“A class is like a choreography”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Linear algebra professor Kathryn Hess Bellwald teaches mathematics at EPFL for over 25 years, and she has been named best teacher in the Life Sciences Engineering section.

Kathryn Hess Bellwald arrived at EPFL at the age of 24 – with three postdocs already under her belt. A US native, she obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin when she was just 17 and a PhD from MIT when she was 21. Today she works as a linear algebra professor and an expert in algebraic topology. But despite her precocious career, mathematics didn’t interest her much when she was first introduced to the subject in elementary school. It wasn’t until the age of 12 that she discovered the potential and beauty of this science when she took part in the Mathematical Talent Development Project (MTDP) – the local equivalent of EPFL’s Euler program, which she helped create. “A mathematician spoke to us about the different variants of geometry, and I realized that it’s possible to change the rules and play around with the structures. I found that fascinating,” says Professor Hess Bellwald. In college, she decided to major in astrophysics. “But one of my Bachelor’s professors said she didn’t think I had a natural instinct for physics; that I made good grades only because I excelled in math. So I decided to change majors. Her honesty did me a big favor.”

Today passionate about “beautiful structures,” Professor Hess Bellwald has devoted her career to mathematics and is currently studying applications in neuroscience – most notably for the Blue Brain Project. She has been teaching mathematics with the same tireless energy for over 25 years to majors in math as well as life sciences engineering. And this year, she has been named best teacher in the Life Sciences Engineering section. “I try to continually improve my teaching methods. To me, a good teacher always asks herself how she can be more effective. It’s essential to be engaged with your students and put yourself in their shoes.”

Dancing with a chalkboard

Teaching the fundamentals of linear algebra to some 200 first-year students from a range of backgrounds – and who may have mixed feelings about mathematics – is no mean feat. But Professor Hess Bellwald takes it in stride. “Life sciences students need to see how a given topic will be useful to them, so I try to tie it back to their field. I also bring in a postdoc from their section to give concrete examples of how linear algebra can be applied.”

Every week Professor Hess Bellwald gives students an online quiz to see if they have learned the material just covered, but in the classroom she teaches the old-fashioned way: on a chalkboard. “That lets me adjust my lessons as I go based on how students respond. A class is like a choreography – you have to follow the rhythm.” Professor Hess Bellwald now has her choreography down to a T, but still remembers how hard it was starting out. “Talk about baptism by fire! I had to fill in for a professor at the last minute. There I was, a young woman, pregnant with my second child, standing in front of 200 students – 90% of whom were male. It wasn’t easy to assert my authority.”

Professor Hess Bellwald hasn’t experienced sexism during her career, but she still makes an effort to show that mathematics is just as much a woman’s field as a man’s. She encourages girls to pursue careers in this field since women are still underrepresented. And she sets a good example, deftly combining a successful academic career with raising four children. Her hard work has been rewarded by lots of positive feedback from her students. “That’s especially gratifying when you’ve spent a lot of time preparing a lesson. I don’t think students realize just how much their positive and negative comments affect us.”