A math specialist for the Office of Learning Services and legacy of SUNY Oswego as both an employee and former student, Kate Spector's path back here as an adult was anything but linear. For someone who loves patterns, her interests are eclectic and defy pigeonholing.

What does an OLS math specialist do? 

I have a pretty interesting position in that my duties span several departments. I work very closely with the math department, EOP (the Educational Opportunity Program) and, obviously, OLS. Right now, I'm teaching two sections of MAT 158 "Introduction to Statistics." Those are five-day-a-week classes and they serve the EOP student population. That consumes about 75 percent of my time, and the remaining 25 percent is helping out with what happens in the tutoring center. Since the SUMS grant came through, we've been focused on enriching the offerings of the Math and Science Center. For example, in addition to tutoring, we have a Math in Action series, which my colleague Casey Towne spearheads. We also publish a center newsletter that comes out a few times each semester. When we move into the spring, my course load goes down -- I teach one class -- and my attention shifts to orchestrating the math component of the EOP Summer Program

How different is this job from your former full-time teaching role in mathematics?

In a lot of ways, it's not very much different. As a VAP (visiting assistant professor), I taught four classes each semester, but they were with the general population of students. I've always taught intro-level classes -- algebra, "Math in the Real World," stats, business math – and I taught for the EOP Summer Program as well. 

Where were you born and raised?

I was born here in Oswego. We did a lot of traveling when I was a kid. My kindergarten and first-grade years were spent in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We did come back and settle down here, but I didn't stay with the Oswego City School District all the way through graduation. My junior and senior years, I went to Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. 

What first attracted you to math?

I’ve enjoyed patterns since I was a kid. Some people think math is cold, but I’ve always taken a lot of solace in it. I enjoy solving problems. I enjoy thinking about one thing for an extended period of time, and I REALLY enjoy when I solve that problem – it’s an unparalleled feeling of accomplishment. 

Can you tell us about your higher education?

I went to Hamilton College for my undergraduate work. I knew I wanted to be a math major since the beginning of high school. But I took a ceramics class my first semester, just trying to satisfy my art requirement. I really liked that class, so I picked up a double major of math and studio art with a concentration in sculpture. My father wasn't too impressed. (Laughs.)

What did you do after college?

As you might imagine, when I finished college I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I tried some different things: I worked at a plastics factory for a little while out in Rhode Island, I did a lot of security work at some bars in Oswego and the (Sterling) Renaissance Festival, I moved out to Colorado and worked as a carpenter for a company that made museum-quality picture frames. After a while, I got kind of sick of living out of my car and living paycheck to paycheck. My father reminded me how nice a career is in teaching. I knew SUNY Oswego had a great program for education, so I started on a master's degree in 2007 -- curriculum and instruction with a concentration in mathematics, grades 7-12. I heard about OLS, and thought, "Hey, maybe I could be a tutor." So I started tutoring, became a grad assistant, finished my degree (in 2010) and they picked me up in the math department part time as an adjunct. I've been here ever since. I started full time as a visiting assistant professor in fall 2013.

So you've never taught in a school district?

I was always interested in teaching the adult population. I appreciate working with people where I feel like we're on the same level. I ask my students to just call me Kate. I think there's something more that can be brought to learning when you remove the traditionally rigid boundaries between the student and teacher. 

Would you like to obtain a doctorate? 

I would absolutely love to. I've looked at different programs. I love the field of math education, and I'm very interested in how and why people learn math and how this changes across cultures. Why do the kids in Finland do so well in math? Why is it that the kids in south central LA aren't doing so well? I don't think the answer lies so much in the nuts and bolts of teaching, but the solution lies more in the cultural fabric of the communities these students live in. How do community ideals support the teaching and learning of math, or not?

What do you think about the people you've met at SUNY Oswego?

I've made a lot of really great friends working here. I feel like I work in an institution that values and fosters a culture of innovation. I really adore that -- I like that we can come up with new ideas, we can pursue them and people are hugely supportive of these efforts. 

What do you think of the SUNY Oswego students you've encountered?

I have met all kinds of students. I think that's what gets me out of bed every morning. I recognize that some of the students I work with have faced a lot of adversity in their lives and have done a lot of struggling. I feel so lucky to be on their path, to be put in a position where I can help them so they can achieve their goals. There are lots of students who are hungry to "get there," and I love to work with those students. It's a really exciting time in anyone's life.

What are your other interests on campus?

Anything that has to do with sustainability. I'm very focused on resources and efficiencies. I really enjoy making note of how resources are used, not used, or misused, and how they can be positively redirected. When I teach, especially, an algebra course, I do a lot of writing on the whiteboard. I was finding I was throwing away a marker at the end of every lecture. I thought to myself, "Wow, this is an incredible amount of waste. How can it be segued into something positive?" Last semester, we put out a little bin in the tutoring center to collect used-up dry erase markers. I contacted Michele Gorham at Leighton Elementary School who participates in a program through Crayola called ColorCycle. What that program does is it takes dead markers and it turns them into fuel. This semester, students in professor (Dan) Tryon's class are working on coming up with designs for small containers for dead pens (of all kinds) in classrooms and departmental offices. We'd submit them to the TerraCycle program, which breaks them down into their components. The plastic parts get shredded and eventually put back on the market.

Any other such interests?

One other thing I'd be interested in mentioning -- litter. I've tagged along with some of the groups that work at collecting litter on the campus and shoreline. I've been cataloguing all the litter that's collected. What's the story behind this stuff? How did it get here? What is the predominant type of litter found on campus? It's been really interesting to look into that. Really, to solve a lot of these problems, we need to have a cultural change. Any way we can incite our awareness will hopefully be a catalyst for that change.

What are some of your interests off campus?

About a year ago, my husband and I got some chickens and we've been having fun learning about them. We now have more eggs than we know what to do with. Bees -- recently we got interested in bees and got a beehive. I like spending my time outdoors and I really like producing things. In wintertime, we tap our maple trees and boil the sap down and make some syrup. In the summer, my mom and I always get together and make strawberry jam. I like making things. I'm also working on three books right now. One is "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." I'm also working on "Letters from Burma," by Aung San Suu Kyi. The third one is "The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions." I don't like when I have times when I'm not reading -- you really push your envelope of knowledge all the time, you push your boundaries, you see things in different ways. 

What can you tell us about your family?

I'm not sure whether my dad (Charles "Chuck" Spector, emeritus professor of accounting, finance and law) is retired -- he keeps finding reasons to come back to campus. My mother taught English courses here as an adjunct for a bit, too. When I was going to CBA, my Mom was working on her Ph.D. at SU, so we did the commuting together. That was pretty neat to spend that time together. I have an older brother Chuck. He lives in Chicago and works as a supply chain manager for a lighting company. He and my mother and my husband are also Oswego grads -- we all have degrees from Oswego, except my dad. It's a family affair. My husband is a psychiatric nurse and is pursuing his nurse practitioner certification.  We live in Sterling, Cayuga County, on 1.5 acres. We just bought a 15-acre parcel so we can go play in the woods. Our yard backs up to Sterling Creek, so we're waiting for the salmon run. That's amazing. You sit on the deck at night and you can hear all the monster fish flapping around in the creek.

Can you please tell us about that ancient hair dryer chair in your office?

I always liked red and I always liked vintage things. I found this on Craig's List and it seemed like a perfect fit for my office. I imagine that (the dryer dome) is a thinking cap and I thought that my students might enjoy putting the "thinking cap" on. And my students do like the chair! (Laughs.) I try to keep my office really inviting and friendly, so students come in and hang out, spend a little time and do some math, too.