Math at Work Monday: Audrey the Birth Doula

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As a woman, I know there is nothing more life-changing than giving birth to a child. It’s a time when you most need the support of people around you. You need encouragement. I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Kalman for this week’s Math at Work Monday. She’s been a birth doula for twelve years so she’s been the support for countless women (and watched a lot of lives enter the world!). What does this have to do with math?  Let’s find out!

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I support women who are giving birth and their families as a birth doula. Birth doulas are non-medical support people, hired by families, who provide informational, emotional, and physical support before and during birth. I meet with families before their babies are born to find out what they’re hoping for; I help ease anxieties and point them to resources. Once a woman goes into labor—or thinks she’s in labor—she contacts me. I then join her at her home or at the hospital and stay with her and her partner until a couple hours after the baby comes. That could be a few hours… or a few days. I do everything from reassuring her (and the dad!) that everything is fine to massaging her back to talking her through a particularly painful or challenging moment. I often describe my role as a “professional sister.” I have up-to-date training and come without the “baggage” of a family member, but I bring the same kind of caring and compassion you might expect from a close relative.

When do you use basic math in your job?

Because I’m self-employed, math is part of the equation (pardon the pun) that helps me figure out how to set my rates and how many clients I need to work with to meet my income goals. For example, when recently deciding whether to raise rates, I researched living wages in my area. I then calculated how many births I would need to attend to make a living wage, looked at fees charged by doulas just starting out, and used a multiplier developed by another doula to account for my years of experience. Then there’s all the lovely arithmetic that goes into tax calculations, though I use a tax calculation program for that.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I don’t know where I’d be without Excel spreadsheets. Since I also serve as the administrator for a small group of doulas (we back each other up), I’m responsible for maintaining a spreadsheet to track all of our clients and tallying up who owes what to whom at the end of each quarter. We serve about fifty couples each year so this can get complicated. Using a spreadsheet is the only way to keep track of everything—not only who owes what but also other information like due dates.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I absolutely think it helps me do my job better. The hands-on work of being a doula is very intuitive, but the rest is like running any other business. I believe it’s important to be professional which includes creating contracts and invoices for which basic math is certainly required.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I’ve always felt comfortable with math. (My mother was a college professor who taught physics and mathematics.) The math I use now feels somewhat pedestrian—it’s really just glorified arithmetic. What’s interesting to me is using problem-solving concepts to help me figure out big-picture questions (as with the rate-setting example I gave above).

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I have always really enjoyed math. I had an unusual education in that I attended an early college now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock so I took only algebra in high school. I went on to do some interesting math in college, including systems dynamics, but I didn’t pursue higher level math since I was a creative writing major. I did take statistics for my graduate degree in journalism. I think all citizens should be required to take basic statistics!

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I definitely picked up my spreadsheet skills post-school since nobody was using personal computers when I went to college, but the big-picture thinking and problem-solving skills which I consider to be part of math were definitely something I honed in school and have used ever since.

Anything else you want to mention?

I want to mention another kind of “math” that is related to birth. I think of it as “intuitive math.” It’s what allows me to “feel” whether a woman’s contractions are getting closer together and longer (a sign that labor is progressing). It also allows me to help women through contractions by counting their breaths. Perhaps this doesn’t have much to do with what we typically think of as math, but part of math is all about patterns and cycles—and those are definitely relevant to the process of giving birth.

Intuitive math.  Pretty cool!  I’ve never even thought about that. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. If you have any questions for Audrey, please let me know.

Photo Credit: phalinn via Compfight cc

Math at the Movies

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(Photo courtesy of NASA Headquarters)

I love the movies. If I could, I would watch one every single day. I’m also a bit of a movie snob. I like films that surprise me or make me think. And while I don’t seek out movies that feature math, some of the best movies out there do. Here are a few of them.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Goodwill Hunting won the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay. Damon plays Will Hunting, an MIT janitor and math prodigy. Psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) finally breaks through Hunting’s defenses, helping him to leave his past behind.

Pi (1998)

If you’re looking for something surreal, Pi is it. Filmed in moody black and white, the movie follows mathematical genius, Max (Sean Gullette) , as he searches for patterns in mathematics. At the same time, he’s being pursued by two groups who want his results: a powerful Wall Street firm and a Hasidic cabalistic sect.

 A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Based on the true story of Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, A Beautiful Mind won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Nash (Russell Crowe) is a brilliant mathematician, who has troubling relationships with a former college roommate, a young girl and a Department of Defense agent.

Proof (2005)

As her successful mathematician father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins) descends into madness, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) begins to question her own sanity and mathematical abilities. Proof is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn.

Moneyball (2011)

The ultimate answer to the question, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Moneyball  tells the true story of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s beleaguered manager, played by Brad Pitt. Given a tiny budget for salaries, Beane games the recruiting system, using a sophisticated statistical analysis program. His methods ultimately change the way all baseball teams build their rosters. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the brains behind the plan.

 The Imitation Game (2014)

Based on the life of one of them most fascinating mathematicians in history, The Imitation Game is the most recent math-centric films to hit theaters. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the great mind who broke the Nazi’s enigma code, ultimately shortening the war by several years and saving thousands of lives.

With a list like this, you might think that Hollywood is has a great relationship with math. Never fear, this mashup tells the truth. Like much of the rest of society, the movies and television hate or are scared of math. Take a look.

What is your favorite movie or television program about math? What do you think of the movies I’ve listed? Post your comments below!

Math at Work Monday: Susan Weiner the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

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One of the things that excites me the most is seeing someone make a living out of their passion.  I had the privilege of interviewing Susan Weiner today.  She has been in her profession for more than 20 years and is living her passion.  She’s a freelance financial writer and author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.  She blogs at InvestmentWriting.com/blog. I highly recommend that you check out her work. First, let her tell us a little bit more about what she does and how it involves math.

Can you explain what you do for a living? (Be specific!)

I write and edit white papers and investment commentary for financial firms. You know how some people have great ideas but lack the time or skill to put them into writing? I interview them—and use their data—to put their ideas into persuasive writing. Some of their data include numbers generated using math.

When do you use basic math in your job? 

I use math when I write investment portfolio performance commentary. If you own a mutual fund, you receive semiannual reports about your fund’s performance. Some of that commentary is based on data called attribution analysis. It identifies which investments contributed to positive returns and which investments detracted. This data is reported in percentages.

Let’s consider an example. A stock fund increased in value by 5% over one year. Where did that come from? How much of that was from specific stocks that the fund manager bought or sold? How much was from overall market growth or the performance of a specific industry? The percentages generated by the attribution analysis software explain which decisions helped and hurt the fund. By looking at lots of these numbers and finding patterns among them, I develop an objective basis to write about why the fund performed as it did.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I sometimes use Excel spreadsheets to rearrange the attribution numbers to make them easier to analyze. For example, I may sort the list of stocks so that the largest contributor to performance is at the top, followed by other contributors in descending order.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without math, I wouldn’t have any objective data to inform my understanding of fund performance. With math, I can form and test hypotheses by looking at the data. When I get a chance to interview the fund manager, I can ask questions that test and expand on my hypotheses. The numbers don’t tell the entire story, so it’s important to get input from the professionals who manage a fund.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you? (In other words, is it easier to do this math at work or do you feel relatively comfortable with math all the time?)

I don’t love math, but I like how numbers make my job easier by providing insights. I do what’s necessary to obtain those insights.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I stopped after algebra and geometry. I did not take calculus, although now I wish that I had forced myself to struggle through it. Math did not come easily to me.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

The skills that I had to learn weren’t mathematical. When I studied to earn my credential as a chartered financial analyst, a credential held by many fund managers, I learned about financial analysis. I also learned about Excel spreadsheets, which help me format the numbers to make them easier to analyze.

Anything else you want to mention?

Don’t underestimate the power of learning to write well about the numbers generated by math. That got me one of my first job offers in college, when my statistics professor asked me to help students in his class. Today, writing about numbers helps me to help my clients communicate better.

It sounds like even if you don’t love math, you can learn to respect it and get along with it like Susan does.  Interested in knowing more?  Let me know, and I will make a connection with Susan for you.

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We Learn Math Best Through Discovery — And Failure (Video)

What’s the best way to learn new math ideas? The answer might surprise you. But like learning a foreign language or that the little brake light on your dashboard means get to the mechanic — now! — getting the hang of math may require a little bit of discovery, rather than listening to boring lectures or reading books. And getting your Christopher Columbus on means failing a few times too. Here’s how discovery and failure play an important role in math education.

More videos are coming, so please subscribe to my YouTube channel: mathforgrownups.  Also, I hope you’ll share this video on Twitter, using #failureisok and #discovermath and post it on your Facebook page. Share the Math for Grownups love!

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Ask your questions or share your feedback in the comments section. Were you surprised by anything in the video? What do you think about having to fail in order to learn? Share in the comments section!

Celebrate Good (Math) Times

 Celebrate Good (Math) Times

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of freelance writing and blogging, it’s this: I should always, always celebrate accomplishments, big and small. Truth is, 2014 was a really, really big year for Math for Grownups. So I hope you’ll indulge me in this little round up of the great things that have happened since last year at this time.

And I hope you’ll spend a few moments celebrating your own wins. (Share them in the comments section, so we can all cheer for you!)

Publication of Math for Writers

I had plans for this book since Math for Grownups published in 2011. Fear and a lot of anxiety kept me from my goal for a long time, but I finally pulled it together and got down to work. The writers I know are such smart people, and I wanted to give you all a little boost of confidence in your math abilities. As the subtitle says, with math writers can tell a better story, get published and make more money.

I’m also really proud that I self-published Math for Writers. I knew that finding a publisher would be tricky, and I wanted the autonomy of making my own decisions. It’s been a really amazing process, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of three folks: Jennifer Lawler, development editor; Sandra Hume, copy editor; and Caitlin Proctor of Design Cat Studios, who designed the cover. I highly recommend them all!

Redesign of www.mathforgrownups.com

As my reach expanded to writers and parents and teachers, I decided to put a new face on the Math for Grownups website. And with that redesign, I added more content, like quizzes, the Math Manifesto and even video. I also created a cool free gift to subscribers: a guide to overcoming math anxiety. (If you haven’t snagged yours, be sure to sign up in the bright yellow box on the right!)

Again, I owe a big debt to someone who is much smarter than I. Patrick McCarty of evolv design has been my designer for years and years. I asked for pops of color and a playful look — and that’s exactly what he gave me. Thanks, Patrick!

Named one of GO Magazine’s 100 Women We Love in 2014

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out about this honor! Yep, that’s me, up there with Lily Tomlin, Robin Roberts, Mary Lambert and Ellen Page. Each year, GO chooses 100 lesbians who are making waves. To be on this list means more than just personal recognition — though that’s pretty darned cool! The best part was sharing the math message to a generation of women: girls can do math! (Check out my profile in the magazine.)

Hired a Virtual Assistant

This was a huge step. I’ve been a one-girl shop since I started out on my own in 2005. But with all of my big ideas, I knew I needed to step things up. Kelly Case with Time on Hand Services has been a god-send. Since the spring, she’s hanlded all of the Math at Work Monday interviews, and in the fall, she took over the newsletter. Look for her name to show up more in 2015! I’m so glad to have her on my tiny team of two.

Began Producing Video Online

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had this year is writing and producing my own video. The Math Manifesto series has been a blast. I’ve been writing math video scripts for several years, but this was my first chance to strike out on my own. And while I cringe a little seeing my face and hearing my voice, I feel really great about this accomplishment. The point is to ratchet down the anxiety and demonstrate how simple the math can be. (And sometimes I have to ratchet down my own anxiety about being on camera!)

Coming in 2015

So the best part about reviewing the previous year is the inspiration that comes. (Try it for yourself!) I’ve got big plans for next year, and I hope you’ll join me. Here’s a taste of what may come:

  • More video! I have a great new tool that I’m excited to use. Look for Khan Academy-like learning videos from Math for Grownups.
  • An online stats course for writers. This has been in the works for a while. Stay tuned for the details!
  • In-person speaking events. I’m showing up at a few writers conferences in 2015 (including the American Society for Journalists and Authors (ASJA) in the spring), and it looks like I’ll be working with public school teachers on implementing in-depth, project-based lessons in the classroom. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be teaching again!
  • New resources — for teachers and for writers. I’m developing some special items just for these audiences, and I can’t wait to share them.
  • A new book? This one is a little scary to announce, but I do have plans for two books. Most likely, only one will get done in 2015. Which one will be be? Not sure yet. (And I’m not spilling the beans about either one!)

Of course, I hope you all will stay with me throughout the next year. Invite your friends to subscribe, too! Math for Grownups is on the verge of something really great. Don’t miss out!

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Now it’s your turn. What would you like to see here at Math for Grownups? Please share your ideas with me, in the comments section to via email: [email protected]