What could a geometric group theory mathematician know about news writing? In the case of Yen Duong, a lot, thanks to her background and education. Duong is the recipient of the 2018 AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship, which places math and science doctorates in newsrooms around the country to enhance coverage of science-related news. She has pursued her passion for math and writing through the busiest times of her life.
For example, Duong launched regional conferences for women in mathematics, mentored undergrads, launched a blog called Baking and Math and gave birth to two children, all while she pursued her Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
According to Duong, her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, served as inspiration for her work ethic. Duong recalls seeing the hard work and sacrifice her parents had to make in their newly-adopted country. Despite having been an English teacher in Vietnam, Duong’s mother took on whatever work she could find. One of her first jobs in the U.S. was working as a cleaner in the hospital. “There was a lot of blood and vomit,” says Duong. She eventually got a job doing data entry for an insurance company and earned an associate’s degree while working and raising three children. Duong recalls seeing a photo of her mother holding her degree and holding her as a baby—an image that made a lasting impression upon her as a young child.
In middle school, Duong was accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Talented Youth in Mathematics Program, an accelerated program for students who are gifted in math. In high school, she wrote for the school’s newspaper as the entertainment editor. Duong’s affinity for the logic of math and the lyricism of literature and philosophy brought her to Yale for her undergrad. There, she majored in math and philosophy and graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s in mathematics and philosophy.
In the summer after graduating, Duong participated in the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education program, an endeavor founded in 1998 to bolster the ability of women and minority students in graduate math programs to successfully attain their degrees. “That summer was the first time in my life I was taught math by a woman,” said Duong.
She then went to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) to pursue her master’s degree in mathematics. At UCSB, she met her now-husband and received her master’s in 2012. Duong then went on to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to study geometric group theory. It was at UIC that Duong and a friend founded the Midwest Women in Mathematics Symposium, an conference for women in mathematics designed to strengthen the network of female mathematicians in the Midwest; today, this conference continues to be held at a different university each year.
In 2015, Duong and her husband moved to Austin, Texas, where he was working in the financial sector. There, she started another annual conference for women in math called the Texas Women in Mathematics Symposium. Just two years after Duong and her husband moved to Austin, their family had grown by two. In 2017, Duong defended her thesis, and her husband and two children relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. Amidst these major milestones, Duong continued to mentor young students, spearhead symposiums and write blogs on a wide-range of topics, including self-care, grief, stress relief, math and yes, baking.
The 2018 AAAS Fellowship came at an opportune time, when Duong was trying to figure out what to do next. “I was flailing in my stay-at-home mom phase and I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to work,” said Duong. When she got the call about the fellowship, she says she felt glee, relief and elation. “It was perfect for me,” said Duong.
AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows have worked at various media outlets around the country including National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcast Service (PBS). Duong started working as a science reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer. Her background as a mathematician helped her research and report for the North Carolina newspaper. From deep dives into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data to heroin statistics reports, Duong’s experience working with dense math research papers gave her the ability to translate math- and science-based findings into articles that could be understood by the public. She used her skills to write about topics like using polio to treat brain cancer and the latest in treatments for peanut allergies.
Today, Duong covers health care-related news for North Carolina Health News, a nonprofit news organization. She hopes to keep supporting math and science through her reporting and writing, and to inspire a love of facts and evidence-based reasoning in other people. “I’d like to make an impact in my community by keeping government and public health officials accountable, while amplifying the efforts of private citizens and nonprofits,” says Duong. As a mathematician journalist, Duong is in a prime position to advocate for facts and science, and like other science champions, is showing others the path to a better future, one story at a time.