Evan Harris

Mathematics: Molly Blackburn

Molly Blackburn is an integral piece of the mathematics community at Wake Forest. Not only is she a dedicated volunteer at the Math and Stats Center — a free, in-person tutoring space — but she is also the president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) at Wake Forest, which holds informal research talks, social events and discussions about the mathematical topics that most interest its members. 

Blackburn said one of the crucial components of AWM is the mentorship chains inherent to the association’s structure. 

“Those helped a lot earlier on,” she said, “Because there were upperclassmen and graduate students that could talk about the world of academia and give me an idea of what it will look like in the future. And it ended up being something that I did want to do.”

Assuming the role of president of AWM was no small responsibility, but Blackburn has found it to be incredibly rewarding — and fun, too. One of her main tasks is coordinating events, one of the most exciting being the annual presentation of professors’ research, after which students can sign up to get involved with those projects.

At first, Blackburn was unsure about what she wanted to study at Wake Forest, seeing herself as a mathematics-economics double major, but she soon realized she was drawn toward the abstract or “pure math” domains of the department. After taking linear algebra and real analysis, in particular, she discovered that mathematics was her true passion, and she wanted to devote as much time to it as possible. She had already begun doing research in algebraic topology and combinatorics.

When asked how she takes time to enjoy life with such a robust schedule, Blackburn answered with a laugh — “Lack of sleep is the truthful answer.” 

Noting just how vital it is to spend time with friends and be outdoors, she mentioned the importance of starting the day early and getting ahead on work, which she attributed to her consistent tendency to work in groups. 

“Group work helps because it cuts down on time,” she said.

Reflecting on her four years, Blackburn pointed to her study abroad experience as a pivotal and defining moment. In the spring of her junior year, she traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to attend a mathematics program through St. Olaf College. In Budapest, she quickly found herself in an unfamiliar, challenging environment.

“Usually, abroad is really relaxed,” she said, “But this was more of an academically-driven program. I got there, and it was just tough.”

She continued: “The classes were really hard in a foreign country, a completely different culture and just having to experience culture shock and keep up academically — while not knowing anyone and having to make friends — it was just weighing down on me.”

Because it was an affiliate program, Blackburn did not have the amenities or the comfort that comes with Wake Forest programs. She noted her introductory topology course as being not only the most difficult class she took while abroad, but also in her entire four years of undergraduate study. She described topology, which is the study of spaces that are preserved through deformations, as being “very technical and harsh.” 

Despite this, after a few months of taking a course load consisting almost entirely of mathematics, she became acclimated, and it became what she calls “the greatest semester.” Although it was a trying time, Blackburn said that it gave her some time to learn about herself. 

And it wasn’t all work, either. Of those spare free moments, Blackburn said with a smile, “I still managed to make time to have fun, of course, because I was abroad!”

Dr. John Gemmer, one of Blackburn’s mentors and professors during her time at Wake Forest, said, “Molly is an excellent, hardworking student who is always full of excitement and energy. Moreover, she is a fantastic friend, mentor and role model to many of our students.”

Gemmer noted that he will miss chatting with Blackburn during office hours while enjoying some chocolate.

After graduation, Blackburn will cross the Canadian border to continue her studies at the University of British Columbia to pursue her master’s in mathematics on a Ph.D. track. Eventually, she would like to be a professor and teach mathematics herself. Having been a tutor since her sophomore year, she has found teaching others to be rewarding, and she looks forward to more opportunities for research.

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