Learning for the real world takes individual perseverance, group discussions and faculty mentorship.
Odds suggest Madeleine Beatty shouldn’t be a data scientist. She shouldn’t be managing a team at tech-giant Amazon, figuring out complex problems for the largest internet retailer in the world.
Beatty’s middle and high school experience was tough. She was placed in special education classes because of dyslexia; she was told she wouldn’t progress like other students. And math, once a love in her elementary years, turned into something completely inaccessible.
After high school, everything changed. Beatty was ready to pursue a degree and was facing single motherhood. The Evergreen State College was close to home and she had heard that math prerequisites were not an obstacle. So, with a baby on the way and the goal of becoming a doctor, she enrolled.
Once at Evergreen, Beatty rediscovered math. Despite her reservations, she knew she needed math as a base for any science studies. Her first program was Algebraic Thinking — an offering that would forever influence her life trajectory.
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“Math is one of the most creative outlets,” says Beatty. “At traditional schools, the curriculum is so enforced the creative side of math is hidden — arithmetic, solve for X, find a rate — it’s all very linear. Evergreen showed me that math isn’t linear. Each equation was no longer just symbols on a page, but a puzzle to be visualized, a story with a beginning, middle and end. There were countless ways to approach a single problem. The more creative you could be, the more beautiful the solution.”
“My relationship to mathematics grew into something more real and vital than the inclination I once had to become a doctor,” she says.
Moving toward math
Beatty found herself on a path toward pure math.
Rachel Hastings and Brian Walter co-taught the yearlong program Math Systems, where Beatty dove into not only pure math, but math history, philosophy and mathematical fiction. “Brian was wonderful,” says Beatty. “He can get anybody excited about math but still hold you accountable to be your best”
As part of an Independent Learning Contract, an Evergreen option which allows students to earn credit for unique, self-directed study overseen by faculty, Beatty and Hastings would spend hours together, poring over partial differential equations.
“Having access to someone like Rachel — who has two Ivy League degrees — was unreal,” says Beatty.
Beatty graduated from Evergreen with her dual B.A./B.S. degree. Grad school beckoned and she started pursuing her master’s degree in applied statistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
After a year, she landed a summer internship at Amazon in Seattle, using predictive modeling to map shipment patterns. Based on her performance, Beatty was offered a permanent position as a data scientist at Amazon.
Mindfulness in management
At Amazon, Beatty uses daily the skills she learned at Evergreen. Not only the hard skills, such as preemptive problem-solving and data analysis, but the soft skills that enable people to communicate across significant differences.
“Evergreen seminars set me up perfectly for that,” she said. “In the real world, you have to talk to people and work through problems to find the best solutions. And if there’s conflict, which most of the time there is, you have to bring out healthy productive conversation — this happens frequently in meetings. You need to be able to stick up for yourself and for others. Or you may find you need to be quieter to let others speak.”
“It’s bringing mindfulness to meetings, knowing you don’t have all the answers and that everyone at the table has value to add.”
Part of that mindfulness is around equity and diversity. Beatty also conducts Amazon workplace surveys and provides analysis and recommendations for more equitable opportunities.
“We know that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones,” Beatty said. “We have to find the smartest people and understand why they disagree with us. We have to find the most creative and beautifully simple solution and let it shine.”
Evergreen is a public liberal arts and sciences college located in Olympia, Washington. Learn more at evergreen.edu