National Institute of Standards and Technology
Mathematics, College of William and Mary
Mathematics, University of Virginia
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
"Learn to communicate and write well. Take advantage of
"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
"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."
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
How did you get your first job?
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
Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
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.
Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while
working in your current job?
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!
When did you know you wanted to become a Mathematician?
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.
What was your college experience like?
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!
What's the most rewarding thing about being a Mathematician?
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
Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
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.
Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
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.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Mathematician?
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.
Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in
the real world?
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.
Where do you see jobs for Mathematicians in the future? What should
students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
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.
What other advice do you have for 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
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