The IEOR Alumni Spotlight is a series highlighting IEOR alumni from all over the world. This month we share Nancy Blachman’s journey to increase access to mathematics for girls and the underserved.

Nancy facilitating the Trapezoidal (Staircase) Numbers activity at the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival at UC Berkeley. - January 26, 2014
Nancy facilitating the Trapezoidal (Staircase) Numbers activity at the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival at UC Berkeley

Nancy’s interest in recreational mathematics was fostered by her father, whose area of specialty was mathematical physics. In junior high, her favorite pastime was exploring mathematical puzzles and problems, many suggested by her father.

When Nancy began high school in her hometown of Palo Alto, California, she and many other students were given qualifying problem sets for the Saint Mary’s Mathematics Competition (SMMC) hosted in Moraga, California. Nancy anxiously awaited the problem sets every few months the same way others anxiously await the latest Colbert Report.

About her experience, Nancy says, “I have fond memories of my father asking questions that helped me to figure out ways of approaching problems and solving them. When I solved a Saint Mary’s math qualifying problem, I felt a sense of accomplishment.” Each year in high school, Nancy earned herself a spot in the competition each spring, which led to her sustained interest in math.

For many, mathematics serves as a gateway to other scientific and technological fields. After earning a B.Sc. in applied mathematics from the University of Birmingham (U.K.), Nancy went on to get an M.S. in operations research from UC Berkeley. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Nancy worked at Bell Labs, got an M.S. in computer science from Stanford, and then taught courses at Stanford, authored several books, and founded Variable Symbols, a company that specializes in consulting and training in technical software.

In 2007, after discovering that the Saint Mary’s Math Competition had been discontinued, Nancy aimed to resurrect the SMMC as an accessible, non-competitive festival. She envisioned there being two dozen or so tables with math problems, puzzles, games, and activities, each with a facilitator, encouraging and guiding students who needed or desired assistance, in a similar way to how her father had encouraged and guided her. Since the Festival was meant to nurture students’ interest in math, she wanted to let them work individually or in groups, as they preferred. Nancy was able to realize her vision by establishing the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival. Named after renowned mathematician and UC Berkeley alum Julia Robinson, the festival features a variety of activities and problem sets, with the ultimate goal of inspiring more students, including girls and the underserved, to have fun playing with mathematics. Response to the festival was fast and enthusiastic, and the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival has now made its way around half the United States and on every continent except Antarctica. To date, the festival has served more than 100,000 students.

Nancy’s passion for STEM does not prevent her from deeply caring about other causes — one of which is film and media, especially documentary films. Most recently, Nancy co-produced the Oscar-nominated Lead Me Home, a poignant short film highlighting the human experience of homelessness by telling the real-life stories of unhoused people living on the streets of the United States.

Nancy is also a longtime supporter and advocate of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. As Advisory Board Chair she has been instrumental in informing the department’s strategic direction.

You will often hear people talk about the variety of career options when you have a degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. Class of 1979 alum Nancy Blachman proves this point with the story of her career.

Nancy at the 2022 Oscars. - March 27, 2022/27/2022