In celebration of the 21st annual Student Research Week (March 19-23) at Texas A&M as well as March as Women's History Month, the College of Science is taking five with five different women involved in both innovative research at Texas A&M and milestone firsts. Today's final segment features Texas A&M mathematics graduate student and faculty member Maya Johnson '08, the first female African American faculty hire in the Texas A&M Department of Mathematics who also received her degrees from it.

Johnson earned both her master's (2008) and doctorate in mathematics (2015) from Texas A&M, then completed a year of postdoctoral study in electrical engineering and statistics at Texas A&M prior to joining the Texas A&M Mathematics faculty in fall 2016 as a lecturer. As a graduate student supported by National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) and Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP)/Bridge to the Doctorate (BTD) fellowships, she conducted research with Texas A&M mathematician Jay Walton (See Johnson talk about her research in a 2014 Labors of Lab episode.) Johnson also taught MATH 131: Mathematical Concepts - Calculus and assisted with the department's NSF-funded Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program and the Undergraduate Program in Biological and Mathematical Sciences (UBM). In addition to volunteering with the Texas A&M Math Circle, she served as a moderator and judge for the Texas A&M Junior Regional Science Bowl and helped with a variety of other educational and community outreach events.

Johnson is a member of the American Mathematical Society, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers and Texas A&M chapter of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society.

How did you end up at Texas A&M University and then working with Dr. Jay Walton?
"I originally wanted to do mathematics applied to atmospheric sciences and was debating between the University of Colorado in Boulder and Texas A&M. I actually picked Texas A&M for two reasons: I was more familiar with Texas, having done a summer math camp here for four summers, and Dr. Jay Walton himself. I had an email exchange with Dr. Walton in which I asked him about research opportunities in the Math department for atmospheric sciences and applied math in general. He was extremely helpful and made me excited about the research opportunities at Texas A&M. I was so confident in my decision that I actually chose A&M without feeling the need to visit the school.

"I suppose my response to how I chose Texas A&M explains how I ended up working with Dr. Walton, except I realized that atmospheric science was not the field for me. So I wandered into Dr. Walton's office, since he was my pseudo advisor, and asked him about what research he did, and the rest is, as they say, history."

Describe a typical day/week as a Texas A&M Mathematics faculty member.
"Depending on my teaching schedule for the semester, I usually teach classes for three days out of the week and then hold office hours for students needing extra help. Each class, I try to think of how I am going to engage the students and explain the materials in a way that makes even just a few more of them say, 'ah okay, I understand that now.' I have taught class sizes ranging from 100 to 250 students, and I must say, the more the merrier."

What have you enjoyed most about your research experiences at Texas A&M -- College of Science and beyond -- thus far?
"I have enjoyed the high caliber of professors doing quality, meaningful research at Texas A&M the most. Collaboration is my favorite thing in research, and Texas A&M has wonderfully talented and knowledgeable people in every department that I have worked with at the school."

Proudest moment to date? How about biggest surprise?
"My proudest moment to date is of course getting my Ph.D. It took me a little extra time to pick my thesis topic -- that one thing that was going to stir up enough passion to persevere day-in and day-out -- and it was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. However, that only made the victory that much sweeter.

"My biggest surprise came from one of my students just last semester. I was somewhat drained at the end of the semester, just going through final exam papers and removing scantrons for grading, when I came across a student's exam paper that had please turn over written on the front. So I turned the paper over, and the student had written the nicest sentiments about how much they had learned from me and how grateful they were for the extra help and care I provided to them and the rest of the class that semester. It was surprising because you hope that the hundreds of students you teach feel like they are important and special, even if you have not had a personal interaction with them, and that they have learned a little something by the end, but you do not always know for sure. So that was a good surprise, and it also encouraged me to keep doing what I love, which is teaching mathematics."

Why should someone consider attending graduate school at Texas A&M and/or becoming a mathematician?
"In general, graduate school is tough, and it can be scary, but my graduate school experience at Texas A&M was made better than all of that by the people. The faculty are doing groundbreaking research, they are concerned with your success, and they are supportive. Your peers become some of your best friends, and that sense of community is just not found at every graduate school program. So for all those reasons, I think Texas A&M is a great school for graduate studies. I made that decision many years ago, and have never regretted it since.

"As for why you should be a mathematician, it's about the passion. I have heard my students say so many times that math is their favorite subject, but that they are just are not good at it. I say, if you have a passion for math, you cannot possibly be not good at it. A lot of math is having a curiosity to see how and why something works the way it does, having a desire to solve problems and to dig a little deeper. So, if you love math, then you should be a mathematician."

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Now in its 21st year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country's top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M and also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week's schedule and specific events, see this feature article or visit http://srw.tamu.edu/.

For more information on graduate programs and related research opportunities in the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/for-graduates.php.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Dr. Maya Johnson

  • As a graduate student, Johnson worked with the Texas A&M Math Circle (above) and the National Science Foundation-funded Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program (below).

  • Johnson and her fellow mathematics graduate student and former office-mate Lauren, at the Texas A&M premiere of the "Ph.D. Comics" movie. (Credit: Maya Johnson.)

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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