UI professor uses national award to help youth with math

BY IAN STEWART | JUNE 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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As Maggy Tomova spoke with an accent betraying her Bulgarian origins, her black cat Smurfy wandered across the table looking for attention. Two dogs lingered on nearby couches, whose hair-covered cushion hinted at numerous furry companions. Animals, however, are not her only passion.

As an assistant professor in the Mathematics Department, she has spent a lot of time thinking about numbers.

“I like that the problems are hard and you can think about them for a long time,” Tomova said.

She specializes in topology and more specifically, the subfield of knot theory--the study of, well, knots. The knots Tomova studies, however, are just as likely to be made of proteins as they are to be made of string.

“It has lots of applications to DNA folding,” Tomova said.

Research in this vein that recently garnered her the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award. The five-year, $235,000 attached grant is to be used both for research and teaching. The resulting project is a summer math camp Tomova has started this year with 20 local high-schools students.

“How well students do in math seems to correlate to the income level of their parents,” she said, describing her effort to find students, often those receiving free or reduced lunch, for the two-week program.

Her discussion with the selected students’ teachers helped her to find those who, with motivation and inspiration, have a high chance of success in the subject.

“I really like teaching the kids who don’t like math,” Tomova said. “My favorite thing is when I finally show them that math is cool.”

For recent University of Iowa graduate Matt Porter, Tomova’s instruction paid off.

“I gained a new appreciation for math,” said Porter, who was Tomova’s undergraduate research assistant for the past academic year. “I’ve always liked math, but her passion for math really got me excited … and I could tell it got everyone [in the class] excited too.”

It is similar mutual appreciation that defines another aspect of Tomova’s life.

Six years ago, a Ballroom Dancing class in Old Brick brought Karen Haslett into Tomova’s life. The couple married a year and a half ago. Haslett, a former adjunct professor of linguistic anthropology, said they had an intellectual, not just emotional, connection.

“Linguistics shares the language of math,” Haslett said. “We share the value of education.”

Indeed, as a special-education teacher at City High, Haslett was able to scout out possible candidates for her wife’s project. But according to Haslett, there is at least one more key component in their relationship.

“We like creatures,” Haslett said. If one were skeptical, it would only take a trip down to the couple’s basement to prove her right. There, the couple has taken two rooms and transformed them into spaces for their four cats, many of them found abandoned, to play.

“When we find an animal that needs help, we tend to take it,” Tomova said, extracting an uncooperative gray cat from the closet. The couple provides shelter to humans in need as well as foster parents.

In part, it was seeing the lost potential of the kids in their care that drove Tomova to consider a project at the high-school level. While she admitted that “math is hard,” she said she wants to show students that math “is not about adding numbers and solving for x.”

“I think people should not think of math as a tool,” Tomova said. “I think math teaches you how to think clearly about things.”

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