Originally posted September 1, 2005.
Actress Danica McKellar (The West Wing, The Wonder Years) is one serious math geek. Following the success of her best-selling book Math Doesn't Suck, McKellar authored a new pre-algebra survival guide Kiss My Math. Here, she tells us about her days as a student at UCLA, where she was inspired by classmates and developed a reputation as Hollywood's math wiz.
Name: Danica McKellar
Occupation: Actress/Math Education Activist
College attended: UCLA
Graduation date: June 1998
Academic awards and honors: Summa cum laude, "College Honors," "Departmental Highest Honors," invited to Phi Beta Kappa (I had never heard of it at the time, and when the letter came, I couldn't figure out who this "society" was who wanted $25 and I didn't respond. Oops!), and the only recipient of the "UCLA Department of Mathematics Sherwood Award."
Nickname: Dan-Dan (in grade school)
Favorite drink/midnight snack: Arnold Palmer/baby food
How/why did you choose your major?
Loved math classes. I was going to be a film major but then took a calculus class, finished the top of my class, and was hooked! For a while I thought about doing a double major but then realized that I could always go back and study filmmaking, and that now was the time to really focus and experience mathematics. I love "thinking" and I loved studying math!
Activities (sports, music, clubs, theater?)
Shakespeare group at UCLA, sorority (ADPi), tutored in the math department for two years.
Do you keep in touch with any of your college friends?
Yes! One of them just had a baby, in fact!!
What was your favorite hangout spot?
The Sculpture Garden, and my favorite place to study was the graduate lounge in the math building. Somehow I got a key even though I was an undergraduate! I actually still have the key. I think I always figured I'd come back. Not yet, but you never know...
Were you a bookworm or a slacker?
Bookworm—at my sorority I was the head of the study group program. ;)
Who was your role model when you were in college?
Jodie Foster—a successful scholar who also was a great actress/director and someone who started acting from a young age.
What was the biggest obstacle you overcame in college?
Getting people to transition from referring to me as "Winnie Cooper" and to start referring to me as "that girl who helped me pass calculus." (I was a calculus tutor for two years in the department). Sure enough, it happened! And in fact, when I was at Sundance in 2003, I got to a party that had a HUGE line, filled with all sorts of celebrities. It didn't seem to matter—no one was getting in. Then the bouncer spotted me and pulled me over. He said, "Hey, you're the reason I passed Math 32B—get your friend and come on in!" That was pretty darn cool.
Tell us about one thing you did in college that still makes you proud.
Besides the tutoring? Co-authoring original research with colleague Brandy Winn and Prof. L. Chayes. It's titled, "Percolation and Gibbs States Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models in Z2." But now it's referred to as the "Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem." The full paper can be found at DanicaMcKellar.com.
What did you like most and least about your school?
The most: The love of knowledge that permeates the math department. People just stop in the hallways to discuss interesting math problems...lots of professors in a cloud of imagination and thought, wandering around with glassy looks in their eyes, always ready to have their brains expanded with a new way of looking at things. Academia seems unhampered, in many ways, by the politics of corporate America. It was blissful.
The least: UCLA is so big that some of the classes (not the math ones) seemed impersonal.
Tell us one way in which college changed you.
It gave me a chance to reinvent myself, and to value myself for something other than being on television.
If you could go back, what about college would you do differently?
I can't think of anything. I got very lucky with great teachers and wonderful classmates like Brandy!
Schools applied to:
UCLA, USC, Berkeley, Reed
Did you get in?