Our November CreatorSpace event is all about Artificial Intelligence, and we are so honored to include Alex Atanasov as a guest. Atanasov has worked as a software engineer intern at Google, researched neuroscience at Yale while earning his Bachelor’s in Physics and then a Master’s in Mathematics (graduating magna cum laude, we might add). Currently, he is working toward his doctorate in theoretical physics at Harvard after being awarded one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships, the Hertz Graduate Fellowship. While Atanasov’s accomplishments are already quite illustrious, his journey is far from over. But let’s take a look at his beginnings. 

Atanasov was born in Bulgaria in the mid-90s. Because of an economic collapse and the downfall of academic institutions in Bulgaria, he and his family moved to the United States when he was just two.

After immigrating, Atanasov’s mom didn’t have much time to foster an appreciation of the humanities, let alone math and science. And surprisingly, he admits, he never had much interest in those topics, at least not in the traditional way. “I loved playing with Legos, I loved visualizing things, and I played video games a lot,” he tells BYJU’S FutureSchool. “I had a huge interest in graphics, how computers worked, the logic behind computer games, and how they make the characters move around and do things. I always thought that was super cool. It still wasn’t necessarily quantitative, more that I liked to tell stories.”

And while Atanasov is an accomplished physicist and mathematician, he can also relate to so many children and adults whose experiences with mathematics have been less than ideal. “I had very unpleasant experiences in middle school,” he says. “I remember I had to learn to factor polynomials. I just shut down, kind of like a child does when you tell them they are bad at something over and over again. I was desperately trying to memorize how to factor cubic polynomials. It seemed impossible, and I was not doing well in the class,” he recalls. It didn’t get better for Atanasov. “I remember after that was Geometry…it was worse! I can’t say I was terrible at math, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it back then.”

Competition is a Sweet Motivator

While he didn’t dream of being a mathematician or scientist, he desired to be as bright as his best buddy. “A big motivator for me was my closest friend in middle school (who) was really good at it (math),” he says. “He got a lot of attention. Around the end of middle school, many of us were applying to this very special public magnet school called Thomas Jefferson. It was sort of like where you go if you are a smart kid who wants to do science and math. At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do science and math, but I did know my good friend was going to be applying there. Sure enough–he got in, and I did not.” 

Losing Can Be an Even Sweeter Motivator

“I remember I took that very personally. I thought ‘if he can do this stuff, why can’t I?’” Atanasov says. This question motivated Atanasov to push himself further. “I remember Googling something like ‘how to learn calculus?’ because every kid thinks that’s like the hardest math in the world,” he says. “If I can learn it as an 8th grader, I could learn anything.”

Atanasov found help in the way of online videos. “I remember around 2010, a really interesting idea was coming out, and Sal Khan pioneered it,” he recalls. “There were these simple videos on Youtube using the Paint program. It was super low quality. I remember watching it. At first, I watched the algebra videos and thought, ‘This makes way more sense, and no one is making me feel stupid. I understand everything he is saying, and if I don’t understand, I can rewind.’ It was a competitive spirit that was motivating me.”

He was so motivated that he went through the algebra playlist in April of his 8th-grade year. Then, he went through the pre-calculus playlist, then the calculus playlist. He watched all of them in just a few months. “I stopped doing what normal kids did: hanging out with friends, playing video games. I was obsessed with watching these videos, and he (Khan) was producing more and more. I was just captivated by it.”

Atanasov wasn’t just driven by competition; he was driven by a wealth of information that he had at his fingertips. “I felt like I was accessing forbidden information. Like middle schoolers aren’t supposed to be learning pre-calculus,” he says. “I’m not in algebra II; that is for the ‘smart’ kids. I’m not allowed to learn that stuff because I am one of the normal kids in geometry, but I am going to learn it anyway!” And he did. Eventually, he transferred to Thomas Jefferson.

Many who look at Alex’s accomplishments now: degrees, publications, prestigious scholarships, speaking engagements, published books would think that even if he wasn’t great at it from the start, he must have been born with an innate mathematical or scientific talent. On the contrary, Alex doesn’t see himself as gifted or exceptionally talented. “It was work ethic and joy,” he says. “Joy plays a huge role, and I don’t think talent plays as substantial of a role. I think it helped that I found it cool.”

Even after his successful self-education via Khan Academy in high school, he still wasn’t convinced he was good at math. “What made it difficult was how important Olympiads and mathematical competitions were,” he says. “When you have to do something over and over again, and you aren’t very good at it, you really get discouraged. I wasn’t very good at that type of math, so it made me feel like an imposter who shouldn’t be doing the kind of math that I liked.”

“I was bullied because I would be reading a book about math, and students would say, ‘you can’t even do this kind of problem, why are you reading that book’. I wrote a textbook in high school to prove to myself and to other people that I actually knew what I was talking about. I wrote about my favorite part of mathematics, called complex analysis. I still felt like I had to hide that I wrote it because I still didn’t feel worthy. It really wasn’t until midway through college that I made friends that said, ‘Alex, you are so hard on yourself. You’re brilliant.’ I needed friends that supported me in that endeavor, and that was really helpful.”

Alex Atanasov

Teachers are Difference Makers

While high school had many challenges, Atanasov did meet some very influential and supportive teachers: Dr. Osborne, and Dr. Dell, he recalls. These teachers showed him how powerful and “beautiful” mathematics could be and taught him how physics can help you see everything that mathematics tells us. “Part of mathematics is secretly part of physics. That was eye-opening. It was an amazing experience,” he says.

The moment Atanasov knew he wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics was when Dr. Osborne was teaching multi-variable calculus and started talking about electric and magnetic fields. 

Atanasov recalls his teacher’s lesson: 

“Imagine you are in empty space and out of nowhere a sudden impulse of energy creates an electric field, and then a magnetic field appears and curls around it…, but that is a new magnetic field, so another electric field appears and curls around it… and outwards and outwards you have these fields curling around each other. He asked, ‘what is that, what do you think this phenomenon is called?’ He had proven mathematically that this is what happens. I thought this is much too mathematically complex to have a name! There is no way anyone knows what this is called. He said, ‘that phenomenon is called light! This is how light works.’ It was the most beautiful kind of mathematics describing the most beautiful natural phenomenon. I was sold. So I graduated, and I went to Yale, and I decided to study physics and pure mathematics.”

Atanasov’s Vision of Mathematics for Kids

Visuals are the thing needed to change how children see and view mathematics, according to Atanasov. “I was lucky; I ended up in a space where I could enjoy the beauty of it (mathematics). Now, we have access to technology that allows us to animate and visualize things we could never have years ago,” he says. “Creating visual content that children can engage in is going to play a huge role in making mathematics a less scary, symbolic form and be able to show the expressive, creative art that it (mathematics) really is.” He adds that many people are visual learners. That can help children put quantum mechanics and other ambiguous forms of mathematics and physics into a visual and more easily digestible form of information, making learning more accessible. “I find this stuff so exciting. I think if children could see what I saw, they would understand why.”

“I also don’t think we should force people to go at a pace we are setting for them,” Atanasov says. “If a child wants to dive in, allow them to struggle and see what it is like to be confused by difficult mathematics. I think it is more important to understand our emotional reaction to being confused, and wrestling with that, rather than being presented with the right answer at the right time.”

He also believes that children should focus on what they enjoy about math, whether it is the drawing, the shapes, or the logic. “Very few people enjoy numbers,” he says. “There is very little difference in talking to children versus adults about the subject of mathematics. The depth of conversation I have with a child who is 8 years old is about the same conversation as that with a 60-year-old: ‘I hated math, I was never good at it.'”

One thing that does work is when teachers have a relationship with children one-on-one and tell that student, ‘I believe in you,'” says Atanasov.

If you think your child is curious about the world, please join Alex Atanasov at BYJU’S FutureSchool’s next CreatorSpace event, where we will explore the “beautiful” world of mathematics, physics, and AI. At BYJU’S FutureSchool, we have wonderful teachers who will support your child one-on-one and provide opportunities for him/her to explore the world of mathematics using fun and exciting technology and a dynamic, engaging curriculum that may just spark your child’s passion for mathematics.

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