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Office of the Provost Success Story

Alumni Success Story

Taking Math to the Limit

By Shirin Karimi, literature and premedical studies ’11

Mathematics. For some, the word itself inspires fear. But Traci Yokoyama, BS mathematics '01, is bridging the gap between the mathematical world and the young students struggling to understand it.  

As a freshman just arriving from Orange County, California, Yokoyama intended to enroll in the School of International Service. But something unexpected happened—she soon began to miss math. The following year, she enrolled in Calculus I. Yokoyama enjoyed her semester-long trek through derivatives, limits, and their applications so much that she decided to continue taking math courses. Certainly, this wasn't the route of a typical SIS major. This realization came when she sat down with Stephen Casey, one of American University's mathematics professors, and student advisors. Casey made his case clear; she belonged in American's mathematics and statistics department, and Yokoyama agreed.  

Under the guidance of Casey and now-Professor Emeritus I-Lok Chang, she excelled in her higher-level courses. She began her mathematical research career with Chang and became president of the American University Math Club in her senior year, and working as a tutor in AU's math lab. Little did Yokoyama know that her work at the math lab would foreshadow her future.  

After graduation, she faced the biggest issue for all seniors donning caps and gowns: the job market. She soon realized that many jobs in industries and at institutions where she could apply her skills, like the National Institutes of Health, required a graduate degree. Faced with a tough playing field, Yokoyama turned back to Casey, who would set her onto an unexpected career path. "Dr. Casey suggested I teach," recalls Yokoyama. "I hadn't considered it until he recommended it."  

Yokoyama began a full-time position in 2001 at Montgomery Blair High School, in Silver Spring, Maryland. She took to the classroom quickly and decided to pursue a Master's degree in teaching mathematics. In 2004, she graduated with her master's in math education from the Teachers College of Columbia University.  

With her degree in hand, Yokoyama accepted a teaching position at the prestigious all-girl independent Nightingale-Bamford School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she has been teaching for 6 years now. "I love my students, even the freshman who tried to pick a fight with me once," she jokes. "How can I help them learn better? How do I keep them interested in derivatives after they get accepted to college? How do I help them remember (a+b)² does not equal a² + b²? Mostly, I enjoy watching them grow as problem solvers and gain confidence in their mathematical abilities."  

adapted from "Taking Math to the Limit" by Shirin Karimi, literature and premedical studies '11, Catalyst, Fall 2009.