Calculus and the coronavirus

Photo by Shiana Joy Photography.
Tiffany Nicholson holds her cat, Ripley, for a Christmas card photo taken in Fairbanks in October 2021. Nicholson plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in fall 2024.

A note from the Aurora editor:

In its more than 20 years as a campus literary journal at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ice Box has taken a few different forms. It began as a zine in the late 1990s, morphed into a print journal, became a literary website, and then was revived as an annual journal starting with Vol. 15 in 2021.

Not all universities have their own publication featuring undergraduate voices and original art. In collaboration with many faculty members, writers and artists along the way, our students at UAF have proved to be tenacious, working together to solicit content and raise funds to publish Ice Box.

Vol. 19 of Ice Box, which featured cover design by Jade Lamoreaux, was published in summer 2023. The journal was distributed to faculty, students, local high schools, statewide arts organizations and beyond. Vol. 20 will be released in the summer 2024. Our appreciation to author Tiffany Nicholson for providing permission to share her story in this issue of the Aurora magazine.

By Tiffany Nicholson

The start of 2020 was promising. I had spent the greater part of the previous year in the math lab of the UAF Chapman Building relearning the algebra and trigonometry I had forgotten over the previous 10 years.

I sweated over word problems involving oddly shaped gardens and the subtle but distinct differences between trigonometric identities, but mostly I just literally sweated. A phenomenon unique to the Chapman Building is that the thermostat is quite possibly set on Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, but I persevered much as a pilgrim does and finally felt prepared to take calculus.

I had the notion that understanding calculus was only for the predestined few. However, I could not ignore the fact that precalculus and specifically trigonometry had ignited in me a desire, bordering on an obsession, for math. Perhaps in a flurry of mathematical confidence, I tossed out the idea of a biology degree in favor of possibly pursuing engineering. This, of course, was dependent on one specific constraint: whether I made an A in calculus.

As spring semester 2020 started, you might have well thought it was Black Friday and the UAF Math Department was giving away free graphing calculators. I showed up 35 minutes early to that first calculus class, eager to prove myself and nervous that I wasn’t worthy. However, like an Olympic weightlifter who rigorously practices the fundamentals of a movement before adding weight, my prerequisite mathematical training established a solid foundation as I entered the world of derivatives and integrals. The initial ideas of calculus came easily (for the most part), and, when I scored 99 percent on my first exam, I felt unstoppable.

However, the rapid spread of COVID-19 quickly dissipated that initial excitement, and, as if my eyes were held open with specula, I was forced to watch as the universe put my neatly bulleted life plan through a paper shredder. To my horror, I realized the rest of the semester (and subsequently my entire engineering math sequence) would be online.

In the pandemic, my focus became simple: This was survival, both physically and academically. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had the innate ability to morph me, in record time, from a motivated, full-time employed student who kept an excellent study routine into an unemployed, stretchy pants-wearing, Stardew Valley-playing procrastinator. The rest of the semester, I woefully trudged through video lectures and scoured the internet for homework help, all the while riding a smooth curve downward in terms of material comprehension. But with sheer determination and some guidance from the omnipotent YouTube, I came out of my first calculus class with an A and nervously submitted the paperwork changing my degree to engineering.

My first lessons in engineering would come not from the classroom but from my personal life. Immediately in my second semester of calculus, I became acquainted with the concept of entropy (affectionately known as chaos). Much like the clockwise trajectory of a helix centered along the z-axis (a downward spiral), my personal life spiraled into disorder. Three events happened: a devastating break-up, a fugitive cat and a lost toenail. Everything seemed to be falling apart. It wasn’t soon after that first week of classes that I had a solid cry in the engineering study lab (which in hindsight might be a rite of passage) and realized I was actually thankful classes weren’t in person.

Personal growth is rarely as linear as we wish. Instead, it models an exponential function where we maintain a steady curve before witnessing a dramatic increase in ability. When we work tirelessly without any noticeable results, it’s known colloquially as the valley of despair. By my third semester of calculus, I might have patched together my personal life and corralled a rather elusive feline (who showed up looking rather befuddled as to why I was so distraught after her month-long absence), but mathematical frustration ran rampant, and “imposter syndrome” was abundant as I trudged through my own valley of despair. Without access to the traditional classroom or in-person tutoring, I felt like I was fighting the mythological multi-headed Hydra, conquering one mathematical concept only to find it had exposed more weaknesses.

In the end, the very thing I thought would be my undoing (online classes) was teaching me a very valuable lesson, one applicable to both life and the classroom. As Jim Mattis puts it: “You don’t always control your circumstances, but you can control your response.”

I began my own strategic campaign. Mathematical solutions that once were just a means to an end became nothing less than works of art, because that’s how I made it appealing. Abstract concepts that seemed vague and inapplicable at first glance became personable and often comical tales once you had historical context for the conditions under which they were developed.

Online classes might never be my preferred means of learning, but the chaos of 2020 taught me how to adapt my learning style to a rapidly changing situation. I wouldn’t say it was the best of times or the worst of times, but I did build a lot of character, and that has made all the difference.