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Harvard Professor Melanie Wood Becomes First Woman to Win Waterman Award in Mathematics

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The National Science Foundation named Harvard Mathematics professor Melanie M. Wood one of two recipients of the 2021 Alan T. Waterman Award earlier this month, making her the first woman to win the award in mathematics.

The Waterman Award, the nation’s highest honor for early-career scientists, recognizes an “outstanding young researcher” under the age of 40 who has “demonstrated exceptional individual achievements in scientific or engineering research,” according to NSF’s website. Awardees each receive a grant of $1 million to support their research.

Wood said in an interview that earning the award is a “tremendous honor.”

“When I look at the list of previous awardees, it contains many heroes and role models — both inside mathematics and in other sciences — so it’s just unbelievable to be included in such amazing company,” Wood said.

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She noted that that the Waterman Award — which is only given to one or two researchers every year — is not often awarded to a mathematician.

“I especially appreciate that fundamental mathematics is still really valued, and I’m excited about how this recognizes the contribution and the importance of fundamental math research, so it’s exciting for me and for mathematics,” she said.

Wood’s research in number theory centers on understanding prime numbers and factorization, drawing on techniques from other areas that may initially seem “very unrelated” to one another, but are in fact related and can be applied to each other, she said.

“I love lots of different topics across mathematics, and that’s part of what has served me well in my research,” Wood said. “I use ideas that come from other parts of mathematics — from topology, where you’re studying the shapes of spaces and how they can change, or probability, where you’re studying how random systems can behave.”

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a press release that Wood’s work is among the most rigorous in her field.

“Wood is tackling the mysteries and most complex problems in mathematics by looking into the connection of number theory and random matrices,” he said.

Harvard Mathematics chair Michael Hopkins told the Harvard Gazette — a University-run publication — that Wood’s research has not held her back from connecting with undergraduates.

“Within her pioneering contributions to mathematics she has the unusual ability to find projects for undergraduates interested in trying their hand at research,” he said. “She is an inspiration to our community in all of its facets.”

Among her current projects, Wood is pursuing work in the field of arithmetic statistics, which involves investigation of the statistical properties of different number systems.

“If you look at all the different number systems out there, how many of them have these properties that we’re used to, or have some other property?” Wood said. “You can think about it like studying the demographics of a population, but instead of a population of people, you’re studying the population of mathematical systems.”

The first woman to receive the Waterman Award in the field of mathematics, Wood referred to her honor as a “sign of progress,” albeit one that came “far too late.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go working on making mathematics an inclusive profession — but we are seeing improvements,” Wood said.

She also suggested two key strategies to address the gender imbalance in the field: to excite more students by emphasizing the applicability of and creativity involved in mathematics, and to re-examine aspects of the field’s culture.

“If we’re turning people away, we’re not getting the best mathematics done that we could, and so how can people do mathematics together and interact in ways that welcomes everybody, instead of turning some of them away?” Wood said.

—Staff writer Justin Lee can be reached at justin.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Lauren L. Zhang can be reached at lauren.zhang@thecrimson.com.

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