University of Texas at Austin


Breaking Down Barriers in Mathematics - Profile Kate Pearce

By Rebecca Riley

Published Oct. 18, 2023

Kate Pearce

Kate Pearce is making waves in mathematics education from within the walls of Lockhart Correctional Facility. A dedicated advocate for diversity in mathematics, the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow is on a mission to transform the way that incarcerated women who have always considered themselves "bad at math" see both the subject and themselves. 

Kate earned her Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from North Carolina State University researching practical identifiability analysis: a mathematical process to assess whether model parameters can be uniquely determined from available data. This analysis helps researchers know which parameters in a complicated system can be reliably estimated, improving the validity and trustworthiness of their results. 

As an O’Donnell postdoc at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, she works with Per-Gunnar Martinsson, professor of mathematics, on randomized algorithms in numerical linear algebra. Her research accomplishments include the development of efficient error estimation methods for low-rank matrix approximations based on randomized sketching. She is also working on randomized compression of rank-structured matrices encountered in many scientific computing applications, such as sparse direct solvers for PDEs or covariance matrices in statistics. 

Kate's dedication to furthering diversity initiatives in the mathematical community was nationally recognized when she received the American Mathematical Society's Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Fellowship in 2020. She now is a volunteer instructor with the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI) at Lockhart Correctional Facility, where she teaches UT Austin math courses to incarcerated students, who not only have previously struggled with math but now also face the hardships of life behind bars. Her experiences here have provided her with a unique perspective on the transformative power of mathematics and the challenges of teaching within a correctional facility.

Every time Kate navigates the security checkpoints to enter the prison, she is met by women young and old who are eager to learn, demonstrating resilience and hope amid challenging circumstances. Kate's dedication to her students becomes evident from the moment they enter the classroom. She ensures they have the tools they need to learn and creates a positive and supportive learning environment. Her teaching philosophy revolves around building the confidence and problem-solving abilities of her burgeoning mathematicians, instilling a sense of freedom even within the confines of incarceration.

"I think a lot of academics are still seen in that ivory tower," muses the postdoc. "I don’t want to be seen like that at all. I want to be accessible and approachable, especially to my students."

Kate's approach to teaching goes beyond imparting mathematical knowledge: It's about building intuition. She is mindful of her language and explanations, ensuring she avoids triggering mental blocks and creates an environment where students can learn without anxiety. She illustrates the importance of math by providing real-world contexts and emphasizing the value of finding the "right answer" in a world full of problems without clear solutions. 

When she's not immersed in research or teaching, Kate channels her creativity into art. She's an avid painter and has augmented her artistic skills with metalworking in the past several years. She finds immense satisfaction in fabricating and welding to create unique sculptural pieces based on mathematical concepts, like Seifert surfaces or dual polyhedra. Kate also plays drums, a hobby she finds to be a great stress-reliever and a refreshing break from the strictures of the academic world.


Kate working on a new piece.

"I really honed my drumming skills during the pandemic," she says with a sly grin, thinking about her less-than-enthused neighbors. "Luckily, I've since moved into a house without shared walls."

For her, art and mathematics feed into each other. She notes, "It's unnatural to separate them...math is such a creative process." She’s taken this approach with her students by creating an elective course on art and mathematics, to help them connect with all of the mathematical beauty in the world. Each class focuses on a particular mathematical concept, and she leads the students in guided discussions of how the concept is echoed in art. For example, in a discussion on abstraction, she and the students built up the definitions of groups, rings, and fields intuitively from the integers and rationals, before exploring more abstract examples like symmetric groups or polynomial rings. They next looked at paintings by artists like Picasso, Braque, and Gris, exploring how they first developed their skills through realistic portraits and still lifes before moving into abstract work. 

I want to be accessible and approachable, especially to my students...and get both sides of their brains firing...connecting the mathematical beauty in the world.

— Kate Pearce

"Part of my goal with this class was to get both sides of students' brains firing," she says, dispelling the stereotype that math is simply about following formulas and equations. The course culminated in a gallery exhibit of the students' mathematically inspired artwork. Kate recently had an article of hers accepted by Notices of the American Mathematical Society that includes photos of her student’s work. In the article, she discusses her class and how the experience can inform better mathematics education and outreach. In the future, she hopes to expand TPEI's course offerings to make math education more accessible, currently teaching precalculus with the intention of going on to more advanced courses.

Kate’s dedication to art and music may have strained relations with her neighbors, but it also served as a lifeline during the quarantine that strained the wellbeing of many of her peers. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in her final year of graduate school, Kate and her colleagues recognized the new struggles faced by first-year students. In response, they designed a course providing guidance on finding a research advisor, passing qualifying exams, and other relevant resources.

Through her actions, Kate Pearce exemplifies the potential we all possess to create something beautiful – be it a mathematical theorem, a painting, or a metal sculpture. It's about embracing the creativity within us to forge connections and effect positive change.