In her first year in college (Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma), music almost won out over mathematics for Holly Swisher’s attention. During her high school years in Salem, she had played piano and bassoon in a youth symphony, sang in a choir and even played drums in the marching band.
But her love of math wouldn’t play second fiddle. She transferred to the University of Oregon where she majored in the subject. Her journey included a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Trinity University in Texas where she “sat in an office and did math all day, every day. And it was amazing. ‘I love this,’” she recalls thinking.
At Oregon State, she teaches and organizes an REU program in mathematics. But what sparks her creativity is number theory. She investigates the properties of numbers, for example, that arise from partitions and the analysis of complex functions. She describes doing mathematics as “an art that is precise, beautiful and appealing.”
Terra: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
“I’ve had doubts about research in my career, and I’m really proud of pushing through them. But what I’m most proud of is mentoring students. I feel like I have definitely helped people become successful, and that makes me really happy.”
Terra: How have gender and diversity influenced your career?
“I think people have a typical view of a mathematician as an older white male. When I started going to conferences, I dreaded flying because I’d have to have the conversation with the person next to me. ‘Oh, you do math? Wow.’ Or it would just get really awkward because they wouldn’t expect it.
“I don’t blame people, certainly. But I realized that every single time, they were telling me that I’m weird, or that I don’t belong or that I picked something really weird to do.
“More upsetting were evaluations I got from two students in a large calculus class during my post-doc at Ohio State. They wrote that they had a hard time taking me seriously because I didn’t dress like a professor but like a young woman. Since I was a 27-year-old woman at the time and a professor, this really threw me off. My young, casual-dressing male colleague received no such criticisms. I haven’t had comments like that here.
“I’ve also had very positive experiences. For example, I am part of a community called Women in Numbers designed to build research collaborations between women in my field. It has created an amazingly strong network. It’s been so productive. I say this literally saved my research career at a crucial time when I was in doubt.”