Arithmetic, algorithms — and art

January 2019

Cindy Lawrence inside the National Museum of Mathematics.

Photos Courtesy National Museum of Mathematics

In the National Museum of Mathematics, you’ll find surprisingly few numbers. Instead, you can ride a tricycle with square wheels, create harmony on a sculpture of spheres and guide a basketball-throwing robot to a perfect free throw.

Known as MoMath, the New York museum welcomes more than 150,000 visitors a year—and leading it all is executive director and co-founder Cindy Lawrence, BS ’88.

“Our mission is to change public perceptions of mathematics,” she says. “Unfortunately, kids are often taught that math is something to be memorized, without understanding the why behind the algorithm. Instead, we encourage people to explore, play and discover the connections between math and the world around us.”

As you might expect, Lawrence has always enjoyed and excelled at mathematics. At the School of Management, she earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting, graduating with offers from each of the top public accounting firms, then known as the Big Eight. In addition to technical skills, Lawrence says UB instilled in her the importance of service, which still guides her career today.

“The School of Management was where I had my first real experience with community service, tutoring kids in Buffalo,” she says. “That experience—serving the community, working with disadvantaged kids and helping them with mathematics—laid some of the groundwork that led me to the museum.”

Lawrence began her career as an auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers and, in 1991, moved to Newsday as a senior accountant in the newspaper’s budget and financial management group.

Child plays with an exhibit at MoMath.

“I grew up reading Newsday,” she says. “My family waited for the newspaper to arrive, and everyone would read their section, turning page after page. It was fun to be part of that, even if I wasn’t writing articles or running the presses.”

After having her own children, Lawrence decided to take a step back and joined Becker Professional Education, working in various capacities on the organization’s CPA exam review program for 17 years. She taught students all over the globe, mostly at night, and was eventually named national editor for the program’s audit section.

In 2009, a friend approached Lawrence with an idea to open a mathematics museum, and she jumped at the chance to get involved. Three years later, she was part of the founding team that opened MoMath, the only mathematics museum in North America. Located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, MoMath features more than 40 colorful, hands-on exhibits and hosts weekly events for kids and adults.

“As we move forward, the most rewarding outcome would be if someone who makes a great contribution to society is asked, ‘When did you become interested in mathematics?’ And they answer, ‘Well, there was this museum I went to as a kid...,’” Lawrence says. “If we can have that impact on a few people, I would be super happy. And, if the rest leave with an enhanced understanding of math as an artistic, worthwhile, fun endeavor, then we’ve accomplished our mission.”

When she’s not at the museum, Lawrence is still surrounded by math, frequently traveling internationally to speak at conferences, including the International Congress of Mathematicians in Brazil last summer.

Written by Matthew Biddle, this story first appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Buffalo Business.