A few months ago I came across a post on Medium written by Dr. Eugenia Cheng entitled, Why I Don’t Like Being a Female Role Model. Obviously, I had to see what in the world this woman was talking about. As a girl she was encouraged to pursue math because she was good at it, never thinking she was “less” because she was a girl. It struck a chord with me because I created Geek Girl Boss for young girls who experienced the opposite; shut down and deterred from pursuing a “boys” subjects regardless of how talented they are. Dr. Cheng has followed all her passions (math, music, art, baking) turning the role of traditional academic on its ear. Which makes her a role model for everyone.
Q: Origin story time – what were you doing before and what led you to this?
A: I was a “normal” math professor at a “normal” academic university. It gradually dawned on me that I wanted to reach a wider audience than math majors. Moreover, I decided that it was my moral responsibility to do so because I am better at communicating math to non-mathematicians than many mathematicians are. I think it’s important in life to figure out what you’re good at and make the best use of it for the world. So I started doing more outreach work and more media work and gradually got to a point where a normal academic job didn’t give me the flexibility or support I needed to devote the time I wanted to this sort of public work. The success of my first book “How to Bake Pi” gave me the freedom to quit my tenured job and build a portfolio career for myself combining everything I think I’m good at. My part-time job at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is perfect to give me a base and a receptive group of students to teach, while still leaving me enough time to travel around the world and give public talks. The good thing is that as a pure mathematician I don’t need a lab or equipment to do research, so I can keep doing that wherever I am. And SAIC is incredibly appreciative and supportive of all the work I do.
Q: What resources and tools helped you grow in your industry? (i.e. Self-learning, school, books, mentors)
A: Subversiveness and being unwilling to accept other people’s rules and conventional “wisdom.”
Q: How do you grow your network and community of fans and collaborators?
A: My whole aim is to reach more people with the message that mathematics can be enjoyable and relevant for everyone. I really enjoy interacting with people at talks and workshops, on social media, and by doing interviews.
Q: Can you name a time a mistake has led you to success?
A: I don’t believe in mistakes. I know that everything I do is the best I can do at that moment under those circumstances.
Q: Time management – how do you fit it all in?
A: I don’t sleep much, and instead of taking breaks I often just switch between different things. So I break from research by writing, I break from writing by practicing the piano, I break from practicing the piano by working out, and so on. Also, I buy pre-chopped vegetables. Seriously, there are only 24 hours in a day, and I decline to spend any of them chopping vegetables.
Q: What are some key personality traits needed to do what you do?
A: Optimism. I believe that everything can be better and so I’m going to make sure I help make that happen as much as I can.
Q: Name something you’re most proud of in your professional experiences.
A: The thing I’m most proud of is quitting tenure. It would have been really easy to stay in that stable, permanent job until retirement, but I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t making the best contribution I could do the world. So I figured out how to do things my way instead. I spent about five years transitioning, so it wasn’t a sudden leap, and I’m very risk averse, so I had to do it in a way that involved no risk. I’m very proud of myself for having achieved it.
Q: If you were given $100 million, would you do things any differently? How so?
A: I would set up a new educational establishment that focused on education towards intelligence in the way I defined it above (helping others and yourself at the same time). There would be grades, no subjects, no competitiveness and no exams.
Q: In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?
For more info on Eugenia and her other projects check out the following links:
Books: Eugenia Cheng on Amazon
YouTube: Eugenia Cheng on YouTube