A Math Whiz Studying Human Connection
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:40
Becky Danning '16
“It’s a little embarrassing that my senior math thesis is that accessible,” Danning joked. “But I like that it has real-world applications.”

A Wise and Caring Voice
Becky Danning loves people, and people love Becky Danning. That sentence may sound rather trite, but it truly describes Danning’s relationship with the world around her. When I tell my friends that I’m writing a profile on Danning, they ooh and ah in a way that would make her incredibly uncomfortable. But these reactions make plenty of sense when you observe Danning, whether she’s surrounded by friends on the first floor of Frost or inspiring an awed silence while singing at Coffee House or a Sabrinas concert.

Danning is one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. I first spoke to her about writing this profile after overhearing her dryly talking about how she thinks she dresses like a child in jean shorts and hiking boots. While her kindness, intelligence and wisdom make her far from childlike.

When I interviewed her, Danning asked me multiple times why she was even chosen to be interviewed. I replied that both the math and music departments recommended her. When I told her about past profiles I wrote for The Student, she said, “I’m not as cool as them!” What she doesn’t realize is that people will be saying the same thing about her in the future.

Amherst’s Surprises
Aside from her deeply genuine modesty, Danning clearly cares and thinks critically about how people relate to one another. She came to Amherst in part for something different from her hippie high school in Brookline, Massachusetts. She said she was pleasantly surprised when the school was less preppy than she expected. Even so, when she first got to the college, it bothered her that there were so many people who knew exactly where they fit in — on sports teams, for instance — or knew exactly what they wanted to do. In her senior year, it seems like Danning thrives on working outside of groups and connecting with people as individuals.

Her favorite thing about Amherst is her peers. She appreciates the music scene at Amherst because its broadness brings people from different walks of life together. She has also worked to connect people from a range of groups. Even while she was working on a math thesis this spring, Danning somehow found the time to start a blind date project for fun in which she set Amherst students up on dates at local coffee shops. She did this based on her own observations about their compatibility and a short questionnaire. The questionnaire featured questions about rational decision-making and quirky multiple choice questions such as “If I were to travel from Massachusetts to California without restrictions on time or money, I would travel by: plane, train, bicycle or car.”

She did not necessarily intend to have these dates lead to relationships, although this did happen in at least one case. Rather, she hoped to create opportunities for Amherst students to meet their peers one-on-one.

“I see a lot of potential for friendship and connection in the drunken bathroom conversations you may have on a Saturday night, and one of my dreams is to just talk with everyone for an hour. I enjoy when people talk about themselves,” she said.

In tune with her receptiveness to other people, she asked me to have someone who does not know her very well offer observations about her as a reference for this article. But of course those close to her also had glowing things to say.

Individuals and Networks
Danning has an innate sensitivity to understanding how people connect, and further studied group dynamics in her math thesis titled, “Measuring Centrality in Undirected Value Networks.” One of her goals for the thesis was to predict people’s behavior in a social network with her background in math and psychology research. Over the course of the year, she studied how real life social networks function by using an algorithm program she wrote in Python to find people with the strongest networking abilities. She wanted to extend this beyond a binary study of social networks like those on social media, where network analysis simply looks at whether or not people are friends. A key part to her study was looking at communication among different members of a group. “You only have one friend in that network, and that person decides to stop talking to you — then all of the sudden you have no more access to that network,” Danning said. “The person who has the ability to cut you off has a lot of social influence in that way.”

Her study of the delicate workings of friendship makes plenty of sense within the small, tightly-knit fabric of Amherst. Danning was one of few STEM majors who designed her own thesis instead of conducting research with a professor, which forced her to be more creative. She lamented the fact that while the math department largely has gender parity in its classes and majors, observably fewer women in the department write theses.

Her decision to use math in a socially relevant and accessible way attests to many of Danning’s social and academic tendencies. She thought she was done with math after high school AP Calculus stress. Yet, she was pleasantly surprised and inspired after finding that it could apply to the real world in a practical way after taking Linear Algebra with Applications with Professor Tanya Leise.

“What I really like about my thesis is the extent to which it’s accessible to people who aren’t math majors,” Danning said. “It’s a little embarrassing that my senior math thesis is that accessible, but I really like that it has real-world applications.”

Danning is extraordinary in her ability to connect what she has gained from her education to support other people. She has a distinctive intelligence in how she sees the potential for a continuum across academic and social environments. It is almost too perfect that after graduation, she will be doing policy-oriented data analysis dedicated to improving public wellbeing at a company called Mathematica in Washington, D.C.

Professor Harris Daniels of the math department, remembered each class Danning has taken with him and praised her intellectual and emotional maturity. “Throughout every course that I taught Becky she has shown me that she is capable of constantly performing at the highest level regardless of the challenges she faces,” Daniels said. “From everything that I have seen from Becky over the past three years, I am certain that she is destined for great things.”

Energizing Leadership and Friendship
It is inspiring to find a senior who does not feel at least somewhat jaded about the Amherst community. When asked for a piece of advice she’d give to underclassmen, she said, “Commit to things and try being less ironic.” Danning notes that in her first two years, she befriended many older students who were fairly checked out from the campus, before she went abroad to the Netherlands. Wearing her Maastricht University sweatshirt during our interview, she explained how formative study abroad was for her. It was freeing to be in a place with fleeting relationships, where she did not have to think long-term as she did at a small school like Amherst. “I believe in cutting things off while they’re good instead of letting them die,” she said.

These experiences revitalized her. When she came back, she committed to enjoying her community more. While she does remember each song she has performed, one of her proudest moments at Amherst was making an intramural soccer team for many people who had never played soccer before. The group dramatically improved their soccer skills and even organized a formal event. In Danning’s classic humble fashion, she asked if one of the “action shot” photos printed in this profile could be a group photo of the team.

When I asked if anything has steadily grown on her nerves over the years here, she struggled to find her main flaw with the college, saying, “I’m an optimist.” Ultimately, she said that her main source of disillusionment has been noticing the inability to make progress in addressing issues of racial discrimination on campus.

Danning’s warmth and dedication resonate broadly. After leaving Amherst, she wants to remain committed to going out of her way to meet those around her with different views who do not conform to just one experience. As summarized by close friend and fellow Sabrina, Karla Rondon ’18, “Becky goes out of her way to make those around her — close friends or not — feel welcomed, comfortable and appreciated. She is the kind of person you want around during a crisis, a celebration and a boring, rainy day.”