Mathematics: Her ‘Field’ of Dreams

    Nearly 2,000 undergraduates sit for six hours each winter trying to solve 12 complex math problems for the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition – considered by many to be the most prestigious university-level math exam in the world. They compete for a little bit of money, a few moments of fame and even for the “fun” of it. For the last two years, Elizabeth Field has been one of those students.

    Last winter, Field earned 10 out of a possible 120 points on the Putnam exam. A year earlier, she scored but a single point. Those may not seem particularly impressive scores – that is, until you discover that more than half of the participants – which include many of the best young math minds in the United States and Canada — fail to tally a single point. And less than a third of the students reach the 10-point mark.

    Field, who is majoring in elementary/special education and mathematics, will finish her student-teaching certification next fall. And while Field says she’s always liked math, she never envisioned herself majoring in that discipline, let along contemplating a career in it. But all that changed when she transferred to Southern three years ago.

    “As an education student, I had to choose a second major and I just happened to pick math,” Field says. “I ended up loving it. It was fascinating.”

    Her impressive 4.0 GPA in her math classes and participation in multiple math research opportunities and conference panel presentations demonstrate her fondness for the subject.

    She is also breaking traditional gender barriers seen in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, where women hold a disproportionately low portion of undergraduate degrees in those fields.

    Field’s success has been recognized by Raymond Mugno, an associate professor of mathematics, who has been one of her teachers.

    Mugno says Field’s intelligence, drive and extraordinary work ethic are an integral part of her success, but he adds that her creativity sets her apart.

    Field has traveled throughout the country to attend a variety of math conferences and workshops. Last summer, she was one of 10 students to take part in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied for eight weeks. The program culminated in a paper, which she presented with her peers, at the 2013 Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Diego.

    “In math class, you sit there and the answers are in the back of the book,” Field says. “But in the world of mathematics, there are real questions and the answers are just waiting to be discovered.”

    Field has participated in workshops that have engaged her in theoretical studies, such as issues related to climate change.

    Although she originally envisioned herself teaching in an elementary school, she has shifted her focus to research, graduate school and perhaps a career as a university professor.

    Nevertheless, Field remains connected to one of her passions — youth development. She works with the children at her church’s youth group in an effort to help them become better people and leaders.