Applied mathematics PhD honored with Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award
Lauren Dickman was recently honored with the Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, and graduated in May with her PhD in applied mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.
“Lauren has been an exceptional teaching assistant during the past five years,” said Principal Lecturer Katie Kolossa, who serves as the graduate teaching assistant coordinator, helping with training, scheduling and evaluating the teaching assistants.
“Already in her first year she was running Calculus III recitations and soon after taught her own Calculus I and II courses. She was also one of the first TAs to teach an online course,” Kolossa said. “She can and was always willing to teach any level class and her student and faculty evaluations have been outstanding.”
Dickman has been a leader in teaching assistant training, mentoring the past three cohorts of first-year TAs. She has directed workshop presentations and follow up discussions, helped to record and critique TA presentations, and led mock recitation sessions to present good teaching practices.
She has seen many incoming TAs who have never taught classes before, and are understandably nervous.
“It was both exciting and rewarding to see those who were initially anxious, start to come out of their shells and grow in confidence,” Dickman said. “Participating in the good/bad teacher demos and watching the mathematical charades certainly have to be counted as highlights, too.”
Each year she has tried to focus on making the week of training less intimidating for the incoming TAs. She wanted them to feel more comfortable turning to the experienced TAs for answers to questions throughout future semesters.
“I wanted everyone to feel that they had a more senior student who could be their resource at any time,” Dickman said. “I like to think that I helped make an impact in that regard.”
Dickman has always had an affinity for puzzles, and to her, mathematics represents the ultimate puzzle. Her love of mathematics propelled her to pursue mathematics as she began her college journey at ASU. But during her undergraduate studies, her world changed as her mom battled brain cancer and her younger brother was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Back when Dickman was 10 years old, her family was getting ready to leave for a family vacation to Disneyland. That trip was cut short when her mother had her first seizure. The cause was a brain tumor, which required major surgery. Several years later, an MRI revealed her tumor had changed to a malignant grade 3 tumor known as an anaplastic oligodendroglioma, which required radiation and chemotherapy. Another surgery occurred in 2017, followed by regular MRI checkups.
In 2014, while Dickman was an undergraduate, her younger brother was 16 years old and played as a setter on his high school volleyball team. After complaining about severe leg pain, their parents took him to several doctors to determine what was wrong. An MRI revealed he had a grade 3 osteosarcoma the size of a football around his femur. This resulted in many rounds of chemotherapy and a limb salvage surgery, where doctors replaced his femur with a titanium rod.
After many months of intense chemotherapy, he had to learn to walk again and power through extensive rehabilitation. With five years of clean scans, doctors have ruled him "cancer-free." He has recovered in a near-miraculous fashion, and now plays for ASU’s men's volleyball team.
Seeing her family turned upside-down made Dickman personally determined to make a difference in the world of cancer. Initially she thought medical school was the answer. It was not until her junior year at ASU, when she was invited to an undergraduate research program called CSUMS, that her eyes were opened to the possibility of mathematical oncology.
“I was instantly enthralled by this marriage of my continued passion, mathematics, and my new passion, cancer research, and my plans changed from that point on,” Dickman said. “I decided to continue my mathematics education at ASU, with the goal of making a difference in mathematical oncology.”
Dickman began teaching in high school, tutoring her peers in math and science. Once she started college at ASU, she became a teaching assistant at a private elementary school, leading groups in math, Latin and literature.
As she entered graduate school, she became a teaching assistant in a different capacity, where her students changed from elementary students to college undergraduates.
“In every instance of teaching, I have felt the excitement of watching people have that ‘click’ moment, where something they previously felt frustrated with suddenly becomes enjoyable because they understand,” Dickman said. “Watching students make connections between different topics and develop confidence in their abilities is why I love teaching the way I do.”
“As I have experienced the beauty of mathematics in my own life, I have wished to share that love with those around me through both teaching and mentoring.”
As someone freshly entering grad school, Victoria Uribe thought having Dickman as a mentor really changed her perspective on being a graduate student.
“Lauren helped place my first-year struggles into the greater context of getting a PhD in mathematics. She reminded me that the beginning is always the hardest and that graduate school takes some getting used to. Lauren was there for me through my first-year ups and downs and made me feel like I was truly a part of the mathematics community at ASU,” Uribe said.
“Lauren is one of the nicest people I have ever met. She is also extremely humble about her publications and research.”
Professor Yang Kuang, Dickman’s PhD adviser, sees qualities in her that make both an effective teacher in the classroom and a great leader. She can explain difficult concepts while teaching a high-level mathematics class and also inspire students outside of the classroom and during community outreach events.
“Her friendly and charming personality makes her a magnet to fellow graduate students,” Kuang said. “Her hard-working nature and rich teaching experience enable her to function as a wonderful leader of TA training for our new TAs.”
“Her research training may also have added a lot to her effectiveness in terms of attention to detail and confidence,” Kuang added. “Her mathematical biology research talks are always extremely well received inside and outside of ASU.”
“Mathematics is more than just numbers. I have seen how it can help people grow in confidence and critical thinking,” Dickman said. “Through my research, I have found that math can even make sense of cancer, something that I never thought would make sense to me.”
Dickman says she has seen a change in herself over these past five years of graduate school, where her passion for mathematics has further developed into a passion to empower those she teaches and mentors.
“In TA training, when providing feedback and helping these incoming TAs prepare for instructing undergraduates, I tried to empower them to recognize their own strengths. In mentoring, I have tried to empower the women I was paired with to trust in their abilities to excel. In the classroom, I try to empower my students to believe that math is something they can be great at and that it is a worthwhile pursuit.”
We asked Dickman to share a bit more about her journey as a Sun Devil.
Question: What do you like most about mathematics, and your area of mathematical oncology?
Answer: I love the wide applications of mathematics. I love how mathematics can be used to make a difference in the world! Any phenomenon we take for granted, mathematics can be used to describe and better understand. In my area of mathematical oncology, mathematics can help understand what mechanisms cause treatments to fail, which allows for designing treatments that can better succeed.
Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: I learned the truth of Einstein’s famous words: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Even in my specialization of mathematical oncology, there are a vast number of areas to explore. At first it seemed daunting how much there remains to learn, but I now view it as an exciting quest to be a lifelong student.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: To enter industry, continuing a goal of using mathematics to improve health care. I will join HSAG (Health Services Advisory Group) as a senior data analyst, but my role will involve analyzing data to make informed decisions on how to improve quality of care. In doing this, I will use a mixture of mathematical skills, including statistics and logic-based reasoning, to make a measurable difference in helping patients get the treatment needed. I mainly wanted to find a job that would allow me to help lessen the painful experiences people undergo as a result of health problems while using some form of mathematics, and this job will allow me to do that.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: My adviser Dr. Yang Kuang taught me the most important lesson, that there is something to be learned even when things do not work out. Often much of the growth comes in the early stages of a project, when you have to try and fail multiple times.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?
A: To take advantage of all the opportunities afforded you. Attend the seminars, conferences and luncheons. Talk to different professors and students. You are constantly surrounded by unbelievably bright minds, and you can learn something through each interaction. Also, do not forget the importance of taking a break every now and then. Sometimes the most productive move is to step away from your work and get outside for a while.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My favorite spot on campus is the courtyard of the Social Sciences building. It is unique, peaceful and gives you the feel of being in nature while in the middle of a college campus. When walking around the school, I often go out of my way to pass through the courtyard.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?
A: I love to be active. I love to hike, rock climb and play sports — sand volleyball, ultimate frisbee, basketball, pickleball, you name it. When I’m not outside, I also enjoy solving any form of puzzle — jigsaw, sudoku, crossword, etc. — and reading.
Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?
A: Math is often misunderstood to be boring and lacking in creativity. From determining what types of questions to ask and what tools to use in tackling those questions, mathematics is entirely an exercise in creativity. Mathematics is far more than rote learning. It is a beautiful, creative language to describe the world.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I am a believer in the power of education, as it can open doors and instill confidence. While it would take more than $40 million, I would therefore tackle illiteracy. It is a problem that is at the root of countless global issues.