She found the creative side of math

Pamela Harris
PhD Mathematics
Hometown(s): Guadalajara and Milwaukee
It’s a Fact: Her daughter, 6, is just learning how to add, and Harris is thrilled.

You can get a glimpse into Pamela Harris’ personality by her choice of a workout. After taking a class through UWM in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Harris became so engrossed that she now competes and ranks tenth in Wisconsin for women.

What began as a desire to lose weight and keep fit evolved into a quest to learn self-discipline and self-defense at the same time. “It’s definitely better than getting on the elliptical at the gym for an hour,” says the outgoing mathematician.

Harris doesn’t back away from challenges. She seeks them.

By the time she had finished her bachelor’s degree, she knew she wanted to go to graduate school and then into academia. Her husband was being deployed to Iraq and the couple had a newborn daughter, but Harris was undeterred.

Now, fresh from finishing her doctoral degree, Harris has won an extremely competitive teaching postdoctoral appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“I’m not a super brilliant math whiz. It didn’t come naturally,” says Harris, the first in her family to go to college. “But for me, if it’s hard and requires work to master, then it’s worth doing.”

The secret to math success, she says, is understanding the psychology behind it, including accepting that failure is part of the process. “You just don’t give up. You fail, you fail, you fail, and then you succeed – and that feels great!”

Harris moved with her family from Mexico to Milwaukee in 1995, and attended Riverside University High School. Interested in Mesoamerican sculpture, she at first thought she would pursue a career in art.

After enrolling at Milwaukee Area Technical College, though, Harris was introduced to the artistic side of math by talented instructors. “When you hang around mathematicians, you hear them use words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘elegant.’ You can see the patterns emerge.”

She completed two associate degrees while at MATC, and the last two years of her bachelor’s degree at Marquette University. Harris then enrolled at UWM’s graduate school because she found financial support through the Academic Opportunity Center. But once here, she felt so comfortable she recommended UWM to her younger brother.

The diverse environment is an aspect of UWM she really appreciated. (“You don’t value that until you don’t have it,” she says.) And she credits faculty with inspiring her. Her postdoctoral position will be primarily focused on teaching, giving her the chance to pay it forward.

“The math department here is like a big, dorky family,” says Harris. “They make you feel included, and they actually care about your private life instead of looking at it as something getting in the way of your coursework.”

Her husband is proud of her, even though he’s a Marine and West Point is an Army academy, she says.

“This is a terrific opportunity for our family and only 45 miles from New York City,” she says. That is especially exciting to Harris. “I haven’t left the roughly 15-mile radius around UWM since middle school. It’s time.”