Kelsey Houston-Edwards Embarks on Math Mission via YouTube

Kelsey Houston-Edwards is a AAAS Mass Media Fellow working on a new series on mathematics with PBS. Credit: PBS

Kelsey Houston-Edwards had a hard time choosing between careers in math and philosophy. Math won out, but Houston-Edwards' nexus of interests comes in handy in the new YouTube weekly program, "Infinite Series," which she began hosting for PBS Digital Studios in the fall of 2016.       

A high school dropout, now a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Houston-Edwards writes her own presentations, about eight minutes each, which are thoughtful, challenging, and based on ideas more than numbers.

"My secret mission, what I want in every episode, is to explore some depth in math that might be unexpected — math that's unsolved, or recently solved, or impossible to solve. I'd like to push people a little bit to take on difficult topics," she said.

Edwards-Houston came to her present extracurricular gig after a summer spent as a 2016 AAAS Media Fellow with NOVA Next, a digital publication of NOVA, the PBS popular-science television series. She had long been attracted to the idea of writing for a lay audience about math, and produced a dozen posts for NOVA Next on science topics, such as an exploration of  revolutionary new uses for ultrasound. Founded in 1974, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship provides STEM-degree-seeking graduate students with the opportunity to explore science journalism careers, and to learn to communicate effectively about science topics with the public.

Meanwhile, Digital Studios, which offers 15 original web series on science, arts, culture, and other topics, was asking its audience in a survey, "What subject should we address next?" The answer was overwhelming, says Lauren Saks, Digital Studios' director of programming, whose shows get about 30 million monthly views altogether: Give us a challenging math show, please. Saks says Houston-Edwards has the right "personality, expertise and interest in the online community" to rock a show like "Infinite Series," which uses humor and fun graphics to leaven the meaty content and surprise the viewer.

The show will run weekly, indefinitely. Houston-Edwards goes to New York City every two weeks to tape shows. In one early episode, she considered the question of whether any two people in the world could have exactly the same number of hairs on their bodies. (The answer is yes.) That led to a discussion of the Pigeonhole Principle, which explains how to divide possibilities into categories into which every single possibility will fit. The show was catnip for viewers, garnering 78 thoughtful comments in a week. Feedback in general to the first episodes has been positive, with plenty of suggestions for future topics — ordinals, vectors, and the so-called mountain climbing problem were three.

Most "Infinite Series" viewers fall into the 25 to 34 age range, according to Saks. Houston-Edwards figures some of them may also be 14-year-old math enthusiasts; others may not have taken a science or math class in 40 years, but she sees them all as being "willing to push the limits."

"If there is one math myth I'd like to debunk, it's that math is a dead art that was handed to us 2,000 years ago, that the rules are set and the only thing we can do is to re-learn the same things over and over. Math is changing all the time, and more is being discovered about it now than ever before," she said.

Houston-Edwards took a winding road to becoming a Ph.D. candidate. She dropped out of high school in her hometown of San Diego after the 10th grade. She'd done all right academically, though she "didn't excel." She says she was "disenchanted with the experience" so the bargain she struck with her parents, both educators, was that she would go to a community college, which she hoped would be "a better fit." That didn't work out either, at least not right away. She embarked on a series of adventures, following friends to various places across the country, working jobs that included waitress and barista.

"I liked working," she said.

Houston-Edwards wound up in Ithaca, NY, at Tompkins Cortland Community College, where she found interesting classes, wonderful teachers, and a connection to Cornell University. "It clicked for me," she recalled. A couple of inspiring English classes with an alumna of Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, began a chain of events that led Houston-Edwards back across the country to enroll at Reed.

It wasn't easy at first, but she'd found a place that engaged her. "I spent a lot of time with tutors the first year," Houston-Edwards recalls, but she fell in love with both math and philosophy at Reed. "There was no shortage of challenges, in any direction," she said.

One of her most rewarding experiences was managing the Reed research nuclear reactor, which was run by undergraduate students. "I try to reassure people about the rigors of the training program," she laughs. The job "genuinely focused me when math classes were hard."

That was one of the things Houston-Edwards liked about math at Reed — it was hard. "I wanted to see what came next, all the time," adding, "I had the same thought about philosophy."

A rigorous 10-week summer math institute at Cornell University, in her old stomping grounds of Ithaca, NY, tipped the scales toward a career in math, and toward Cornell for graduate school. "I'd never done just math before," she said. It felt right. "I think what I love about it is the rationality."

To Houston-Edwards, the numbers are incidental: "What I like best about math is explaining it, ways to construct narratives out of it, ways to engage people. I like to think about how people think about it."