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Marshall Scholar fuses maths and Bharata Natyam

December 27, 2013 17:36 IST

Marshall Scholar fuses maths and Bharata Natyam

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Arthur J Pais

In the second part of the series on three Indian Americans who are pushing the boundaries in their respective fields, Arthur J Pais speaks with Kirin Sinha, winner of the prestigious Marshall Scholarships, who uses dance to teach maths.

In the first part, Suman Guha Mozumder outlined 18-year old Saumil Bandyopadhyay’s unique infrared radiation detector that is inexpensive and has scientific, civilian and military applications.

Kirin Sinha, recently chosen as a Marshall Scholar with fees paid to study at any university of her choice in the United Kingdom, is also a star outside the classroom.

Sinha, trained in Western dance and Bharata Natyam, feels her expertise in dance pushed the limits for her. She pioneered an afterschool programme called SHINE for middle-school girls close to MIT that combines training in dance with improving their maths.

She is among 34 new winners nationwide of the prestigious Marshall Scholarships, which support two years of graduate study in maths and advanced computer science at Cambridge University.

Sinha will graduate from MIT this spring with a bachelor’s degree in theoretical maths and electrical engineering and computer science, with a minor in music, specialising in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Sinha -- daughter of a physician mother, Abha Sinha, and attorney father, Pankaj Sinha, who settled in Denver after years in a Maryland town -- remembered that she was often the only girl taking advanced maths classes and placing in the top 10 in national maths competitions.

She did not have an answer early in her career when people asked her if she found it surprising she was the only girl in her class.

During her junior year in the maths and electrical engineering and computer science departments at MIT, she told India Abroad, she realised that her background as a dancer was one of the reasons she was comfortable with advanced maths.

Sinha who has been dancing since age 3 and professionally the last few years, had learned growing up, she told MIT News, that ‘the harder you work and the better you get, the more you stand out and the better your life will be.’

“This has been my thinking from my school years,” she told India Abroad. “I grew up in a home where I was allowed to decide things for myself. My parents gave me the skills to be on my own and they never pushed me to do anything that I did not want to be. Once I made my choice, my parents gave me great support. Especially my mother. She was never a Tiger Mom.”

That is why she created SHINE (Supporting, Harnessing, Inspiring, Nurturing, Empowering), with support from the Public Service Center and the Department of Mathematics, little more than a year ago.

SHINE class starts with the girls working on mathematics problems with their mentors, all female students from MIT.

After a word problem game gets the group thinking analytically, the students practice individual dance moves.

“It is all modern dance,” says Sinha, adding with a chuckle, “Bharata Natyam is my favourite, but it needs much more practice.”

She dances professionally with the Triveni School of Dance in Boston, and has served on the executive board of MIT Bhangra, perhaps the best such college group in America.

In the second half of the dance lesson, the students work on choreography. Each SHINE session culminates in a final performance where each girl performs a solo for family and friends, according to the MIT publication.

“The kinesthetic learning reinforces a concept by tying it to a concrete physical action,” Sinha says, adding that dancing provided much more than physical activity as it requires dedication, attention to detail, and confidence to succeed.

“These goals help the students excel in mathematics,” she said.

Thirty-four students have taken the SHINE classes, and Sinha thinks anyone dedicated and spunky can take the programme across the country. ‘It has franchise potential,’ she told MIT News.

Her work for SHINE is well recognised at MIT.

‘It’s been my delight to have had Kirin Sinha as my undergraduate advisee in mathematics for the last three years,’ Victor Guillemin, a professor of mathematics, told MIT News. ‘Not only has she maintained an impeccable record in her maths and other courses, but she also has wide-ranging non-course-related interests as well.’


Image: Kirin Sinha will be graduating from MIT this spring