Professor spotlight: Math department’s Cynthia Gibson

Full of anecdotes and mathematical puns, she enlivens otherwise formulaic subject matter.

For even the most liberal of liberal arts students, it is nearly impossible to get to know the over 230 full-time faculty on this campus. While we can’t introduce you to every professor, it is the goal of this column to help you get to know a few a little better, discovering their passions, previous professions, pet peeves and what they do with their coveted free time.

Meet Cynthia Gibson, ‘89 graduate of Puget Sound and visiting instructor with the Math and Computer Science departments.

After attending graduate school at the University of Oregon, Gibson heard from her college advisor, Brian Smith, that the Puget Sound Math department had a vacancy, and with wonderful symmetry, she filled it.

With a few exceptions as her family grew, she has been here at Puget Sound ever since. This fall is her 10th year. I met with her in her beautiful office on the third floor of Thompson Hall, looking out over the courtyard. Her shelves are filled with pictures of her family, thick books and statues of geometric shapes and knots.

Keeping with the theme, her walls are covered with brighly colored, perfectly circular decals handed down from her daughter’s childhood bedroom. The amount of time she has devoted to math now seems much less intimdating.

So, let’s begin.

Q: Within the Math department, what subjects do you focus on?

A: This semester I am teaching a section of Calculus and Analytic Geometry as well as two sections of Applied Statistics. I specialize, however, in Topology.

Q: Did you come to Puget Sound knowing you wanted to focus your studies around math and topology?

A: Hardly. Math was not something that came easily to me, and I had to work really had to understand it.

I am, however, determined to work through things when I am struggling, so I fought my way and eventually got better with the help of some amazing professors.

Professors often see things in students, strengths and abilities, that they themselves are not even aware of, and Professor Smith was one of those professors for me. He encouraged me to continue in this field, and convinced me that I could succeed.

I did know early on that I wanted to work in teaching, I just never imagined it would be at this level!

Q: Speaking of your undergraduate experience, what was one of the highlights of the courses you took here at Puget Sound?

A: During my senior year, I knew I had to take a language for the entrance exam to graduate school and so I settled on German.  I went in the first day and went up to the professor to explain that I was there for my graduate school exam, so I just needed to be able to read German.

The professor, Kent Hooper, who is still here teaching German, had none of it. He made a point that semester to get my pronunciation right. I did more then my fair share of the hard “CH” trying to learn German.

Q: As a professor, what is one of your favorite classes to teach?

A: I have a soft spot for Linear Algebra. Students enter the course just as they are truly becoming mathematicians and begin the semester barely understanding what a proof looks like, let alone what it is.

Then, by the end of the class, they’re elated when they answer one with ease. It’s incredibly cute to watch.

What I want from all my classes, but especially the 100 level ones, is for people to be consumers of math.

No matter how much you dislike it, it’s out there. We have to live with it. Please try and understand some of it so people don’t abuse you with statistics!

Q: How do you spend your time outside of the classroom?

A: I have three teenagers who play sports and lead hectic lives, so I spend a lot of time taking care of them—going to cross country meets or football games, helping them, and now their friends, with math homework.

I have become very popular now that their friends are old enough to drive; I’ll come home and find one of their friends waiting on the couch when my kids aren’t even home to ask me questions about their math homework.

When a free moment does appear, often when I am waiting in the car to pick one of my kids up, I love to read and crochet.

I have been making quite a few baby blankets recently, though I haven’t had many people in need of them just yet!

Q: What did you and your family do over the summer break without math work to keep you busy?

A: We actually went on a three-week trip to the east coast to visit Washington D.C. and Disney World.

We spent a week in D.C., a week in Disney World and a week exploring in between. It was an amazing trip and the kids had a great time.