day to day you sort of have a better idea of what you're going to do and you can map out what you think you want to do in the next few weeks, the next few months, and sort of follow along with that."

Q: Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
When I was an undergrad there were very few opportunities for work experiences related to my major. Today there are many internship programs being offered by universities, corporations, and government laboratories. Students should take advantage of these programs to gain priceless experience and information that will help them make informed decisions about their career choice.

Q: How did you get your first job?
Saunders: After I received my Ph.D. I received several offers through contacts I made with the assistance of my dissertation advisor, other faculty members, and research advisor at NASA Langley Research Center where I did the research for my degree. However, I actually chose a job in private industry that I found by searching technical placement manuals in the college placement office. When I decided four years later that I wanted to get back into research, a casual conversation with my dissertation advisor led to contacts with connections to NIST. This eventually led to me receiving an offer to join the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Division at NIST. I think this illustrates the importance of networking and being exposed to people in the types of positions you would like to obtain. That's also why internships are important. They provide students with excellent opportunities to see what a research environment is like. They allow them to make contacts, and give them a chance to see how they measure up to students from other colleges and universities.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Saunders: On my current project I do both. On the NIST DLMF Project I'm part of a team, but because of the uniqueness of my grid generation research, a lot of my work is done alone. However, I also work closely with a NIST expert in 3D visualizations on the Web, with others who help with the actual construction of the function plots, and constantly communicate with the editors or authors to make sure we accurately capture the most informative views of the functions being represented.

Q: Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while working in your current job?
Saunders: This can be tricky when a deadline is looming, but I try to find time for outside interests. Sometimes it's possible to mix both work and pleasure. I tutor students through my church or sorority, but because of my division's encouragement of outreach activities I occasionally might spend an hour or so during the work week helping students at a nearby school. At home I enjoy both indoor and outdoor gardening and all types of home improvement projects. And thanks to the improvement in my tennis game from playing in the NIST intramural league, I now love playing tennis all year round!

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a Mathematician?
Saunders: Well, there was no epiphany. I gradually fell into it. At an early age it would have been hard for me to aspire to the type of job I have now because I didn't know such jobs existed. That's why internships are important. They give students an opportunity to see what careers are available to those having a strong background in mathematics or any other field. Since I did very well in mathematics during high school and I had always admired teachers, I decided to go to college to become a mathematics teacher. While in college I decided to continue my education at the graduate level in mathematics.

Q: What was your college experience like?
Saunders: I'm going to answer a different question. What has my education been like? I was born a few months after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, so pretty much every aspect of my education and, probably, my life have been affected by it. I grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, but in spite of the court case, I attended all black schools until high school when forced busing changed everything. Since I had never been in an integrated environment I was very apprehensive until I received my first report card with five "A"s and one "B" -- in chorus. Four years later I graduated as valedictorian. One thing has always bothered me about my first few weeks in high school however. Several of my teachers asked me who my teachers had been in junior high. It appeared they had a hard time accepting the fact that I could be so well prepared even though I had been attending black schools all my life. It is a disturbing misconception that black schools were necessarily inferior schools. In many cases the books, supplies, equipment, and even the buildings were inferior, but more often than not, the teachers were competent and extremely dedicated professionals.

When I attended the College of William and Mary I originally planned to be a high school mathematics teacher, but during my junior year I decided to make sure I had the course work I needed in case I wanted to go on to graduate school. Although I wasn't one of the top students, my grades were very good. When I spoke to my advisor about preparing for graduate school his response was, "Well, when are you going to teach?" He transferred me to another advisor who gave me some suggestions about additional math courses to take. During my senior year I completed the requirements for teacher certification, and applied for teaching jobs and to graduate schools at the same time. After receiving offers for both, I decided to go on to graduate school at the University of Virginia (UVA).

After receiving a masters degree from UVA, I taught at Norfolk State University and Hampton University and started working part time on another graduate degree at Old Dominion University. After three years I focused full time on my doctorate degree, and I received a graduate research fellowship from NASA Langley Research Center that was higher than my teaching salary!

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about being a Mathematician?
Saunders: The most rewarding thing about being a mathematician is the joy that comes from creating something new. Whether it's a new code, a new formula, or new physical phenomenon, I think anyone who enjoys doing research has a child-like quality of being excited about discovering and experiencing new things.

Q: Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
Saunders: I do a fairly moderate amount of traveling right now. At NIST we have some flexibility in designing our careers and our work schedules. For three years I was the primary caregiver for an elderly parent, and I limited most of my travel to local conferences and schools with an occasional longer trip for an invited or contributed talk at a national or international conference. This year, subject to the availability of funds, I will probably travel a little more. Presenting and attending talks at conferences, workshops, colleges, and universities is the best way to keep current in your field and make valuable contacts.

Q: Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
Saunders: Although I have never had an ‘official' mentor, there have been people who have influenced me. Ironically, most of the advice came only after I entered graduate school at Old Dominion University. I'm sure we have lost many students, especially women and minorities, who might have considered a career in mathematics if someone had encouraged them. One of my most talented summer students was a female who ended up studying for a PhD in another field. She received virtually no encouragement from her advisor and the professors in the mathematics department of the highly prestigious university where she attended.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Mathematician?
Saunders: Yes, I would, but I would also try to broaden my education more. Other scientists are sometimes intimidated by mathematicians so knowing a little about their fields will aid communication and make it easier to assist them.

Q: Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
Saunders: I believe the courses I took prepared me for my job but I think there are other things schools could do that would help. For example, publishing your results is a very important part of a research job. Teachers should make sure that students gain some writing experience. Research projects where the end result is a paper, published or unpublished, are a good idea for both the undergraduate and graduate level. At the graduate level, the thesis should not be the only paper the student writes. Some shorter papers, perhaps in conjunction with the advisor or another professor would be an invaluable experience. Also, other aspects of real world jobs such as working in groups, and learning material on your own should be incorporated into the classroom.

Q: Where do you see jobs for Mathematicians in the future? What should students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Saunders: I believe an interdisciplinary field of study will be more and more important for mathematicians of the future. Even now, though most of the people in my division have a strong background in mathematics or computer science, they also have strong, and sometimes primary, backgrounds in other areas such as physics, mechanical engineering, chemistry, astronomy and biology. A strong computer science background with some experience in writing code in a major language such as Java, C/C++, or, believe it or not, FORTRAN is a must. Also, course work or experience in some of the hot research areas of today such as nanotechnology, quantum computing, bioinformatics, data mining, and signal and image processing will make employers take notice.

Q: What other advice do you have for students?
Saunders: Students should take advantage of every available opportunity to gain information if they are interested in a career in mathematics. Talk to other students, professors, and researchers, read magazines and journals, and watch the news to keep current about the latest research areas and job opportunities.

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