Having won a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship implies that 35-year-old mathematician Maria Chudnovsky is a genius. But other committees have been explicit in calling her a “genius” — as well as “brilliant” and “distinguished” — when bestowing honors upon her. A conversation with the Columbia University professor isn’t all quantum theories and equations, though. In fact, one of Chudnovsky’s greatest strengths is making mathematics applicable to everyday situations — or, as she says, recording “relations between objects.”
In October, Chudnovsky received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship to continue her work in Columbia’s department of industrial engineering and operations research. Chudnovsky focuses on the fundamental principles of graph theory. In 2002, she was an integral part of a team that proved the strong perfect graph theorem, which helps explain how to most efficiently set up cellphone networks, airline scheduling and package delivery systems.
Chudnovsky was born in Russia and raised in Israel. She completed her undergraduate work at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, and served in the Israeli Defense Force for three years. After finishing her Master of Science degree at Technion, Chudnovsky came to study in the United States, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University in 2003.
Chudnovsky, a proud member of both the Columbia Jewish community and the worldwide Jewish science community, compares studying mathematics to doing a crossword puzzle: Gratification comes from being able to “know if what you did is right or wrong.” It seems as though whatever she is doing is right.