What an Olympic gold medalist can teach you about math
By Anu Jokinen, Math Enthusiast
Like millions around the world, I could not wait to watch the summer Olympics. During the Women’s 200m backstroke, U.S. swimmer Maya DiRado went after her biggest competitor with all her might. She was charging her way to another gold! Watching the event on serious tape delay didn’t keep me from inching ever closer to my television and cheering wildly. The talented swimmer won a total of four medals: 2 gold, 1 silver, and 1 bronze.
To be honest, I actually cheered the loudest when I heard she had an engineering degree from Stanford University—an Olympian who loved math! I had to learn more about her and hear what advice she had for young women entering the STEM field.
Anu: First of all, Maya, what was it like at the Rio Olympics?
Maya: It’s this huge stimulus that’s hitting you in the face constantly as you try to also focus on the most important sporting event of your life. Instead of being a detractor from performance, the environment boosted my swimming. You see every country walking by as you go to the dining hall or bus, you get to hear all these languages and watch people interact. The food is different, the plumbing is different, the sleep schedule is different, but it’s part of the Olympic experience. Team USA does an amazing job of using the excitement to make us better instead of letting nerves take over. I had so many amazing moments with my teammates… in the wild excitement of winning a gold medal on a relay… [to] sitting in the common rooms on bean bags playing games before the meet started. I loved every second of it.
Anu: You earned a Management Science and Engineering degree from Stanford University. Can you remember a moment in school when you recognized that math was a subject you truly loved?
Maya: My school district allowed me to attend a more non-traditional math class. I loved it. The first part of class was a basic lecture. The second part featured a few longer and more complex problems. We would work through them as a group of four. You had to really understand the concepts and show your work. The process was a huge part of the grade. If you didn’t understand something, you could ask for help from your group instead of asking the whole class. Conversely, if someone in your group didn’t understand something, you had to explain the concepts… which is SO helpful for your own learning. This method is something that really stands out to me, to this day, and was crucial in developing my love of math.
Anu: What inspired you to go into a STEM field?
Maya: First, my dad, a civil engineer, was encouraging about the engineering field. I think our brains work in similar ways. I always thought I’d be an engineer. My dad recognized that [math] was my favorite subject, so he helped me think through what I could do with it. I also remember him showing me the NCAA March Madness Monte Carlo simulation he made on Microsoft Excel. It was pretty awesome… the first time I saw what Excel could do besides line graphs!
Then, there were teachers who encouraged me to take the accelerated track, and those who taught the STEM subjects along the way cultivated my love and enjoyment of them.
Anu: Has math helped you become a better swimmer?
Maya: I’m very good at intervals (laughs)! [Swimmers practice “intervals” by doing repeated distances in a given time—time math required.] I enjoy the repetitions, patterns, and—dare I say—the monotony of it. It has also reinforced the step-wise process involved in setting goals and working toward them.
Anu: Recent research has found that “women are 1.5 times as likely to leave the STEM pipeline after calculus,” not because of a lack of ability, but because they lack confidence in their abilities. What advice can you give young women about their confidence about math?
Maya: I always wanted to feel like I completely mastered a skill or topic before feeling confident that I knew it. Even when I understood it better than my male peers, they would come across as more confident. My freshman year of Stanford, I took an advanced calculus course, and I struggled. It was theory based and very abstract. I didn’t do well, didn’t enjoy it, and thought it was a reflection of my math abilities. After that, I changed my major track and thought I couldn’t do engineering.
A year later, I took a linear algebra class, really enjoyed it, and realized I could definitely pursue engineering. I now tell girls that they can do the same and to not let a single class derail that dream. I think so much is realizing that you belong, and that you can handle it. Just because you don’t get it right away or others come across as more competent, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling as well. There are girls who will feel that they are out of their league, and, to them, I would stress that everyone struggles at some point. If you love it, keep at it. It’s been very rewarding for me.
Anu: What can parents and teachers do to encourage more girls to go into STEM fields?
Maya: To parents: research shows that if parents express math-phobia, girls are especially likely to shy away from it. Keep a positive attitude about math, and don’t talk about math in a “you-have-it-or-you-don’t” tone. It is a set of skills that you can work on and improve.
To teachers: recognize that there are students, girls in particular, who are hesitant to speak up. Do what you can to remove the stigma attached to students raising a hand and being wrong, as it helps encourage students who would otherwise go unheard.
Maya has officially retired from swimming and will be starting her career at McKinsey & Company in a few months. We wish Maya all the best as she enters this new phase of her life! How do you encourage girls to get more involved in STEM? Share your tips in the comments below!