Meet the Professor: Sybil Prince Nelson One of Washington and Lee's new faculty members for 2020-21 is mathematics professor Sybil Prince Nelson, a 2001 graduate of W&L.
“As a student here at Washington and Lee, I decided there and then that I wanted to show people just how beautiful math really is and how connected it is to our lives.”
Sybil Prince Nelson joined Washington and Lee University in 2020 as an assistant professor of mathematics. She is a 2001 graduate of Washington and Lee University, and her research is focused on creating tree-based models for classifying and predicting outcomes from complex data.
Nelson was recently a guest on After Class: The W&L Lifelong Learning Podcast in an episode titled “When You’re a Statistical Improbability: Thinking Creatively about Life and the Mathematics Within It.” In the episode, Nelson and host Ruth Candler discuss Nelson’s path through W&L as a math and music major; her current careers as a statistician, author and professor; and why she dubbed herself a “statistic improbability.”
We asked Professor Nelson a few more questions about herself.
Q: Why do you teach?
Growing up, I always hated math. I was good at it for some reason, but I didn’t enjoy it. I was always picked to be on the math competition team every year and I reluctantly joined because, hey, it would look good on my resume. It wasn’t until I got to Washington and Lee as a student that I really fell in love with it. The Mathematics Department at W&L made me see mathematics in a completely new light. As Professor Paul Bourdon told me one day, “Mathematics is man’s way of understanding the world around us.” And what do we see around us? Beauty! It is everywhere, and so is math. I felt it was so sad that there were little boys and girls out there like me who hated mathematics or were avoiding it because it was “too hard.” As a student here at Washington and Lee, I decided there and then that I wanted to show people just how beautiful math really is and how connected it is to our lives. Now my dream has not only come true, but I am able to fulfill it at my beloved alma mater.
Q: Why study your subject at W&L?
I teach mathematics and statistics. My subjects are so connected and pertinent to what is happening in the world today. All of the research going into monitoring, diagnosing and treating COVID-19 is based in statistics. If you want to understand what is happening in the world around you, you want to take my classes.
Q: What are you teaching right now?
For Fall Term 2021, I am teaching Math 101 (Calculus) and Math 309 (Probability)
Q: Where do your research interests lie? What inspired you to research these subjects?
I have two branches of research that I am pursuing. First, I create disease prediction models that focus on the interactions of binary genetic data and continuous environmental data. This is important because most traditional statistical models will only include interaction if the main effects are significant. My theory is that the probability of disease could increase more with an interaction than with the main effect. Thus, you could have a situation where only the interaction is in the model and not the main effects. A simple example would be perhaps age alone does not increase risk of disease and mercury level in the soil alone does not, but the combination of the two does increase risk of disease.
My second branch of research involves the correlation betweenBenford’ss Law and music. Benford’s Law states that in many naturally occurring data sets, the distribution of first digits follows a logarithmic pattern. This phenomenon has been used in many applications, from tax evasion to social media accounts. Diversion from this distribution is often indicative of fraud. I am researching how to apply this to music. Does diversion from this distribution somehow reflect which music we like or don’t like?
Q: What would be your dream course to teach?
When I was a student at Washington and Lee, I double majored in mathematics and music. I would love to teach a course that develops the correlation between those two seemingly completely different subjects. I want to show people the beauty of mathematics and the mathematical symmetry of music.
Q: Aside from teaching, what’s something that you’re passionate about? What do you do for fun?
I love writing books. I have several published novels. I enjoy playing string trios with my teenage daughters. I use the composing skills I learned at W&L to write music for us to play on piano/bass, violin and viola. But I also enjoy listening to Kpop with my girls and watching Asian dramas.
Q: What is your favorite movie or book? Why?
When I was in high school, My favorite book was “Tess of the D’ubervilles” by Thomas Hardy. I honestly have no idea why. I just always felt emotionally connected to Tess. Years after high school, I learned there was a movie version of the book. I immediately watched it, and I cried so hysterically that my husband almost took me to the hospital thinking I had injured myself! But I also love”Pride and Prejudice,” the book, and all of the TV/movie adaptations.
As you can see, I am a big fan of British literature. But I also love Science Fiction. The last book I read was “Artemi” by Andy Weir and before that “Project Hail Mary” by the same author. I think the previous ten books I’ve read have all been Science Fiction. Anyway, my love of British literature and Science Fiction has lead me to write a series of books that I call “Jane Austen in Space” I have published “Pride and Prejudice in Space” and “Sense and Sensibility in Space” “Mansfield Park in Space” is complete and should be out soon.
I recently figured out why I love the two completely different genres so much. In British Literature, race matters so much. Only Caucasian stories are told. In Science Fiction, race doesn’t matter at all because everyone is a robot or an alien! Thus, in combining the two, I can tell a story that is as beautiful and touching as a classical British tale while at the same time gives a message about race and class without it feeling politically charged.
Q: As a student, what was the best piece of advice you were given?
Have an open mind about your own potential and interests. When I entered Washington and Lee, I was determined to be an English and Journalism major. Never in a million years did I think I would major in math. But I enjoyed my very first calculus class here that it opened my mind to the possibility.
Q: Share a fun fact about yourself.
I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and I am currently learning Chinese, Korean, and French. I just learned that faculty sometimes sit in on courses, and I can’t wait to crash a Chinese class and increase my language skills!
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