I’m Living Proof, by Danielle Amethyst

In one way or another, mathematics has been a partner in my life for as long as I can remember. Sometimes as a progenitor of crisis.  At others, as a savior.  And even as a fixed point when all else was shaken.

My first crisis in mathematics came in sixth grade. In my current language (as an adult 25 years later), I now understand that I had a hard time accepting that the multiplicative and additive identities for the field of real numbers were not the same number.  Back then, I really wanted 0 x n to be n, not 0. I don’t know why, but it really seemed wrong to me. I remember crying in the closet area in the back of the classroom, throwing a veritable tantrum. Thankfully, my teacher, Bob Stanko, consoled me and worked to convince me, patiently, through tears and protest, that it’s 1, not 0, that is the multiplicative identity. I finally accepted it a few weeks later – crisis resolved. I wonder what would be different in my life if Mr. Stanko had gotten angry with me, had shouted at me or belittled me. I probably wouldn’t have gone on to become a mathematician, but instead turned away and never come back.

My multiplicative identity crisis provided me an important experience. I learned that I can be frustrated with something yet continue to work on it and through it. This has been invaluable as I’ve moved further into the world of mathematics as a numerical algebraic geometer. I call on this lesson frequently when programming. And I even tap into this tolerance in interpersonal relationships; it’s ok to be frustrated!

A very different set of circumstances really *made me a mathematician*. I had breezed through all the available classes in high school and earned a minor in mathematics accompanying my Bachelor of Liberal Arts (yes, that was my major in undergrad, it doesn’t get any more generic than that). But in 2004, I found myself working at a grocery store selling fish, utterly unable to communicate with my coworkers about the things that kept me up at night. Awake at 2 am, I kept coming back to my analysis book, my abstract algebra notes, thinking about proof and reason. I realized I was unhappy not being around others with my interests.

My unhappiness was much deeper than not having mathy friends. I was struggling with depression, which I now know stemmed from gender dysphoria (I really couldn’t have labeled it at the time at all), and I became fascinated with the altered states afforded by psychedelic drugs. I moved with reckless abandon into a dangerous underground world, nearly losing everything.

It was late at night in a moment of clarity that I decided to become a mathematician. I realized that I needed something to challenge me, to lift me from the hole I was digging for myself – that I would keep self-destructing if I didn’t do something *hard*. I reasoned with a friend: what’s more difficult than earning a PhD in math? And, thus, it was decided. Math would save my life.

Having not earned a major in math, I was ill-prepared for a graduate program in mathematics. I signed up for a second bachelor’s program at my university, with only the intention of taking enough classes to be able to handle graduate level work. I took the GRE in December 2005, and I officially started graduate school in January 2007.

Finally, I was surrounded by a community of people who were as passionate as I was about the wonderous world and surprising connections of mathematical theory. I had permission to go as far as I wanted. And I did, earning my PhD in 2012, enjoying several postdocs, and obtaining a permanent position at a university.

The mathematical community has embraced me as I have embraced it. This provided crucial support to me during gender transition and through the debilitating depression that came to a head while I worked as a postdoc at Notre Dame.

Earlier in life I had tried – several times – to transition, not knowing what I was doing, lacking the language to describe what I was feeling, and thinking I was utterly alone in what I was experiencing. Attempts to come out were met with strong resistance, and I would repress again – pushing down the feelings, throwing out the garments, stopping the conversations, replacing the thoughts with unhealthy behaviour. This cycle finally led me, in the summer of 2016, to search for answers; Google was my tool. The primary question I was afraid to ask was, “Why do I want to be a girl?” To my surprise, I found that I was not alone. I learned, with the help of so many strangers on the internet, the words I was looking for: “transgender”, “gender dysphoria”, and “transition” are a few.

I shed a lot of my identity once I started to work on transition. I lost my name, wandering namelessly. The nature of all my relationships changed. I questioned everything. But through that was a love of mathematics, an unrequited love born of persistence and wonder. I used math as a pivot, as a fixed point in the map I was living through as I moved toward becoming a woman.

I am so happy that I have found allies and friends in math and that my colleagues and students have allowed me room to be my true self. I wouldn’t be myself without my identity as a mathematician. When everything else was crumbling, mathematics was solid. When I needed a way out from a dark place, mathematics saved me. And when I didn’t even know I needed a lesson to guide me, mathematics taught.

Now that I’m mostly through transition and back to a nearly steady state, mathematics beckons me further. Here I go…

Danielle Amethyst is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. All three of her degrees are from Colorado State University. Her research is in algorithms and implementation of numerical algebraic geometry, and visualization and computation of real algebraic varieties. She is absolutely enthralled by 3D printing on her own machines, both for mathematical art and practical problem solving. Emails from the broader community bring her joy. Danielle also enjoys bicycling and gaming.  

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Welcome to the Living Proof blog!

Welcome to the Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey blog! We are so happy you’re here. 

Living Proof is a project that was borne out of interactions Matthew Pons had with a number of his students. One semester, Matthew had a strong cohort of women in his Analysis class. He was impressed with their work–their ability to grapple with the course material, try problems, learn from their failures, and seek help when they needed it. From his perspective, they were succeeding. Unfortunately, from their perspectives, they were failing. They felt like mathematics shouldn’t be so hard, that the fact that it was difficult for them must mean that they aren’t intelligent or aren’t cut out to study math. Matthew tried to reassure them that everyone struggles–that he himself struggled with the subject as an undergraduate–but they brushed aside his encouragement. Perhaps they assumed that he was being dishonest just to make them feel better. Perhaps they assumed that his struggles couldn’t have been as bad as their own. In any case, Matthew thought, “If they don’t believe me, who would they believe? Maybe they can’t identify with me because I am not a woman. Maybe they can’t hear what I am saying because I am their professor.” This gave Matthew an idea. He needed to collect stories from a wide variety of mathematicians about times that they faced crises of confidence when they were in school. So, he got to work assembling an editorial team and reaching out to people to ask them to tell their stories. 

With tremendous support from the AMS and the MAA–especially Steve Kennedy, MAA editor and the project’s biggest cheerleader–the Living Proof dream became a reality. Stories of struggle and resilience, told by 41 mathematicians, were shared in a book that was made freely available by both organizations. But there are many more than 41 of us in our community. And people aren’t defined by a single story–there are so many stories we can share. This is why we felt it was important to start the Living Proof blog. We need to continue sharing our stories. We need to hear new voices and hear about different types of struggles. We need to hear more people talking about the same struggles so that people who are just now beginning to live through these experiences know that they are not alone. Our ultimate hope is that someday–perhaps years from now–someone tells the story of how what got them through their biggest challenge on their own path to becoming a mathematician was reading the stories of so many others in Living Proof.

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