When I first heard about Iris Mack [pictured left] from a friend and colleague of hers, two words struck me: Ph.D. and M.B.A. Looking through her brief biography on the Web site of her company, Phat Math, I found it difficult to define her professionally because of her varied career (see box). When I interviewed her over the phone, I learned that she wouldn't have it any other way. Mack asserts, "I've not seen any one profession which would allow me to do as much as I've done and continue to do more than math."

Education Is the Key

Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, with more than 10 full, step-, and half-siblings, Mack developed a myriad of interests. She excelled in music, dance, and sports, as well as academics. "My problem is I've always liked too many things at one time," Mack told me.

With mathematics, however, Mack found her calling. As a high school student, she interned at NASA's Michoud Operations (just outside of New Orleans). After being named class valedictorian, she won an academic scholarship to Vassar College, where she earned a dual bachelor's degree in mathematics and mathematical physics with honors in 1976.

During her career, Mack participated in many internship programs that helped enrich her academic experience. At Vassar, she interned at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a few years later she became a research fellow for AT&T Bell Laboratories.

In 1980 she went on to earn a master's degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, and she completed her Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Harvard University in 1986. Soon after, Mack shifted from engineering and physics to finance and received her Executive M.B.A. from the London Business School as a Sloan Fellow in 1999.

IRIS MACK

Experience

  • Hillel Academy, North Miami Beach; Lecturer in Mathematics, Finance, and Entrepreneurship Courses, 2004-present

  • Phat Math Inc., Boston, Massachusetts/Miami, Florida; Founder, CEO, 2002-present

  • Harvard Management Co., Boston, Massachusetts; Quantitative Analyst/Financial Engineer, 2002

  • Enron, Houston, Texas/London, England; Manager, 2001

  • Dealcomposer.com, Seoul, South Korea/Concord, California; Vice President, 2000

  • Investment Banque BNP Paribas, London, England; Executive in Derivatives Structured Product Group, 1999-2000

  • Associated Technologists Inc., San Francisco, California/Atlanta, Georgia; Founder, CEO, 1991-1998

  • Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia; Associate Professor, 1995-1998

  • University of San Francisco, McLaren School of Management, San Francisco, California; Adjunct Professor, 1993-1994

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Lecturer, 1988-1991

Awards

  • Boeing A. D. Welliver Fellow (one of 10 selected nationwide)

  • Project Kaleidoscope Faculty for the 21st Century

  • Selected as one of the Top 50 Minority Women in Science and Engineering by the National Technical Association of Scientists and Engineers

  • NASA Astronaut Semifinalist

  • Second African-American woman to earn a doctorate in Applied Mathematics from Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences

  • Ebony magazine Young Achievers award

  • Obtained a patent entitled "Coupled Modes With Random Propagation Constants" while researching optical fibers at AT&T Bell Labs

  • Honorary Vassar Fellowship

Professor Mackamatix

Right now, Mack's passion is stressing the importance of math to youth as the CEO of Phat Math Inc. She founded the company in 2002 and released the "edutainment" book, Mama Says, "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees!" , in January 2004. The book, which is being used throughout the United States and some African nations, is the first in a new series that uses ethnically diverse, animated characters (including her alter ego, Professor Mackamatix) to show adolescents practical math applications, particularly related to finance.

Although Mack is new to edutainment publishing, she is not new to teaching. She has taught at Clark Atlanta University (CAU), the University of San Francisco, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This fall she will also be lecturing in mathematics, finance, and entrepreneurship at Hillel Academy in North Miami Beach, Florida.

When some of her students at CAU struggled in her classes because they didn't have the necessary background, she realized that there's no way you can try to catch up after a certain point. That teaching experience sparked the idea she'd had for a long time: creating products that make math more accessible to students, especially adolescents. That is why she is reaching out to children at the middle school and high school level now to give them the mathematics tools they'll need to thrive in college.

Mack also realized that she could help teachers who lack professional mathematical experience. According to a study from the National Council of Teachers in Math, 80% to 90% of the nation's math teachers weren't trained as mathematicians. And parents who hated math as students could also use assistance when helping their children with their math homework, she says. "For me, this is even more important than what I did before," Mack declares.

Overcoming Prejudices and Phobias

In addition to improving adolescents' mathematical skills, Mack also wants to combat math phobia and the negative stereotypes of mathematicians, especially the stereotype that African Americans cannot be mathematicians. Mack herself has experienced bias from many different people. During an interview at a major corporation, a white executive told her, "This résumé cannot be true." He didn't see how she could have accomplished what she had, as an African-American woman, when he had failed to finish his Ph.D. in physics at a less regarded school.

In another instance, an African-American woman who read Mack's résumé told her that she had imagined Mack as a huge, unkempt woman. The woman likely felt that a mathematician had to be unsociable and unattractive, but Mack is far from resembling this unflattering portrait. In 1998 she was named one of Glamour magazine's "Top Ten Working Women," and before that, in 1978, one of its "Top Ten College Students."

When dealing with prejudices, "you negate everything they were probably brought up to believe in," Mack says. "You just tend to deal with them as you need to and not let it get you down." Fortunately, most people have been supportive of Mack's efforts and achievements. And more important, she places more stock in what she thinks about herself than what others may think about her. "I like what I do and I've had so much fun that I don't care what people think. My work is intellectually stimulating and legal. I make a living traveling all over the world and meet all these interesting people."

Mack believes those personal and professional benefits are available to anyone who wants to pursue an education in mathematics. The logic and reasoning skills that it teaches can be applied across a variety of fields. She believes that everyone should take as many math courses as possible and encourages those who are interested but unsure about pursuing math to research and contact those who have come from math backgrounds and ask them how they use what they've learned.

Now, the Reward

Mack is living proof that a mathematics education can be used to its fullest potential. Now, as an entrepreneur, she is able to reap the benefits with a flexible schedule. "The beauty of it is no one day is the same. And I like it like that. I control my own time." (The day before our interview, she was at the beach.) Some days she concentrates on her consulting business by looking at spreadsheets and legal documents or structuring energy and technology investment deals. Other days she works on her book series, talking to publishers, agents, and marketers, or lectures at Hillel Academy.

Whether she's working out, partying, visiting friends in Europe, or spending the day at the beach near her Miami home, Mack has the time to enjoy every aspect of her life. "I feel I've got the best of all worlds. I feel like, in a way, I deserve it because I worked hard, studied hard, went to some difficult schools, and got some pretty high-powered degrees. Still, I feel blessed."

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.