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STEMinist Profile: Melissa Weber Mendonça, Professor of Mathematics

Melissa Mendoca

Melissa Weber Mendonça

Professor at the Department of Mathematics (Ph.D. in Applied Math)
Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (Florianópolis, Brazil)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Well, I’ve always been very curious, and since I was very little I used to say I would be a scientist when I grew up. I started out wanting to be an archaeologist, then a geologist, then a physicist…When the time came to decide (when I was 16/17) I was seriously considering engineering (my father is an engineer and I always appreciated that he helped me study math).

But then my high school math teacher recognized that I had an interest and started giving me extra work. After a while I fell in love with math, and along with my love of computers and programming I became an applied mathematician. Since in Brazil all it takes for someone to be a professor at a University is an exam, I took the exam in 2009 and have been at the math department ever since.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Well, math is a complicated subject in that we don’t necessarily have projects but work sometimes on the same project for 20, 30 years. My work is mainly on optimization, and it’s hard to explain to anyone why what I do is cool/inspiring. I loved all of my projects, I would say though that currently I’m in love with teaching! I think it is truly inspiring to teach and to help others see the beauty that I see in math.

Role models/heroes:
Well, I could say the same famous names we hear all the time but I’m going to cite someone who had a personal impact on my life: Anne Lemaître, from FUNDP (Belgium). She comes to me as a role model in that she showed me that it is possible to have a successful career and also have a family. Also, Gina Trapani is a big “geek” hero of mine!

Why do you love working in STEM?
In my case, it’s a matter of personal taste, really. I think I agree with the people that say math is like art; I like it because it is beautiful. It so happens that it is also useful, and to me that helps motivate me in my everyday work. Doing math is a bit like playing with LEGOs: once you have a few blocks on your hand, you can use that to build other (bigger) blocks, and eventually you’ll have built a complete figure. That’s what it feels like to work: it feels like playing! And having fun on your job is priceless.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t measure yourself by what others do or by what you think they think of you. Be sure that you are doing the best you can, and that will be enough. If you ever feel alone, especially if you’re a minority in your workplace, be sure that you don’t try and carry the weight of all minorities in the world. You don’t have to feel responsible for not perpetuating stereotypes, and you don’t have to justify yourself for being there. You are just as worthy as everybody else!

Favorite website or app:
Right now, I’m going to have to go with Wunderkit, which is just amazing for managing big projects at home or work. I also really like Wolfram Alpha, but I’ve been a little disappointed that they started charging for some features, I used to indicate it to my students so they could check their answers while studying.

Twitter: @melissawm
Website: University profile