A Rising Math Star

I’ve been thinking a lot about math instruction for girls, so I was delighted to have the chance to chat with an extraordinary individual who’s a real authority on these subjects.

Meena Boppana is a senior at Hunter College High School who has been defying the odds her whole life by excelling in mathematics.  Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, as you can see from her talk at TEDxHCCS last September.  I’d like all of our Harlem Link scholars to have the opportunities that Meena has had and to attain the mathematical skill that she has.

Hi Meena!  First of all, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me.  I know you’ll be a fantastic role model for our students.

Thanks for interviewing me!

You love math so much. How old were you when you first realized that was the case?

Well, since I was three or four years old, so as long as I can remember anything.  Whenever I was bored, my dad would start talking to me about something, like the prime numbers.

Lucky for you at age three, three was a prime number.

Ha—yes, three is a prime number :) .

OK, I’m getting right into the politics: Why do you think there are so few women who are famous mathematicians, even nowadays?

Well, I think what it comes down to is a perpetual cycle.  There are so few women in math, so women don’t want to be the first to break that pattern.  There are also cultural factors, especially in the U.S.  In Eastern Europe there are more women in math, I believe.

What about at Hunter?  Do you feel that math power, if you will, is egalitarian across gender lines among the student body?

In general, yes.  Girls feel equally comfortable speaking out in math class as do boys.  Also our math team is relatively balanced.  When you look at the very top of the spectrum though, there are far fewer girls.  Of the 32 students on the New York City math team at the Harvard-MIT math competition this weekend, there were only four girls.  Last year I was the only girl.

Wow! What was that like?

That was fun because I got my own hotel room, but also potentially lonely!  In the end it was not very lonely because I’m friends with all of those guys.

I take it then that you don’t feel any lack of respect from them or feeling that they look down upon you.

I do feel that I have to assert myself sometimes, but I also feel that I have their respect.  You definitely have to be assertive in order to get a word in when you’re working with a team of all boys.

Boys will be boys!  We find that the boys at our school often (not always) need positive attention more than the average student in order to be successful.  So I’m sure you help them with your patience. 

I’m curious about how you got involved coaching students in math at Girls Prep Middle School, a charter school on the Lower East Side.  I’m especially interested because part of the school’s mission is to elevate girls and remove the societal barriers that send negative messages about achievement to girls.

I attended a leadership conference for high school girls called Take the Lead! last year and came up with an action project to start up a middle school math club for underserved girls.  That was all hypothetical, and then I heard about Girls Prep and the school perfectly fit my vision.  I reached out to the principal, and the school embraced the idea.  Then I recruited several volunteers from the Hunter math team.

I want to see more girls on the New York City math team in the future!

Do you find that social issues, including cultural expectations, serve as a barrier with the girls?

The girls aren’t afraid of learning math, and I think any cultural barriers have been removed.  Girls Prep does an amazing job with that.

We took them to the competition MATHCOUNTS last weekend.  They were really inspired by seeing other kids from around the city equally excited about math.

So, not really!

That’s fantastic!  When I was at Hunter, my calculus teacher, Ms. Strauss, stressed over and over again that girls benefit in math instruction from single-gender classes.  Maybe she was wistful for the old days when Hunter was all-female.  But you seem to have evidence that it’s true with the Girls Prep experience.  

What about your own elementary school, experience?  Were the boys bullying the girls in any way, preventing them from excelling in math?

I guess I don’t see it as the traditional boys bullying girls and preventing them from doing anything.  But I think that sometimes the boys who are strong at math tend to shout out the answer quickly and be a little bit intimidating, so girls have to assert themselves more.  And there’s the fact that at my old school, Dalton, everyone was very concerned about popularity in sixth grade.  I have a friend who, after seeing the movie Mean Girls, decided not to join her school’s math team.

I’m thinking about risk taking.  I’ve always believed that a strong mathematician has to be unafraid to take risks.  What do you think?  And as a mathematician, are you fearless?

I’m definitely afraid of a lot of things!  But I do talk a lot, and so I will ask questions and that helps me assert myself in math classes.  In terms of taking risks, I’m not sure how math involves taking more risks than anything else in life.  Math presents a challenge, and I like rising to challenges.  If someone tells me something is too hard, I’m thinking, “Bring it on!”

That’s an impressive and, I think, rare attitude.

Any career goals yet?

Not really.  For a while I thought about going into academia and becoming a math professor, since I love math so much, but I also want to do something that affects society more directly.  I’ve been admitted to Stanford and will probably be studying there in the fall.  And I can see myself going to graduate school in math or a related field like computer science, economics, or physics.  (And maybe I still will go into academia.)

So I have no idea, but math is useful in so many things so I don’t really need to know.

I’m curious about your perspective on Very Large Numbers.  I mean, we are talking possibly 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone—and the latest research says the universe might after all be infinite!  Do you ever get overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe, or the number of atoms in a given object?

I have always been fascinated by big numbers!  One of my favorite museum exhibits is the Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History which compares the earth to the size of the sun, sun to the solar system, etc., and keeps zooming out.

I think that the size of the universe is more awe-inspiring than scary, and I guess I don’t think about it as much as astrophysicists do.

The scope of the universe is fascinating.

I used to worry that I’d be sucked up by a black hole, and then my dad told me that if we were to be sucked up by one the whole Earth would be as well, which was somehow consoling.

Sounds like your dad has been a big influence.  He must be a proud dad too.

For sure—my dad is a really great teacher and always taught me math by making it fun, not forcing me to do it.  My dad started a math club at Dalton when I was in second grade, and so I had a peer group of friends doing math since then.  Also he started the Math Prize for Girls competition held at MIT each year, which brings together the top high school girls from around the country.

Awesome.  It must have been hard for him to let you go when you went to Hunter.

Last question: given the theme of our conversation, is there anything else you’d like to share about your passion for math?

I take math at Columbia University, and I have to say that math is definitely considered cool there.  In college and beyond, having math skills is definitely an asset.  And it’s only a matter of time before people figure out that what makes Mark Zuckerberg and other computer scientists successful is their math skills.  (In fact Mark Zuckerberg competed in the Harvard-MIT math competition in high school :) )

One more thing.  I believe that middle school math is just the foundation.  Math gets way more interesting after that.  So you have to get the basics down before you can be really wowed.

That brought a smile to my face.  I want to plaster it on my fifth graders’ foreheads.


Thanks so much for taking the time.  I’ve really enjoyed it and I am excited for your future.

Thank you!  I’m really honored that you thought of me.


About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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