Eugenia Cheng On Her Portfolio Career Spanning Math Music and Education

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About Eugenia:

Eugenia Cheng is the kind of woman we want to learn from. She’s built herself a notable portfolio career that combines her passions for math, music and education. With a PhD in pure mathematics, Eugenia has a talent for showing others how math relates to our world, and she describes the beautiful and mysterious intersections of math, science and art.

Eugenia works as scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago teaching math to artists and in her “spare” time performs as a concert pianist, inspires others as a public speaker, develops math training materials and curriculum, researches higher dimensional category theory, leads a nonprofit, writes about math for various publications – including her “Everyday Math” column for The Wall Street Journal – and writes books. She is the author of How to Bake Pi and Beyond Infinity.

She’s a firm believer in building careers that allow us to help others and says, “What I really believe is that you have to find out what you are really good at and then find out how to use it in the best way possible to contribute to society.”

In episode 42 of I Want Her Job: The Podcast, Host Polina Selyutin speaks with Eugenia about her thoughts on the concept of infinity, why “drunk cooking” and math are similar, as well as how you can stretch the possibilities within your career. We also discuss the refuge playing music can provide; why she thinks math, science and art are spiritually related; and how we each can find work where we can utilize more of our personal strengths.

And if you’re one of those people who think, “Math isn’t for me,” think twice before sharing that thought with your kids, nieces and nephews. Eugenia offers suggestions, instead, for encouraging kids to enjoy math instead of passing your personal fears along. We’d say that’s spoken like a truly fearless woman.

Topics Discussed In Today’s Show:

  • The Power of Parenting: “My mother was the one who showed me how cool [math] was and how exciting it was,” Eugenia says. “ She shares that her mom was the one who integrated math concepts into everyday life as she was growing up in the rolling hills of Sussex, England. “My mother would incorporate mathematical language into daily life so that logical thinking was normal,” she says. Eugenia goes on to say that she believes that math can become a part of children’s lives the way reading is a part of their lives.
  • Family Game Night: One fond memory that Eugenia recalls is a family project. With her dad, Eugenia built a roulette table. Then, her mom taught her to write a computer program to calculate the odds of winning and losing.
  • Fighting Through Frustration: Eugenia says she found school to be too rigid of an environment. “I always found lessons at school, and the whole of school, really frustrating because there were rules, and they were very arbitrary. It was too structured and too confining,” she says. Now this memory serves as a deep driving force in her work to encourage others to love math.
  • Hitting A High Note: One way Eugenia said she overcame her frustration with school was through her passion for piano, which provided her with the creativity and imagination she needed to express herself. “Music was really important to me because it was something that was very personal to me and that I could use to express myself … All I had to do was get through the [school] lessons,” she says. “Then I could get home and practice the piano – where there were no limits.”
  • On Nurturing A Love For Math: Middle school is the most critical time for an individual to develop math skills, Eugenia says. She suggests parents who are afraid of math, or who are not skilled in math, can often pass along their fears to their children. “If you tell your children that you (personally) are bad at math, then it makes them feel that it’s okay to be bad at math … Then they will think, ‘My parents are bad at math, so it doesn’t matter if I am bad at math.’”
  • Leading By Example: “I always told anecdotes from normal life to demonstrate mathematical points, because I am very sure that if you don’t relate math to anything in life … Then as soon as they students leave the classroom they kind of turn their math brain off and it never gets turned back on until they are in a math classroom again, and math is just something that takes place in the classroom,” she says.
  • Math Meets Baking: Food became the example of choice for Eugenia to teach math concepts to others. “Food involves taking ingredients and putting them together and making something delicious, which is kind of all that math is. It’s just that in math the ingredients are ideas rather than edible ingredients,” she says. This concept later turned into her book, How to Bake Pi.
  • Vodka … And Algebra?!: Eugenia shares her thoughts on how “drunk baking” compares to basic math. It works like this: If you understand the principles behind something, then you are in a better position to do it under slightly compromised circumstances – like when you’re drunk or are underprepared and don’t have the right ingredients in your house.
  • Infinite Thoughts: Eugenia’s latest book, Beyond Infinity, explores the concept of infinity. “One of the things I love about infinity is that there isn’t a definitive answer. Because people often think math is about getting the right answer, whereas in higher-level math it becomes more interesting than that. We’re not looking for the right answer. What we’re doing is creating possible worlds in which different answers are possible,” she says.
  • Spiritual Connection: “For me it’s this strong sense that there are things more powerful than us,” Eugenia says. “… Looking at waves crashing on the shore – where does that power come from? We can explain it using science, tides and gravity, but where does gravity come from? Where do the laws of physics come from? And, whatever it is that is the root of that, is something spiritual to me. It is beyond something that we can understand.”
  • Connect: Learn more about Eugenia on her website, and connect with her on Twitter.
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