You are here

Mathematician, Writer, and Rhodes Scholar

Story by
Nancy Joseph

By age 14, Eliana Hechter was a UW student. At 16, she was studying creative writing in Rome and conducting research at Friday Harbor Laboratories. By 18, she was excelling in graduate seminars in mathematics. Now Hechter is about to graduate—as a Rhodes Scholar. 

Eliana Hechter.

Eliana Hechter.  Media credit: Mary Levin

Hechter, a mathematics major, is the fourth Arts and Sciences student to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship since 2000. Like two previous recipients, she came to the UW through the Early Entrance Program (EEP), which enables highly capable students to skip all or part of high school and instead enroll at the UW after spending a transition year with EEP peers.

“My parents were unsure about having me attend the UW through the Early Entrance Program,” says Hechter. “But I found the opportunity to study with UW professors irresistible. Once I made the decision, they were completely supportive.”

Although Hechter arrived at the UW with an interest in science, she also was an accomplished writer. The summer following her freshmen year, she studied creative writing in Rome through an Honors study abroad program. “I worked pretty intensively on a novella while I was there, and pared it into a short story,” she says. 

The fact that Hechter was younger than the other Rome program participants was a non-issue—most of the time. “I got my driver’s license the week before I left for Rome, and the students did tease me about that,” she admits.

After the Rome program, Hechter headed directly to Friday Harbor Laboratories, a UW facility on San Juan Island, to participate in a research apprenticeship course. “I was jet lagged the first week I was there,” she recalls. She spent the quarter studying gene network dynamics and cellular behavior—and discovering a passion for mathematics.

Gary Odell, professor of biology, taught an abstract math course as part of the apprenticeship. “He was able to apply abstract math concepts to explain things in the world,” says Hechter. “It was probably my favorite UW course. It was like nothing I’d ever learned before.”

Following her return from Friday Harbor, Hechter was eager to delve more deeply into mathematics. “I started taking as many math classes as possible,” she recalls. “I realized that there were huge gaps in my math knowledge, and I wanted to fill them.”

James Morrow, professor of mathematics, remembers meeting Hechter in 2004, when she was taking a sequence of math courses that attracted the most gifted students on campus. 

“Eliana was outstanding even in such a group,” he recalls. “She asked good questions. I remember her asking about a concept that could only be discussed using terminology from a senior-level algebra class. Only later did I find that Eliana was enrolled in such a class. That in itself is surprising, considering that most students would not attempt to take my class and another sophisticated math class simultaneously. However, she handled both classes with ease.”

Impressed by Hechter’s talent, work ethic, and personality, Morrow invited her to participate in the Mathematics Department’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) Program, a highly selective summer research program. “Her performance was terrific,” he says. “She tackled a difficult program and persisted when it seemed impossible.”

By her senior year, Hechter was taking only graduate-level courses in mathematics. (She also has taken a graduate course in creative writing.) And she decided to tackle a new challenge: teaching. She was selected as a teaching assistant for honors accelerated advanced calculus, a course she had taken as a freshman. 

“I find that by teaching the material to others, I come to understand it better,” she says. “Everyone says that, but I’m finding it to be true. And I enjoy the opportunity to make an impact. I feel that I can use my specialization to make a difference. This quarter I’m trying to help the students learn how to write good proofs. That’s rewarding to teach and it’s something I wish I’d had help with earlier in my education.”

As Hechter nears graduation, she marvels at the opportunities she has had as a UW undergraduate. 

“One of the remarkable things about the UW in contrast to other schools is the access to professors,” she says. “In the Math Department, I can pretty much knock on any professor’s door about a problem I’m working on and he or she will be open to talking. The fact that the door is always open is really special. And the research opportunities here rival any I’ve ever heard of.”

Next she is headed for Oxford University—the Rhodes Scholarship funds up to three years there—to continue her mathematics studies. Her excitement about this next step is evident.

“The style of education at Oxford appeals to me,” she says. “There’s a huge amount of independence. The fundamental nature of it is your relationship with your mentor. My richest experiences at the UW have been where I worked intimately with professors, so I’m looking forward to finding that again.”