The words “To Infinity and Beyond” took on a whole new meaning when mathematician Shelley Kandola ’09 visited Doug Jones’s Middle School Math Team over Zoom on Thursday, January 14. Kandola, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Mathematics at Michigan State University, talked about her career in mathematics and her academic interests, which often lay in the intersection of computer science and mathematics, which she studied as an undergraduate.
As a child, Kandola always loved math. At Falmouth Academy, she was a well-rounded student who performed in many school productions, took Taekwondo, and participated in the French exchange. When it was time for college, she opted to double major in math and computer science at St. Lawrence University and was, for a time, the sole female math major. While her academic study was demanding, Kandola never lost her love for math. She made sure to keep it fun, whether judging the Mandelbrot Competition, a nationwide high school math competition, or writing a proof for her senior project in which she described a way to cut the number line into rigid chunks and redistribute them to create two copies of the timeline. She presented her work at the 2013 Joint Mathematics Meeting where she won the poster award. “Doing this project was one of the things that got me really excited about math,” she told the students.
Kandola did her graduate work at the University of Minnesota where she was also a teaching assistant. Her favorite classes to teach were Algebra and Pre-Calculus. “Students who take these entry-level classes are the ones who think they understand the least about mathematics,” said Kandola. “Not being a math person is a myth. Anybody can be a math person.”
Kandola praised her education at Falmouth Academy. “Every time I go to a talk, I realize how much of a benefit I have coming from Falmouth Academy. Among mathematicians, presentation skills can be a little lackluster.” She fondly remembered the preparation that went into presentations at FA, making sure the content was sound, the writing strong, and the presentation engaging. “I remember taking pieces of paper and laying them out on the kitchen floor trying to connect the dots; making flowcharts of information in 9th grade; and sitting in the hallway the morning of science fair with a glue stick, finalizing my board.”
Now a Research Assistant in the Math Department at Michigan State University, Kandola does similar work to the tenured professors, namely, teaching and research. What keeps her going is the infinite possibilities to learn and discover the mysteries of mathematics in nature and by human design. Math can be a struggle, but Kandola urges students to be okay with making mistakes and embracing the struggle inherent in learning new or difficult concepts. “It is often in getting things wrong that leads to new ideas,” she said. “Students have to be okay with making mistakes.” According to Kandola, the concepts of mathematics themselves are not that complicated but the language used to discuss them is convoluted. “One of my favorite things is to see ‘Aha!’ moments when students don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, and then, one day, it clicks,” recalls Kandola. “And once you reach your ‘Aha!’ moment, you realize it wasn’t so hard.”