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Best & Brightest: Math Whiz Has Sights Set on Making ‘Someone’s Life Better’

Watching the long-running legal drama “Matlock” as a kid, Talea Mayo developed a fascination for the inductive reasoning and problem solving that were common in the show’s episodes.

“I loved the way all the pieces added up into a verdict. I have come to realize these are the same things I love about mathematics. They really aren’t all that different,” says Mayo, Grambling University’s class of 2008 valedictorian.

The 22-year-old’s first semester at Grambling was far from ordinary – the then-criminal justice major signed up for Calculus III, and her professor quickly noticed her young face in a sea of older students.

Noting Mayo’s talent, the professor encouraged Mayo to change her major to mathematics.

That she did, as well as play the flute for The Tiger Marching Band and The Concert Band throughout her four years at Grambling.

This involvement, she says, kept her focused. “Being in the band meant I had no time for games. I had just enough time to go to class, go to practice, do my work, and rest. My studies never suffered because it simply wasn’t an option,” Mayo says.

Mayo also enrolled in the Minority Access for Research Careers (MARC) program, which pushed her to work hard to do more than she thought she could do. It also became a large motivating factor in her choice to pursue a Ph.D. 

The Colorado native’s scholarship, along with her perfect score on the mathematical portion of the GRE, was a contributing factor to her acceptance in multiple applied mathematics graduate programs, including at Rice University, Harvard, The University of Iowa, The University of Colorado at Boulder, and The University of Texas.

While at Grambling, Mayo held several internships, including one at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and MSRI Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP). Mayo’s experience at MSRI helped her understand the difference between pure theoretical and applied mathematics.

“I really enjoy problem solving. I enjoy math in itself, but it is important to me that it be applied to real life problems,” she says.

Mayo says many young people today shy away from the challenging STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines because their teachers often send the message that it is not important to excel in “hard science” fields and do not stress the application of these fields.

“When educators can’t provide this information, it pushes (students) away,” she says. “When we have more educators teaching kids how math and science factor into the mechanics of the car they want to buy and the mp3 they’re listening to, I think results will follow.”

This August, Mayo will begin working for her Ph.D. at The University of Texas’ highly-ranked computational and applied mathematics program, and for Mayo it still seems surreal.

“I had a dream the other day that my friends and I were getting ready for graduation and when I woke up I had to remind myself that it already happened,” she says.

One of those friends, Soteria Brown, says being around Mayo would make anyone want to excel in life. “Just the way she speaks is encouraging,” Brown says.

During her graduation ceremony in May, Mayo told her peers, “We came here with a purpose in mind,” and “today, that purpose has been fulfilled.”

Mayo says the purpose of graduating college sounds simple, but she has seen a lot of people lose sight of that goal. “I fulfilled my purpose by keeping my eyes on the prize. I dismissed anything that interfered with my goal,” she says.

Grambling taught her humility, she adds. “One day it occurred to me that my school exists solely because somebody wanted and worked for the opportunity to have an education he was being denied. Things like that really make you stop and appreciate the opportunities that are out there now.”

Ultimately, Mayo would like a career in research and to do work that has an impact.

“I want to earn a Ph.D. and then I want to make someone’s life better through it. Maybe that means contributing to an accurate hurricane prediction, or maybe it means modeling treatments for tumors in cancer patients, but, as long as I can see the implications of my work, I will be happy.”

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