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Johns Hopkins Mathematician from B-N Breaks Barriers and Wins Research Grant

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Emily Riehl
Johns Hopkins University
Emily Riehl, left, is an associate professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

Bloomington-Normal native Emily Riehl found her passion early on. Before graduating University High School, her teachers recognized her gift in mathematics.

“One of my teachers, her name is Dr. Carol Benson, realized that I might want to become a mathematician a year or so before I did,” said Riehl. 

Taking her teacher’s advice, Riehl doubled up on courses at Illinois State University as a young high school student.

“And then I realized this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So I'm very grateful to her and everyone else for steering me in the right direction,” said Riehl.

The next chapter of Riehl’s life is nothing short of impressive. After high school, Riehl was accepted to Harvard, got her master’s degree at Cambridge University, her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and returned to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow.

Today, she is an associate mathematics professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"Neither Harvard nor Chicago had any female research faculty when I was a student there."

“I was very lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do for a career before I started college, and you know, that's not most people's experience. And I wanted to go to a school that I thought had the best undergraduate mathematics program, which is why I went to Harvard.”

Riehl’s achievements don’t end there. In January, she was the recipient of The President’s Frontier Award, a $250,000 grant awarded to one person for scholarly achievement. 

“It's a huge honor. The person who received the award last year was a well-renowned physicist, and to imagine myself in the company of people like that was a huge honor. And it was a complete surprise. You know, I knew I was one of the finalists, but I had no expectation of actually getting the award,” said Riehl.

The grant is used to fund the recipient’s research efforts. For Riehl, that is category theory.

“Mathematicians are in the business of proving theorems,” said Riehl. “Category theory is kind of a meta mathematical language that describes common patterns of mathematical thoughts. So I'd like to think of the work I'm doing is making it easier for mathematicians in related areas to prove the theorems that they're really after.”

Riehl and her female colleagues make up only 20% of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

“Neither Harvard nor Chicago had any female research faculty when I was a student there,” said Riehl.

But that didn’t deter Riehl from pursuing her dreams and promoting change. As a member of the LGTBQ community, she works to validate the many perspectives and identities that make up her classroom.

“This isn't something that comes up naturally in a mathematics classroom, but it is important to me to be out on campus so that my students know that there's an ally in the classroom,” said Riehl.

Through her teaching, accomplishments, and advocacy outside the classroom, Riehl is breaking barriers for women and LGBTQ individuals in STEM, providing her students a sense of belonging in the field.

FULL interview

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Jolie Sherman is a newsroom intern at WGLT. She joined WGLT in fall 2019.