Scientista Spotlight - Meet Rediet Abebe! Mathematics Major, Harvard Class of 2013
Rediet Abebe, Harvard '13, Mathematics
February 03, 2012 By Katie Banks
I began my interview with Rediet Abebe, a Harvard ’13 mathematics major, by asking when her interest in math started. Bad question. A better one would have been, were you ever not in love with math? She would have said no.
Abebe’s mother noticed her interest in mathematics by the time she was four and being home schooled for part of elementary school. She lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, following the national curriculum through grade school and then attending the competitive-entrance International Community School, where she pursued an American curriculum and the International Baccalaureate. Her experiences there set the stage for her interest in math, but also for her mentoring and her interest in education.
At Harvard, Abebe made the transition from playing with “self-contained, intuitive examples” as she calls them to studying full-blown theoretical math, something she’d never seen before. She found it difficult at first (and any mathematician will tell you that math is always hard), but she quickly found a corner of the math world to call her own, both in her research interests and in the math student community at Harvard. She jumped into one of the freshman honors sequences, and she’s been taking theoretical math classes on subjects she describes as “beautiful” ever since. Right now she aims to concentrate on learning the foundations and finding her particular interests. She took an algebraic combinatorics class last year and “completely fell in love” with it and other areas of discrete math, which focus on seemingly simple subjects including counting objects, networks, graphs and using computers to solve hard geometry problems. (This isn’t your mother’s high school geometry class!) She describes combinatorics as “the most clever and elegant” math she currently knows, saying “I love how the questions it asks can be stated simply and accessibly, while their solutions often require deep and elegant [mathematics].”
The depth and elegance of mathematics is only half of the equation for Abebe’s attachment: the people she’s found in college are equally as important to her. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard College Math Review, an annual expository journal with articles written and edited by undergraduates. While her involvement in the HCMR puts her in contact with contributors and readers throughout the country and even the world, it also allowed her to work closely with her peers in the Harvard math community. Her experience with it has been so great that she tells me, “I think that every mathematics department needs a student group [like HCMR] that has collaboration and community as its primary philosophy.”
“I think that every mathematics department needs a student group [like HCMR] that has collaboration and community as its primary philosophy.”
Outside of classes and formal activities, Abebe has been deeply influenced by the many mentors she has sought out at Harvard and MIT. She advises anyone interested in academia to “reach out to as many people as possible and develop relationships.” Her mentors are people that “wouldn’t be in [her] life” had she not reached out to them--but since they’re there, they have contributed immensely to her growth with their time and energy. Speaking to insecurities and concerns common among undergraduates, especially aspiring academics, she emphasizes that “Most people in academia are very willing to help, especially since research can be very intellectually and emotionally demanding: and you want to have as many people on your team as possible!”
Abebe is a mentor herself in many capacities. She’s been involved in some kind of community service since 6th grade. In Cambridge, she is a mentor at the nonprofit math club Girls’ Angle and in the Cambridge After School Program. She’s brought her students there concepts from her college math classes—she notes, “it just goes to show that one can never be too young to appreciate mathematics at a deeper level than education system allows.” Beyond the mentoring, she’s found a like-minded community of women and girls who love math at Girls’ Angle (mentors are undergraduates, graduates and post-docs), and she found a mentor of her own there in director Dr. C. Kenneth Fan, himself a Harvard graduate.
Her theoretical courses and volunteer work have very personal meaning for Abebe, as Harvard’s only black female math major who sees educational iniquities all around her in Cambridge. Girls’ Angle and the Cambridge After School both speak to her experiences: Girls’ Angle was created to help women in mathematics, and the CASP serves mostly Ethiopian-American students. But she is quick to draw the bigger picture she sees here: she speaks on the scale of what educators and policymakers do over decades, and her greatest hope as a mentor is that the issues she has experienced and that she sees others experience will be addressed on a national level, that others will be given the opportunities she has enjoyed.
It’s not just day-to-day mentoring that’s kept her interest in the groups. She first got involved in them through her writing on the Cambridge public schools and Cambridge politics for the Harvard Crimson, and she keeps up her interest in education policy and the larger context of the mentoring and math she does through coursework and informal discussion with officials and peers. She’s also heavily involved in PBHA as a Phillips Brooks Service Scholar, and she credits the organization with giving her many chances to discuss and debate education with her peers.
For now, though, Abebe doesn’t know what exactly will come next. Wherever her interests lead her in the future, she’ll continue with the support of many mentors, and until then, you can probably find her in the math department lounge!