May 4, 2022
[00:00:18] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Welcome to the next episode of Her Leadership Story. I am absolutely thrilled today to be interviewing a colleague who I came to know in the middle of the pandemic in a very fascinating conversation with a number of mathematic enthusiasts. Cindy Lawrence is the Executive Director of the Museum of Mathematics, familiarly known to many as the MoMath. She is an amazing woman and she truly is a math enthusiast, which I’m sure she’ll tell you about, but she is the leader of the only museum of mathematics in our North American region, a museum that has hosted more than a million people since its inception on site and reaches into every state in the United States and to somewhere around 120 countries around the world. So. this is a well-guarded secret in some corners of our world and I just thought it would be terrific for a woman who’s a leader, a champion of ,athematics, and someone who has her own career story to tell, to introduce her to this audience and to give her a chance to connect the dots between maths,, numeracy and the museum.
So, Cindy, let’s just start off by telling us a little bit more about the museum, how it came about, and what you think its greatest contributions reallyare .
[00:01:44] Cindy Lawrence: So, the National Museum of Mathematics is in its 10th year of physical operation. But the project actually started a little bit before that. We made our debut at the 2009 World Science Festival in New York City. And the idea really started a few months even before that. There had been a small museum of mathematics on Long Island, just outside New York City. It was so small that you needed an appointment to be able to come and visit, and you needed to bring at least 10 people for them to allow you to come. And that museum ran out of money and shut down. And a friend of mine let me know that it had shut down. And I told him, I thought that was a shame. I had visited that museum. I thought it was quite lovely. And he said, it’s not really a shame because it was so small and they weren’t really going anywhere, and I’m going to reopen a museum of math and it’s going to be bigger and much more ambitious than that museum was. And so I thought that sounded fabulous. I know a good idea when I hear one and I said, great, let me know how I can help. Famous last words. I volunteered to help and, ultimately, I ended up being tasked with chairing the committee that would figure out what we would bring to the 2009 World Science Festival. I thought I was volunteering for a one day event and that I would maybe sit at a table and talk to people all day. Actually, what I volunteered to help do was build a 3,600 square foot traveling exhibit of mathematics that would make its debut in New York City and then travel to museums and science centers and festivals around the country for the next five years. So be careful what you volunteer for.
[00:03:24] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, I know that, since you started as a volunteer, you had what I would consider to be a meteoric rise in the museum, going from volunteer, getting involved in this creative design of these exhibits, I think Associate Director, Co-director, and then, ultimately in 2015, the Director of the museum. So, leadership is something that is easy to spot, but hard to define, and for many of us, an ongoing lifelong challenge. Tell us a little bit about why you think you were able to be so successful in the context of the museum and what you think some of your unique leadership capabilities that helped you rise so fast.
[00:04:07] Cindy Lawrence: So I think one word sums up the answer to the first part of your question. And that is passion. I came into this as a volunteer because I thought it was a fabulous idea. I had always loved math, but had gone in a somewhat different direction for my own career. And when I had kids of my own, I reunited with math and my love of math through the eyes of my children and started to meet other parents, other families that were involved in the world of mathematics. In fact, that’s how I met the person who ended up having the idea to open the museum. And interestingly, I’ve never been one who liked to ask people for money, for example. I didn’t let my own kids go around selling the things that schools ask kids to sell, because I didn’t want to oblige anyone. And of course, part of my role as the Director of the National Museum of Mathematics is to raise money to sustain us and keep us going. And what I’ve found is I still really don’t like to ask people for money. But what I love to do is talk about the project, and how passionate I am about what we’re doing, and what it means to so many people now around the world. And it seems like you don’t have to ask for money. If you’re passionate about something and you can ignite somebody else’s interest in your product, then the rest sort of naturally flows. So it almost feels like a surprise to me that I’m running an organization where a big part of my role is to raise money. And I have raised many millions of dollars, but it all comes down to passion, to loving what I do. I walk through the museum and I see people in the museum enjoying math, something that most people never expect to enjoy. And it makes every ounce of effort worthwhile when I see that.
[00:05:56] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You mentioned your kids and I’ve read that you have now three adult children who are all involved in STEM fields. So somewhere along the line, there is a math virus in your household that seemed to have infected everyone, because obviously you can’t be in a STEM field if you don’t have foundational mathematic skills. How did you get your kids engaged and what’s the secret? There are a lot of parents that are trying to figure this out.
[00:06:20] Cindy Lawrence: I’m so glad you asked that question because it gives me an opportunity to dispel a myth. And that myth is that there are certain kids who are math kids or people who are math people, and certain kids who are not. I have three kids and all of them were different. And one of my children, and I’m going to keep everything anonymous, protect the innocent. One of my children was very obviously gifted in mathematics from a very early age. One of my children did not express that same sort of giftedness, but seemed reasonably competent in mathematics. And one of my children seemed like they would never know how to add. And it’s funny. After seeing those three different ways of sort of initially interacting with mathematics, when I think back to my reaction, especially with the one child who didn’t seem to get math at all, we played with math. We had fun with it. We made games out of it. It wasn’t something to sort of dislike. It was just something that we did in a way for fun. When it came to school mat, and one of my children was struggling with that, I tried a different way and a different way and a different way because it was unfathomable to me that I would have a child that couldn’t achieve at least a basic competency in math. I wasn’t seeking expertise. I just wanted competency. And at that time I may have been like many other people and I thought to myself, this child will have other talents and other interests that won’t be math and that’s okay. But yet I wasn’t really willing to give up and just say, okay, well, you don’t need to know how to add or subtract. No, everybody needs to know those basic skills. And so we just tried a lot of different things until it clicked. And I will tell you that nobody can tell by looking at my three children now, which was which. I have one child who works as an electrical and computer engineer and has multiple degrees from MIT. I have two daughters who both went to Yale as undergraduates, and both are getting PhDs in theoretical computer science, one at UC Berkeley and one at MIT. That’s a very mathematical field. And so, nobody can look at those three children and say which one seemed obviously gifted in math, which one seemed competent, but maybe not as gifted, and which ones seemed really to struggle with math. And I like to compare this to music. There are always children that show a talent for something or another. And in music we see that too. Some children may be born with perfect pitch, may find an easy time sitting at a piano and plunking out a tune. And other children may need lessons and guidance to learn how to play the piano. But we would never think of telling a child who expressed an interest in learning to play the piano, oh, the kid around the block was able to do this very easily. You don’t do it naturally, so let’s not get you piano lessons. Like that would be unfathomable. We all understand that, even though there might be differences in inherent or early ability, with some effort and some work and some practice, anybody can become competent at playing the piano. And I believe the same is true of mathematics. And if you present it the right way and you allow children to feel their competency, rather than feel they’re incompetent, they may grow to love it. They will certainly be able to be competent, but they may even grow to love it and to have a career in it.
[00:09:53] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: What a wonderful philosophy of life when you think about it. I mean, that is really about letting each person find their best path to having the skills and the opportunities that contribute to the success in life and not pre-ordaining too early which path.
[00:10:12] Cindy Lawrence: Absolutely. And by the way, children’s attitudes about math and science are formed very early. According to some research at the University of Washington in Seattle, by the time children are in first or second grade, they have already decided whether they are math and science people or not. And that’s a very scary fact and it means that we need to start very early socializing the idea that mathematics in particular is a welcoming place where everyone is welcome. No matter how they view themselves initially, they will find a warm welcome and a place where they can find something they enjoy in that world.
[00:10:51] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: When you’re talking about the importance of mathematics in everyday life , that’s really the concept of numeracy, right, that we need math skills in order to balance our checkbooks or pay our taxes or, in a health sense, we need a basic literacy in math because we need to be able to figure out what dose of medicine to take or understand risks and benefits of the medical decisions that we’re making. And yet in our country, in the health professions at least, we know that roughly one in three adults has very low numeracy. First of all, people who are not born in the United States have a harder time, especially if English isn’t their first language. But people of color, there are obvious racial and ethnic differences in the proportion of people who struggle with basic number capabilities. And then there is this kind of persistent residual gap between men and women or boys and girls. I don’t know, have you experienced that in the museum and this gender issue with math and STEM education more broadly? What are your views on that?
[00:11:56] Cindy Lawrence: My views about gender disparities when it comes to math is that they are almost entirely, if not entirely, cultural. And I will point to Eastern European countries where the norm is to expect young women to be better in math than men and women who have come here from Eastern Europe very often are surprised to find out that it’s the reverse in this country. So I don’t think there’s anything genetic or biologic about this. I think it’s cultural and I’ll point back to some of the same studies from the University of Washington that looked at families across all socioeconomic sectors and talked a lot to parents and found that young girls especially were less likely to view themselves as being math people, and that this carried across. Even when parents who were interviewed assured the researchers that they treated their sons and daughters equally, they were well aware of this problem and sort of did everything they could not to perpetuate that myth, it didn’t matter. It carried across pretty universally. And so I think there’s something in our culture, and I don’t know what it is, but I do know that having a cultural institution focused on mathematics, I hope, is part of the solution for this. The math community in general has acknowledged that we haven’t done a good job of being welcoming to all kinds of people of different genders and different backgrounds and different ethnicities. And there’s a really strong effort underway to counteract that. And so there are many programs now that are specifically trying to reach young women and MoMath certainly has done a number of programs of its own where we have brought accomplished female mathematicians to share their stories with younger women. And they’re very inspiring. And I think we are moving the needle on that. We have some ideas about some more projects and programs to continue moving in the right direction, but ultimately you want everyone to feel welcome and that hasn’t always been the case. Some of these accomplished female mathematicians had stories to tell which were disappointing to hear about, how they retreated by men that were their colleagues, their fellow students. Even their teachers at times had a sort of different perspective toward them. So I think we’re working and we’re making changes in that regard and I’m very encouraged by the progress that we’ve made, but we aren’t quite there yet.
[00:14:29] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well I think our audience would be surprised to find the breadth and depth of activities that emanate from the museum. And I would encourage everyone to go online and check out, for example, the upcoming events. There are just something for everyone, from little kids all the way to bonafide mathematicians and everything in between. There’s a bridge course. There’s the one that fascinated me was the Quadrovarium, I think it’s called.
[00:14:56] Cindy Lawrence: It’s a math and music program.
[00:14:58] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Yah, with the jazz saxophonist and mathematician and bringing people together. It’s just a wealth of learning and I think immersion in fun math, not just serious esoteric topics like you might think of in the kind of a serious world of academic mathematics, but fun, exciting adventuresome math.
[00:15:19] Cindy Lawrence: I would add the word, beautiful. One of the most compelling programs we’ve done in recent history was a program on the math of bird flight and the photographs of birds in flight where we’re truly stunning. And that was just wonderful for us.
[00:15:37] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You do bring children, like kindergarteners, I think there’s a program where school kids from the New York area can come into the museum. And what do they love the most? What’s their favorite part?
[00:15:48] Cindy Lawrence: So, let me just say, we also run programs for children online. So this is for children from all over. But children love things that are tactile, that are fun, that are surprising. But I would say that also applies to adults. It turns out that we have about half of our visitors are adults coming without kids. The other half are families. And the adults like the same things, things that are fun, things that are tactile, things that are surprising, things that are full body. If you walk into the museum, it’s a very colorful place. You can see, behind me, it doesn’t look like what you might’ve been thinking a math museum would look like. And that’s part of the fun is to surprise people when they walk in the door. They feel like they’ve entered a very different world, but it’s a world that seems to be welcoming and beautiful, and a place that they want to spend some time.
[00:16:40] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, you mentioned the virtual program for kids, and I know for two years, the museum was not open because of the pandemic. So you kind of made an agile move into much more online engagement. How did you do that and what have you learned from it? And how much will stay once things are back into a normal operating mode. Do you think there’s stickiness there?
[00:17:03] Cindy Lawrence: So I think things have changed. Going back to actually late January, 2020, when the pandemic wasn’t something that we all knew so much about yet. I actually had a visitor come to New York City to see me and showed up wearing a mask and said, I’m wearing the mask because I heard there’s a virus in China. And if it’s in China, I bet it’s in New York. And here, I brought a mask for you too, which I declined to wear because yeah, I had heard about the virus, but I had heard it was less than 1% of people in New York City. I wasn’t too worried, except subconsciously I was a little worried. And so by February, I was talking to my top leadership team and asking them, what would you do if we had to shut down for a bit? And they all looked at me and said, why would we have to shut down? And I repeated, well, I heard there’s this virus in China, and maybe it’s going to come to New York. And they all kind of didn’t take me seriously. And I said, well, for our meeting next week, please come back and tell me what you would do with your department, your area, if we shut down for a bit. And the next week when we had our meeting, all of them had the same exact answer. And that was, you were serious? And they all thought I was joking. And I felt foolish, but I said, I know it seems like I’m crazy. This is where motherhood ties into being a manager or a leader. So as a mother, you worry about everything. So as a leader of an organization, you also kind of take on the worries and it’s your job to worry about the things that probably won’t happen, but might happen, like having fire drills, I guess. So I said, no, I was serious. Come back next week and really tell me what you would do. And so the following week, when we returned, we started talking about this little thing called Zoom, which people had decided is what they would use. And then we started looking into pricing models and how many people could be accommodated in a Zoom room, and if we wanted to do a field trip on Zoom, how many students would we let in? And so we kind of had that conversation, just not really thinking that would happen. And then things shut down very quickly in March. We went from government officials saying, we’re fine, don’t worry about it to, everybody shut down and stay home. And so literally the last day that we had in school field trips to the museum was Thursday, March 12th. And the first day that we had an online field trip to the museum was also Thursday, March 12th. And so we actually didn’t have any shutdown or miss any time. We just morphed from in-person to online. That’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging and there wasn’t a learning curve. But we got much better at it over time. And now cut to , you know, a year and a a couple of months later, we did reopen in July of 2021. And we started to get a lot of emails from people who said, I don’t live anywhere near New York City, but I’ve loved your programs. You’ve been a lifesaver for me, for my children, for my parents during the pandemic. Please find a way for us to continue to be involved with you and your programs. So now we’re on the learning curve of hybrid programs and we’re running programs in the museum and also online, but sometimes hybrid in the museum and live streaming at the same time. And we’re still on a learning curve for that. We’re getting better at it, but there are challenges. It’s hard to optimize for both groups. So we’re still working on that, but we’re not about to leave all of our new followers behind in this new world.
[00:20:36] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Yah, it’s really exciting to hear you say that. Because this kind of museum is so rare on a global basis, it’s wonderful to have this capacity to really extend. You know, you’ve had the traveling exhibits. You’ve had other ways of expanding the reach beyond the greater New York area, et cetera. But , this sort of digital reach is a really powerful tool for engaging, again, people of all ages in a lot of different dimensions of mathematics. So I wish you really good luck with that. I can’t wait to get online so I can scope out some of these. As we’ve had to realize, we live in a society where the mistrust in science has probably never been higher. And some of that has to do with people’s struggles to really take in the mathematical dimensions of risk and risk taking. We see people wearing their masks completely in ridiculous manners. We see people who are still putting their food under ultraviolet lights in case there is a stray respiratory virus that came in through the grocery store. So we have kind of the extreme situation. But in this case, I think one of the tragedies of our lack of mathematical and scientific competency is that people are dying because they don’t have confidence in the things that they need to be doing to protect themselves. And then they’re going off in other directions and doing things that aren’t helping and, in some cases, are really quite dangerous. So we have now shined a big, bright light on the whole issue of trust in science. And to me, the work you’re doing is directly related to that, because if you can engage kids in building their own confidence that they can handle quantitative information and look at things through that objective lens, there’s a much better chance that they will continue to learn in that direction and will become mor facile citizens in a sense. Is there a chance in the future you might have the mathematics of the pandemic as part of that?
[00:22:43] Cindy Lawrence: Yes. So. We’ve actually already had a program on the mathematics of the pandemic and another one coming. And we’ve been talking about maybe having an exhibit. But so many things people have had to learn about mathematics. I don’t think that people were so familiar with what exponential growth really meant until we saw case loads that were being reported going from one number to another number so drastically. Unfortunately we all learned what exponential growth really means through the pandemic. Then there’s just basic statistics. And if you get a negative test or a positive test, well, how likely is that result to be false? What does that mean? Should you repeat the test? You don’t want to expose your friends, your families, so what exactly should you be doing? There’s of course anecdotal stories you hear and trying to separate that from the facts. So I know there was a lot of concern when the vaccine came out for children. There had been some cases where children had some adverse reactions and that’s probably true with every vaccine. But , you know, parents grasped onto that and needed to step back and look at, okay, what percentage of children had those reactions versus what percentage of children who are unvaccinated will get COVID and have a poor reaction to that? And so everybody’s had to become more mathematically literate. And had we been more mathematically literate and science understanding and accepting, maybe we would have had higher vaccination rates. Or even in the early parts of the pandemic, I think there was a reluctance even to shut down in some parts of the country or some parts of even the state or the city, or I’m sure we all have friends or family members who didn’t and maybe still don’t believe that the pandemic really is what it is. And sometimes people have unfortunately learned the hard way about that. But I think being mathematically literate just helps you take in all of this information. We’re all seeing so many more numbers every day now watching the rates in our community and our state and the country and other countries in the world, hearing about a new variant that’s overseas and, is it going to come from here? Yes, it’s going to come here. I mean, we are a global community. This idea that we had early on that state borders, somehow, viruses would behave and , you know, not cross state borders if we made rules. You know, that’s all out the window. So just understanding and being mathematically and scientifically literate has taken on a life or death importance now.
[00:25:20] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: And , you know, you’re in an incredibly well-positioned framework to be part of that evolution. And I wish it could happen faster. And certainly I’m hoping that people who are listening to this conversation can be part of it as well. And not everyone can translate the mathematics in the way that you can. You have a unique capacity. That’s probably why you are a popular speaker, because you can take really complex ideas and translate them into a frame that a broader audience can really get excited about and feel your passion for sure. How is it that you ended up passionate about math? Was it family, was it school? Did you have a mentor or was it just in you? I’m dying to know.
[00:26:08] Cindy Lawrence: Okay. Well, I loved math from a very early age. I think I loved it because there was a way to do something and there was a right or wrong answer. And you kind of knew if you got it right or you got it wrong. And it felt like a puzzle. It felt like something to solve. That elation you get when you solve a puzzle, like you put the last piece in or you figure out how to take something apart, there’s a joy in that that’s very human, that’s very related to mathematics. Now I will say I had an experience in early elementary school where I returned from summer break and seemed to have forgotten how to do some something basic and mathematical. And it really stays with me to this day how that felt to not know how to do something, to feel like the people around me knew how to do something, but I somehow wasn’t getting it, didn’t remember how to do it. So I think I have a very real identification with people who struggle because people who have been in that situation of feeling like it’s almost like there’s a joke that everyone gets that you don’t, it’s an unpleasant feeling. And so I remember that and it’s one of my goals to make sure that nobody who comes into the Museum of Math feels that way. So, okay, I got past that and I did like math. I was good in math. So there’s that positive reinforcement that comes from getting a good test score and being praised by parents and teachers. In 12th grade, I had a teacher for calculus. I never heard of calculus before. And he really conveyed the beauty of the subject to me. And so I went off to college as a math major. But I didn’t really know what I would do with that. I didn’t have any great understanding. It felt like if you like to do puzzles and you found a school that let you major in puzzles, you say, great, I’m going to major in puzzles. But then you start to think, is that really wise? How am I going to get a job? I don’t know what there is to do with this. And I didn’t get the guidance that I wish I had gotten, which was to say stay with it. So I went all the way up to 300 level in mathematics. I never got anything other than an A, but I didn’t see what I could do with it. And as it became more abstract, it started to feel more like I was memorizing things that I didn’t necessarily understand. And to me, part of the beauty of math was understanding what I was doing. Not just, in history class, you memorized the years that certain things happened and that always felt like something I could do, but not something you could figure out on your own if somebody hadn’t given you the information first, whereas math felt like something you could on your own find a different way to do something. And it would still come out to the same answer. And there was that sort of exploratory aspect to it that I loved. And when I got to the higher levels of math and I wasn’t feeling that anymore, and I was starting to feel the pressure of, gee, I’m going to graduate and I need to have a job, I moved away from that and it’s like giving up on your first love in way. And I did something else and it was a perfectly fine thing to do. And I had a career. But when I had kids, it was an opportunity to remember how much I loved math and to share that love with my kids, not because I wanted them to go off and have careers in mathematics, but just because it was fun. It was something we could play with together. And so when this friend mentioned the idea of a museum of math, It was an immediate click with me, like, wow, something I’ve always loved that I didn’t end up spending my life doing, but I could volunteer and I could be part of this. And wouldn’t that be great? And wouldn’t that be fun? And the more I got involved with it, the more passionate I became about what we were doing. And at one point I realized I was volunteering more hours a week than I was working in my actual job. And the thing that I wasn’t doing anymore so much was sleeping. And so, I had to make a choice. I had been at my job at that point for 18 years. I loved my job. I loved the people I worked with. I wasn’t looking for a new job. And so it was actually a hard decision to sort of, it was like jumping off the deep end. Like I have this job I’ve had for 18 years. It’s been a great job. It allowed me, at a time when this wasn’t so common, to work remotely and be able to be fully involved with raising my children while also doing something that felt like it was a career and this for me. And so I was kind of throwing all that away and jumping into something that was very different and required certainly a lot of time away from home. My kids were older at that point. The youngest was in middle school. So that felt like about the right time. That’s an age where they don’t any longer think that mom and dad are the coolest people in the world. They have friends that take over that role. But I will say having three kids and living in the suburbs where there really isn’t a mass transit option involved a lot of very careful planning and scheduling all the time. And I really do feel like that was excellent preparation for running a company. So, yeah, even though I would say I was partially a stay at home mom, I did have a job that I did at the same time, but I defined myself, I think, as a mom during those years. And those were not wasted years because I learned a lot of lessons about how to manage, about how to schedule, about how to take people with different ideas and try and bring them together because we’re all one family or we’re all one company and we all have one mission. And it’s not always the case that everybody thinks that going right is the right direction or other people think going left is the right direction and figuring out how to mediate between different, valuable and important viewpoints, I think, is part of being a manager. So I don’t think those years were in any way wasted.
[00:31:56] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: That’s a really important part of your story. And I think there are a lot of people who can resonate with that, but have maybe not made the connection between the skillset necessary to manage a complex and diverse household and the skillset necessary to manage a diverse and complex organization. But I see your point. I think that’s something that we probably need to amplify a little bit more. Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, Cindy. The museum is, it’s like your fourth child.
[00:32:26] Cindy Lawrence: You are not the first person to say that. And it’s the only one that’s still at home. The rest have all grown up and moved out.
[00:32:32] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: And let’s hope it stays at home for all of the future because it’s certainly a valuable cultural institution. But it’s much more than that because of its reach, but also because it occupies such a unique and necessary, if not absolutely essential component, of the world in which we need to be better equipped to live in. So I really thank you for your time. I thank you for your leadership and mostly I thank you for your incredible passion, as you started this conversation saying, your passion for mathematics, but also your passion for sharing that joy and engaging so many other people around the world in its pursuit. Thank you very much. And I look forward to seeing you soon.
[00:33:19] Cindy Lawrence: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure. And if anybody would like to come visit the museum, our doors are wide open for everybody.
[00:33:26] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Excellent. And to our viewers, please take her up on that, either in person or virtually, and be sure to tune into our next episode of Her Story. Thank you so much.