Proof Positive

Mary K. PorterAnyone who takes Foundations of Higher Mathematics with Professor Mary K. Porter—a native of the Dairy State—learns this basic mathematical fact: “If good cheese comes from good cows, and good cows come from Wisconsin, then good cheese comes from Wisconsin.”

It therefore follows that if women’s colleges prepare strong math students, and Saint Mary’s is a women’s college, then Saint Mary’s math graduates have bright futures.

Porter, an associate professor of mathematics at the College, knows this is true in theory and practice. On a recent sabbatical, she conducted in-depth interviews with 11 women who majored in math or work in math-related fields, including many Saint Mary’s grads. Contrary to persistent stereotypes—that women aren’t successful in math or that math majors have limited career options beyond teaching—she found that “our women do very well.”

Students’ questions about what they could do with their math degrees drove the research. “I wanted to learn what career possibilities were out there,” says Porter. “And actually, I found that only a few of our students become teachers. Most work in business or computer science or insurance and other industries involving statistics.”

Porter’s own goal as a teacher is to get students to love math and, her personal favorite, mathematical proofs. “I think math is fun,” she says. “It engages you and it trains your mind to think in a beautiful, logical way. And employers like math majors because they can understand and solve problems—not just math problems, but difficult problems in the work setting.”

As advisor to the Math Club and Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA), Porter mentors Saint Mary’s women in many majors. She’s known for going the extra mile to make sure everyone understands the material. “Dr. Porter is really great at identifying with people and making them feel closer to her—she is our professor but also a colleague and friend,” says junior Brittni Qualizza. “Like everyone in the math department, she really reaches out to her students and makes herself available.”

“Her teaching style is definitely different and unique. As she presents the information to you it’s as if she hooks up to your brain wave,” adds Qualizza. Porter doesn’t deny it. “My saying in class is that ‘the students love the math and the math loves the students.’ It’s a beautiful thing.”

Photo by Fozia Qazi