Like many students, Emma Andrade can’t WAIT to be back on campus this fall for her classes. Now entering her junior year, she only had one full semester on campus before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted everyone to remote learning. Since then, quite a bit has changed for her.

Andrade, who graduated from Riverdale High School in 2019, started college as a physics major. But during the pandemic, she decided to switch her major to applied mathematics — math that’s used to solve real-world problems, she said, rather than pure theoretical math. 

She found that when she got stuck on a physics problem, she would get mad. But when she got stuck on a math problem, she would want to figure it out — “I just cared about it a lot more.”

So she switched. And that switch opened up some amazing possibilities for her. 

Andrade was awarded a prestigious Department of Defense Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transportation (SMART) scholarship, which offers students hands-on experience at one of over 200 of the nation’s most innovative laboratories across the Army, Navy, Air Force and larger Department of Defense. 

During summer internships, like the one Andrade will tackle next summer, SMART Scholars work directly with an experienced mentor, gaining valuable technical skills. And after graduation, Andrade will be able to go to work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Port Hueneme, south of Ventura.

“I was bored during the pandemic, on my computer and looking at research internship opportunities. And I found this online and I was like, ‘oh, that’s cool!’” she said excitedly. 

Even cooler when she found out in April that she had qualified for the distinguished honor.

The Department of Defense is the largest employer of scientists and engineers in the nation with nearly 300,000 STEM professionals. For over a decade, SMART has trained a highly skilled STEM workforce that competes with the industry’s evolving trends to support the next generation of science and technology for our nation.

Dr. Saeed Attar, director of the Smittcamp Family Honors College, praised Emma for her hard work in maintaining an excellent academic standing and acknowledged the mentorship of the faculty in the Department of Mathematics in guiding Emma through her educational path.

Andrade credits two math professors in particular for inspiring her major shift to mathematics — Dr. Robert Arnold and Dr. Katherine Kelm.

“Emma was the top student in an unusually strong Math 111 (Transition to Advanced Mathematics) class,” Kelm said. “She often stayed after class to ask deeper questions and always struck me as very driven and diligent in her studies. She never did just the minimum but instead made sure she understood the material deeply. … It was a joy to have her in class.”

Kelm encouraged students in her class to “act like a mathematician,” which Andrade said means being involved. “It’s someone who cares about math and wants to solve its problems, and doing things outside of school that also foster your passion for math.”

Andrade said “acting like a mathematician” for her was what inspired her to search out undergraduate research opportunities that she could do in the summer. In addition to the one she’ll do next summer, she just completed one with four other students, collaborating virtually on coding theory and linear algebra through Clemson University in South Carolina.

On the first day of class when she met Arnold, Andrade said he told her, “I’m going to convert you into a math major. I’m going to mentor you.”

“And I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so. That’s not going to happen,” Andrade said. “And he said, ‘I promise you, you’ll be a math major.’”

With a student population of over 25,000, coming to Fresno State was quite an adjustment for Andrade compared to Riverdale High School, which has just a few hundred students. “It’s like 500 kids,” Andrade said. “You knew everyone, all the teachers knew you. It was so personal and connected.” 

Luckily one of Andrade’s superpowers is “finding my people.”

It helped that she is a Smittcamp Family Honors College scholar. The honors college is unique in the California State University system because scholars are admitted as a cohort, take a series of specially designed honors courses, participate in a weekly colloquium with guest speakers and discussions and interact in educational, scholarly and social activities.

“I just had an automatic group of friends [in Smittcamp] and that connection was life-changing,” she said. “Honestly, those friends will be with me forever. It’s just such a cool support system. And I think that that helped the most.” 

Since her major switch took place during the remote learning period, when she returns to in-person instruction this fall, Andrade is “really looking forward to having my own little math community cohort that I get to meet and be involved with.

“I’m excited to just see people and meet new mathematicians. It’s one thing to talk to somebody who has no idea about math. But it’s another thing to talk to someone who actually understands it and you’re like, ‘yeah, dude, it was so awesome!’”