The Accidental Mathematician

Professor Kathryn Leonard instructing a student

By Lori Putnam

In a world seemingly divided by those who love numbers and those who love words, Kathryn Leonard moves easily between the two.

She is a former English major turned mathematician who pursued a writing internship at Popular Science magazine before settling down into research involving image analysis and pattern recognition for computers. The latter she describes as the math behind computer vision with the intent to help robots better identify objects in front of them.

As Kathryn Leonard tells it, hers is an untraditional academic journey from essays to equations. Bored with math in high school, as an undergraduate she petitioned the University of New Mexico to release her from a math requirement. They politely declined, so she enrolled in a calculus class and was immediately captivated.

“I think education is transformative,” says Leonard, who joined CI as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics in 2006 from the California Institute of Technology. “College degrees make available on the other side what wasn’t available before.” She speaks from experience, having briefly dropped out of high school only to earn her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Brown University.

Currently she is working on a project that connects local high school students with CI math students who want to be researchers and teachers. Together they are developing activities that will help teach math in fun and creative ways for K-12 students.

The project is funded in part by a Faculty Early Career (CAREER) Development grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year grant, totaling more than $417,000, also supports CI students in conducting research alongside Leonard as well as her own research program.

The grant is Leonard’s second NSF award. The first supported CI as a Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) site whereby students, many first generation college students and non-native English speakers, could compete for acceptance into a summer program on campus. Leonard co-authored the grant with Cindy Wyels, Professor of Mathematics, and anticipates that students will have publishable papers as a result of their research experience.

For a career with many facets, making education more accessible has become a unifying theme for Leonard. “I dropped out of high school, but found my way back. I chose a position with a state-funded school because I wanted public service closely associated with my professional life. I wanted to feel like I was giving something to the world.”

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