When she was 11-years-old, Holly Swisher decided that getting a PhD in math would be the most fun, challenging career she could imagine. And although she wasn’t fully aware of gender issues at the time, she had a sense that girls didn’t usually pursue careers in math.
“I felt very fierce competitiveness with guys at anything that was considered masculine,” as a pre-teen, she said. “I felt the desire to get respect in that way.”
Competitiveness is a theme in Swisher’s life. The assistant professor of mathematics is also a roller derby player and trainer for the local team “Sick Town Derby Dames,” who goes by the derby name “Toxic Spill.” But while she’s surrounded by fierce women at the rink, in the classroom she faces a different challenge, that of succeeding in a male-dominated field.
Swisher was at the top of her class in math through high school. It came naturally to her, just like classical music did, so when she graduated a year early from high school, she had to make a choice, pursue music or math.
“I couldn’t imagine doing either for eight hours a day,” she said.
She ended up at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, just far enough from her family to get some distance. But although the school had a great music program, their math department wasn’t all that she was hoping for. So after a year, she transferred to University of Oregon. There, she discovered that math really was her ruling passion.
But after years of everything coming easy, suddenly in her third year at UO, she realized that her higher level courses were becoming very challenging. She decided instead of graduating on time, she wanted to stay one more year to prepare further for graduate school. She gained new confidence through a post-doctoral professor in the department, a woman with a fierce sense of independence who helped give her advice on being a woman in math. She was the first person who gave Swisher a realistic sense that she could succeed in graduate level math.
“I was tired of people having too much confidence in me,” Swisher said, but her mentor assured her that she could at least get a master’s degree.
Swisher was accepted into graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. Self-doubt, which had often plagued Swisher before, became especially strong toward the end of her program. She soon realized that male students had the same kind of doubts, but masked them better than she could. But she survived, and landed a post-doc at University of Ohio in Columbus. There she found herself looking for a sport that would give her an outlet for her stress, and feed her competitive nature. When a friend suggested roller derby, she suddenly found her dream sport.
“I said ‘Sign me up!”
It took awhile to get over the fear of being injured, but Swisher’s experience playing ice hockey and even her years in dance helped her quickly adjust to the sport. She also liked the camaraderie of the women, as well as the freedom to express aggression in a positive, and downright exhilarating way.
When Swisher landed a tenure-track position at OSU, she tried to find a way to keep derby in her life, but didn’t have time to commute to Portland or Eugene for practice. So earlier this year, when she was contacted by faculty research assistant LaRae Wallace about starting a derby team in Corvallis, she was thrilled.
“I’ve been waiting for you!” she told Wallace.
The team is slowly growing, and while competitions are a long way off, Swisher is relieved to be back in derby again.
“Things have been infinitely better,” with derby in her life, she said. “For my work as well. It makes me really excited to do my work. Right now I feel very optimistic about both.”
~ by Theresa Hogue
The newly forming women’s flat-track roller derby league, Sick Town Derby Dames, has a number of Oregon State University connections, including assistant professor of mathematics Holly Swisher. Here is a list of some of the other active OSU-linked team members.
Name: Natasha Cerruti
Derby name: Smack Dapus
OSU connection: Botany and Plant Pathology graduate student
Name: Becki Loving
Derby name: BioHazard
OSU connection: 2006 bachelor of science in Human Development and Family Science, now applying to graduate school at OSU
Name: LaRae Wallace
Derby name: Brick Wallace
OSU connection: Faculty research assistant in the Botany Department
Name: Melissa Edwards
Derby name: Undecided
OSU connection: Human Resources Specialist for the Employee Relations, Classification and Compensation Team.
Name: Nichole Havranek
Derby Name: Pending
OSU connection: Memorial Union Business Office, Accounting Technician
Editor’s note: LIFE/Work is an on-going feature focusing on OSU people with unusual job responsbilities or leisure-time interests.