Profiles in Public Science: Mathematician Lorena Bociu

Dr. Lorena Bociu has her sights set on a very big goal: change the perception of math in the United States, one student at a time. Math is plagued by a couple misconceptions, argues Bociu. One, it’s hard. Two, it isn’t useful. As a faculty member in the NC State Department of Mathematics, she is in a fantastic position to show students and their parents that math is fun, logical, and incredibly relevant.

“So many people have no idea that they actually use math every day, that math is so applicable, that it comes up in so many different fields,” Bociu says. Even complex math that many think is completely abstract is frequently used for solving many everyday problems. Recently, for example, math has been used to model the spread of the Zika virus.

Mathematicians are needed in virtually every field because what they do can be so very powerful, but many Americans don’t realize it. According to Bociu, the most effective time to correct this misconception is in middle school. This is the time when students often begin to think math is difficult. “College is too late,” she says. “The damage is done.”

Bociu has been involved in public outreach since she was a graduate student at the University of Virginia volunteering with events targeting middle and high school students, American Mathematics Competitions and the Association of Women in Mathematics’ Sonia Kovalevsky Days. She quickly found that she enjoyed public engagement and has continued to pursue other opportunities throughout her career.

Bociu first began participating in math-related outreach locally in the Triangle in 2012 when she developed an activity to engage children at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ largest expo event, BugFest. Since her first BugFest in 2012, Bociu’s Math Doesn’t Bug Me program has expanded dramatically, with 40 undergraduate and graduate students volunteering at the event in 2016. Each year Bociu and her team create new math-based games to fit with the insect theme of the year, which is exciting for everyone. “Even the parents play the games,” she says with a grin.

To Bociu, bringing Math Doesn’t Bug Me to the thousands attending BugFest each year has been an excellent opportunity to get children excited about math at a young age and to expose them to all of the things that math can do. Bociu and her students have received enthusiastic feedback from children of all ages as well as their parents who love the interactive math and logic based games.

Bociu is especially passionate about engaging girls in math. “While gender bias is much more subtle than it used to be,” she says, “the academic world is still dominated by men, at least in the sciences.” She believes that the relative scarcity of female role models in math is partly to blame, especially since female role models played such a large part in shaping her own career path. From her 6th grade math teacher to her own advisor in graduate school, Bociu was inspired by strong women mentors who helped her realize that her own dreams were possible.

If we want to recruit more girls to mathematical fields, Bociu believes that we need more women to inspire them. As a woman in math, she is contributing by being a very visible role model for young girls.

Bociu recently received funding for a program she calls GAMMA (Girls in Applied Math, Modeling, and Analysis). Funded by a prestigious NSF CAREER Award, Bociu and her team will bring girls from area high schools to visit NC State for programs that expose them to what mathematics research is like.

Through hands-on activities, the girls will learn about the many important things that math can do. Bociu wants to expose the girls to some of her own research projects, including how she uses math to model how parts of the human eye work, to highlight the significance of mathematics research in medicine. Bociu is hoping that this experience will inspire the girls to consider studying math or a math-related field in college, but regardless she knows that the program will help the girls to understand how useful math can be.

Registration is now open for 7th and 8th graders girls to attend Sonia Kovalevsky Day on April 8, 2017, at NC State. Learn more and register here.

Mira Abed is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science and a graduate intern in the Office of Public Science.