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Jessica JohnJessica John

Willamette Math Whiz is Essay Winner

Jessica John, a 2002 honors graduate of Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore., has won first place in the recent college division of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) essay contest. John, daughter of David and Janice John of Beaverton, is a sophomore majoring in math at Willamette. The national contest, sponsored by Sandia National Labs of Livermore, Calif., is designed to increase awareness of the ongoing contributions of women to mathematical sciences.

The winning, 1000-word essay by John is a biographical look at Willamette mathematics professor Elizabeth Stanhope. Entitled "Elizabeth Stanhope: Overcoming Silent Barriers," the essay chronicles the professor's odyssey through the often chauvinistic world of mathematics education and research. "Liz is the only female professor in the math department here at Willamette, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about what brought her here and about her experiences as a woman mathematician," explains John.

John says she herself has experienced mixed reactions when people learn she's a math major. "I'm met with looks of pain and horror or awe and admiration," she says, laughing. She insists, however, that mathematics isn't just for men. "Anyone is capable of doing math. Some people are not taught to develop themselves as math people or they've had a bad experience that has turned them off to math."

Math, she says, is a mental battle that requires patience. "You have to approach math like it's a brain teaser or a jigsaw puzzle. You can't always understand the trick right away or know what the jigsaw puzzle picture is going to be when you first start out. It takes time and patience to put all the pieces together to understand math."

John, who was awarded a plaque, a pen and a cash prize for her AWM essay, says the project has taught her that despite gains women have made, "mathematics is still male-dominated, especially in the upper divisions and the more prestigious programs. I think the more women talk about their experiences with discrimination, the more people will realize just how ridiculous it is that gender discrimination still exists."

Her essay, coupled with a minor in Chinese studies, has piqued John's interest in finding out about women in mathematics in China. She's planning to design a research project and apply for a Willamette Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, summer stipend program designed to support original student research.