Daring to Learn the Language of Mathematics
As a child growing up in rural North Carolina, Erica Alston wanted to help protect the natural beauty that surrounded her. She soon realized that to better understand and protect the environment, she must learn the universal language of mathematics. Alston rose to the challenge: "I wanted to become as fluent in that language as possible," she says.
Alston works with the Chemistry and Dynamics Branch of the Science Directorate at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Her research has looked at national fisheries resources and atmospheric science. She now works on air quality issues because "everyone has a vested interest in the quality of air we breathe."
Alston's research has benefitted from her mathematics skills. She says that mathematics is really important for understanding how Earth's atmosphere works. She thinks that many more students would be interested in science if they could overcome their difficulties with mathematics. "Too many students feel like math is just too hard," she says.
What is her advice to students? Take the challenge and ask questions. Do not expect mathematics to be easy, she suggests, but work hard at it and be ready to speak up when you have problems understanding a lesson.
To teachers, Alston says that nothing works better to make explanations clear than to use real-world examples. She remembers that her mathematics and science classes were most interesting when she got to see how these subjects influence her everyday activities. Offering real-world explanations was "the best thing my teachers ever did," she says.
Something similar should be done when talking to the public about the Earth's environment and why it is important, says Alston. Like students, the public sometimes has trouble understanding the mathematics used to talk about climate change. Yet using examples that people can relate to can make this information clearer. This is exactly what Alston does when talking about her work and why and how it impacts everyone.
Helping others see how they are affected directly by earth science helps attract more women and minorities to this field. Alston believes that a lot of opportunities are now available for these groups to enter and do well in science. These opportunities are a result of changes taking place in the United States: "because as a nation we are aware that as we change, we have to change our workforce," she adds.
For students, seeing people like themselves represented in science plays a large part in their deciding to study and have a career in that field. As an African-American, Alston is a role model to girls interested in earth science. She tells them to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams: "There have been too many female trailblazers in the sciences for you to believe that you cannot be one, too."
Becoming an earth scientist takes courage and hard work, but the reward is great. "Do not be afraid of math and science," Alston says. Learning science and mathematics has helped her understand more about how Earth works. More importantly, it helps her explain to others how they can make a difference and protect the environment because "everyone can do their part to change things for the better."
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Laura Delgado López/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies