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Building Bridges: Emilie Purvine’s Mathematical Journey

“My grandpa would give me math puzzles as a kid. I didn’t know they were ‘math’ per se, just that they were fun puzzles. He’d work with me to solve them, not giving me the answer but helping me arrive at [it] on my own. I think this helped me understand how to break problems apart and think about them on my own.” 

Without realizing it, the seeds of mathematical interest were planted early in Emilie Purvine’s life. By the time she was in high school, she was eager to learn more, beyond what her classes provided. In fact, looking for extra math worksheets to do outside of school led Purvine to meet Dan Butler – a math teacher who would become a great mentor to her. Butler recognized Purvine’s deep curiosity and encouraged her to pursue it. He suggested she join the school math team, of which she became co-captain her senior year. For three days every week during her high school career, with guidance from co-leader and mentor Mike Huberty, Purvine gathered together with other enthusiastic math students to collaborate, solve complex problems, and challenge each other to grow. 

Profoundly influenced by her high school mentor, Purvine entered university knowing she wanted to similarly inspire students to love mathematics. At first, she thought she would accomplish this by being a mathematics teacher like Butler. However, as a college student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she once again found herself captivated by mathematics. As a result, she eventually dropped the education classes in her schedule. She wasn’t sure how she would reach students outside of the classroom, but she let her curiosity for mathematics guide her, trusting that the rest would fall into place.

Later during her undergraduate career, Purvine attended two summer programs for women in mathematics – the Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women (SMP) and the George Washington University Summer Program for Women in Mathematics (SPWM). At these programs, she once again encountered enthusiastic communities of students who were as passionate about mathematics as she was. Purvine built a strong network of fellow women students, professors, and industry mathematicians, which she still relies on today. Meeting those women opened up a new world of possibilities. That summer, Purvine gained mentors from diverse backgrounds who had pursued a variety of mathematical careers. She realized she didn’t need to be a teacher to inspire students the way she wanted to. All of the women around her, from professors to industry professionals, inspired her. From that moment on, Purvine was confident she could pursue her passion for mathematics outside of academia and be a mentor. “Maybe that was the core of why I wanted to become a teacher [in the first place]. To be a mentor.” 

Purvine entered graduate school with the resolve to become both a non-academic mathematician and a mentor to students like herself. However, graduate school brought with it new challenges. After her first attempt, Purvine didn’t pass her written qualifying exam, which was required for her to earn her Ph.D. She turned once again to a mentor, this time her analysis professor, Roe Goodman. They set up weekly meetings where they would work through problems from old qualifying exams together. Purvine recalls, “This gave me the sense that even a professor doesn’t know the answer right away,” a realization that helped grow her confidence tremendously. The next time around, Purvine passed her exam.

Today, Purvine’s life looks a lot like it did when she was a child solving math puzzles with her grandfather. The only difference is that now, she solves real-world puzzles as a Senior Data Scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. As an applied mathematician, Purvine constantly faces problems related to fields such as biology, chemistry, or cybersecurity. She works with subject matter experts from these fields to break questions down into manageable pieces, solve them like puzzles, then arrive together at a solution – the same lesson her grandfather once taught her. Now, she passes on those lessons to young mathematicians as a mentor for her interns and other early-career staff at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Reflecting on her journey from mentee to mentor, Purvine says, “The mentors I have had over the years inspire me to provide that same level of mentorship to others, to bring up and empower the next generation of mathematicians and help them grow into what I know they can be, even if they can’t see it themselves yet.” By building bridges between fields and between people, Emilie Purvine embodies the ways in which a passion for mathematics can truly change the world.

The mentors I have had over the years inspire me to provide that same level of mentorship to others, to bring up and empower the next generation of mathematicians and help them grow into what I know they can be, even if they can’t see it themselves yet.

Emilie Purvine