Interview with Mia Smith '16

by Nam Nguyen ’19


Smith tells Nguyen about her experience as a math major in Williams College


When did you discover your passion for mathematics?

At 3 or 4 years old, I was captivated by the Traffic Jam Puzzle my parents bought for me. I sat down for hours playing the game.However, it wasn’t until MATHCOUNTS in 8th grade that I discovered my passion for math. After qualifying for the state round, I received a book named The Art of Problem Solving. Delving into the book, I found many concepts that were new to me, in such areas as combinatorics and geometry. The exhilaration from learning these concepts awoke my love of mathematics.

You have participated in a lot of math competitions. How did these competitions influence your decision to be a math major?

My relationship with math competitions is complicated. After participating in many competitions in middle school, my enthusiasm burned out as I began to realize that mathematics did not revolve around math competitions. Instead of competing for awards, I just tried to learn more new mathematics. This desire to explore was a main reason I became a math major

In the Math Prize Alumna speech you delivered at your high school, there is a line that I especially love: “Mathematics is not just about doing. It is about creating.” What do you mean by that?

I took inspiration for this line from a quote by János Bolyai, a famous Hungarian mathematician: “Out of nothing I have created a strange universe.” In my opinion, to be a mathematician is to create mathematics, to create a “strange universe” filled with theorems and unsolved conjectures. While math competitions only fulfill the “doing” side of mathematics, sharing your knowledge and passion with other people is a great way to “create” a mathematical universe.

What are the challenges that we have to overcome to create a mathematical community at our high schools?

There is an anti-intellectual culture in the US. Students are generally not very receptive to math. Sometimes, even teachers are reluctant to let their students participate in math clubs. They simply do not want to answer peculiar questions that math-club kids throw at them, such as, “Why do we have a base 10 numeral system?” That anti-intellectual culture is the biggest challenge that we have to overcome.

You participated in a summer research project named SMALL at Williams last summer. What did you do?

Our research focused on finding the hyperbolic volume of knots. Participating in the program was a great experience.It not only allowed me to learn more knot theory but also helped me get to know many students who share the same passion for math.

What is the topic of your senior thesis ?

I am studying graph associahedra under the supervision of Professor Satyan Devadoss. Specifically, I concentrate on the relationship between a graph and its corresponding abstract n-dimensional polytope. My project aims to answer many interesting questions. For example, when are the polytopes connected? If an edge is added or deleted from the graph, what would happen to the polytope? Are there geometric realizations of the polytope?

What are your hobbies outside mathematics?

I love to lead outdoor adventures with the Williams Outing Club, such as hiking and backpacking or taking people on hikes. I also really enjoy cross-country skiing, but unfortunately there is not enough snow right now!

Do you have any advice for aspiring math majors at Williams?

Don’t be afraid of taking challenging classes. Get to know your professors because they are awesome. You should spend time talking to professors even if you do not have any questions. Drop by their office to say hello, to discuss a cool mathematical proof you just found, or to shoot the breeze about something entirely non-mathematical.

Mia Smith ’16 is a math major from Ithaca, New York. Nam Nguyen is a student of Class of 2019; he enjoys studying Number Theory and playing badminton during free time.