Junior mathematics major from Seattle, Wash.
Nina Ryalls discovered a connection between two seemingly opposing concepts: liberal arts and mathematics. She didn’t always enjoy mathematics, but through the liberal arts education of the University of Dallas, has recently found joy in the study.
“In high school, I really hated math because it was boring and formulaic,” Ryalls said. “It took forever and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. But upper-level math courses and writing proofs are way more fun.”
“It’s like writing a paper where you’re discovering something, and it has that thrill of when it all comes together and you understand how the pieces fit, except at the end where you have something that’s 100 percent true and no one can argue against you.”
With this newfound love, Ryalls has pursued research opportunities suggested by her professors once she expressed her desire to attend grad school.
“In class, they give you a theorem and you have to prove why it’s true, but in the research, you didn’t have a theorem,” Ryalls explained. “You didn’t have a point you were working toward, you were trying to discover something entirely new and prove why it was always true, so it had the paper-writing thrill and scientific experimentation, and it was awesome.”
Within this research, she was placed within the group that was working with the mathematical “knot theory.”
“A knot is a closed loop in space,” Ryalls explained. “You can visualize it as a rope, and the ends have to be connected, and you can have as many twists as you want.”
While studying the polynomials of knots, her group discovered some characteristics of knots that can be used to identify them, and went on to check mathematical work on knot calculations. They discovered that the large database of polynomials of knots had thousands of incorrect calculations, which can now be fixed in order to help knot theorists.
Ryalls will study abroad next semester in Budapest to continue her education in mathematics. Part of her goal in studying abroad is to take math classes that are not offered at UD, such as mathematical logic. Ryalls also hopes to pursue areas of mathematics like combinatorics, for which Hungary is historically famous, before she decides which area she will focus on in grad school.
Although her sights are set on an advanced degree, Ryalls has a high regard for the undergraduate education she is receiving at UD.
“I think that the liberal arts is really good for this kind of thing because writing really challenging papers with complicated ideas, as straightforwardly and clearly as possible, has really helped my thinking process to be straightforward and clear when thinking about complicated math problems, and knowing how to organize those ideas so I can share them with other people,” she said.
Ryalls is living proof that the liberal arts heart of the UD education benefits students regardless of their profession.
“I think [that if] I didn’t take as many humanities as are required here, it would be a lot harder for me to communicate mathematical ideas, which is the whole point of math: to understand the thing and then to share it,” Ryalls said.
She attributes a lot of her success and the enjoyment of her major to the professors in the mathematics department.
“The math professors here are really great,” she said. “They take a lot of personal interest in the people, so I have definitely developed as a mathematician more so because of that. I can go to a professor’s office and just say, ‘I didn’t understand anything that you told me an hour ago,’ and then they’ll just walk me through five times until I get it.”
Before picking mathematics as her major, Ryalls had originally leaned strongly towards philosophy.
“But besides intellectually liking something, you have to have passion in your heart about it,” she said.
She attributes her past passion for philosophy to a void in her life at that time, and so she had hoped that philosophy could answer questions and therefore fill it. But then she found a passion for math, and when in philosophy she would ask herself what the meaning of life is, she found that for her, it was the pursuit of math.
“I think that good philosophy comes from goodness,” she said. “It comes from a good life and happiness, instead of the other way around. Having a good philosophy will not make you happy, but having a good life will give you a more proportional view of philosophy.”