Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Her math adds up to a brilliant career

Emory math professor R. Parimala has received one of the highest honors in her field: Selection as a plenary speaker for the International Congress of Mathematicians, set for Aug. 19–27, 2010, in Hyderabad, India. The ICM is held only every four years, and is the most important activity of the International Mathematical Union. The 20 plenary speakers are chosen from top talent throughout the world.

It may be a lofty honor, but Parimala remains decidedly down to earth. “I’ve always been very comfortable with math,” she says, relaxing in her office after teaching a class. Her hair hangs down her back in a long dark braid and she looks casually elegant in a cotton tunic, shawl and pants.

The outfit is called a “salwar-kameez,” she explains, and is from northern India. She grew up in the southern tip of the country, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the saree is the traditional dress. “I love to wear a saree, but it’s six yards of fabric and hard to maintain,” she says. “Ironing is a bit boring.”

When she graduated from high school, her father sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do. “I said, ‘I want to continue with math. Period,’” Parimala recalls, adding that it was an unusual path for a female. “My father knew I had an aptitude for math and was very supportive of my higher studies.”

At Stella Maris College in Chennai, India, she says that she briefly considered focusing her studies on Sanskrit poetry, but math won out. “Math has the beauty of poetry. Its abstractions are combined with perfect rigor.”

For her doctorate, Parimala attended the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, one of the top institutes in India for the basic sciences. She spent most of her career on the faculty there, until she joined Emory in 2005.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Parimala says, “and it’s fun to work with undergraduate students. They are so enthusiastic.”

She also looks forward to new research challenges, primarily in algebraic groups, and quadratic forms. “There are many interesting questions that keep my attention,” she says. “Math is dynamic, not only internally dynamic, but across disciplines.”

Parimala was recently invited to speak at Nehru University in Delhi, during a conference aimed at inspiring more female students to focus on math.

“Most bright students in India choose another career over basic sciences,” Parimala says. “It’s a global phenomenon, actually, because they think there are more attractive jobs in other areas. But math offers a challenging and rewarding profession. If you have a love and a talent for it, you should come to math. That is my plea.”

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