Great Teachers Inspired Math Alumnus

Gwen McKinley
Gwen McKinley

Gwen McKinley, B.S., Mathematics, '15

Gwen McKinley graduated from UC Davis in 2015 with a B.S. in mathematics. She is now in her first year of a mathematics doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Gwen's parents are both violinmakers. Her father repairs instruments for the Los Angeles School District and her mother worked on a contract basis while also home-schooling Gwen and her sister. Gwen transferred to UC Davis after earning her associate's degree.

Why did you decide to major in math?

Math wasn't an obvious major choice for Gwen. When she was growing up in Altadena, California, Gwen thought math was boring and difficult. But great math teachers changed her mind. Gwen tackled algebra and pre-calculus at the local community college. The professors at Pasadena City College convinced her math could make sense. Now, Gwen hopes to follow in their footsteps and teach at a college or university after graduating from MIT.

Why UC Davis?

Gwen chose UC Davis because of the students she met during her first visit to campus. "Everyone was so friendly, and they also had many interests outside of school," she said.

During her two years at UC Davis, Gwen's outside interests also ranged far beyond math. She sang in the school choir and strummed a ukulele at local retirement homes. She was active in College Life, a Christian student club, and the Ambassadors of MPS peer adviser program. She also tried several new sports, including gymnastics, martial arts, rock climbing and golf.

What should potential math majors know?

Gwen recommends that students take an introductory computer programming class early in their college careers because programming opens up many career options within math. "If you like programming, and you like math, and you can do both of them well, you have really good job opportunities," she said.

For her senior thesis, Gwen studied a card-shuffling problem dealing with a finite set, a branch of mathematics called combinatorics. Real-life card games are also a popular way to pass the time for math majors. Gwen fondly recalls the real-life camaraderie among students in the math department. "I made a lot of friends in the major, a lot of really nice memories," she said.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I own a graphing calculator but I don't know how to use it.

What do like best about math?

I like the challenge and structure of math. I like that if you don't have the answer, you can't fake it, and if you do have the answer, it's yours without any real debate.

What was your favorite math class at UC Davis?

My favorite math class was probably Math 150C, the last quarter of undergraduate abstract algebra. I enjoyed the material, and we also had a really great TA who helped me understand the material better.

Becky Oskin, content strategist for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science