Stopping the Shame of Mental Illness: A Mathematician’s Quest

Graduate Center, CUNY Professor Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson
Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson

At age 11, when many kids see computers as big gaming consoles, Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson was writing computer programs. By high school, he was a year ahead of his peers in math. Now, a professor of computer science at The Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, he still finds solace and inspiration in math, particularly in applying mathematical concepts to other fields.

But his affinity for math is just one part of who he is. He loves the arts, and recently had his work shown in Washington, D.C. He’s also been candid about his struggles with mental illness, partly as a way to reach and support others.

In his academic work, Vejdemo-Johansson focuses on topological data analysis. Topology, in his words is “a branch of geometry that studies properties that don't depend on how you measure distance.” His work uses topological descriptions to build analysis tools for datasets.

“There’s no reason to believe that this would be a useful thing to do,” he says, “but we get a lot of data analysis tools out of it.” He is especially interested in applying the technique to areas well beyond mathematics, such as analyzing genetic or other high-volume biological data.

Even outside of work, Vejdemo-Johansson has an affinity for exploring seemingly unrelated topics: painting, photography, music, to name a few. Recently, he created 3D-printed objects that bring abstract mathematical concepts to the physical world, several of which he displayed in an American Association for the Advancement of Science exhibition.

“My basic interest in mathematics feeds into my art creation,” Vejdemo-Johansson says, “and the creativity definitely feeds into my research.”
Like math, mental illness is another constant in his life. In 2002, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he has been an advocate for others, particularly mathematicians, who face similar struggles.

At the Joint Mathematics Meetings earlier this year, Vejdemo-Johansson joined two other mathematicians to give a panel on “Mental Health in the Mathematics Profession.” They also co-authored an article on the subject for the American Mathematical Society’s magazine.

Their hope, they wrote, was to dismantle “the stigma of struggling with a mental illness” by “starting a dialogue about mental health in the mathematics profession.”

“A large part of my advocacy work is just being visible,” Vejdemo-Johansson says. “I’m marking myself as safe, someone people can come to and expect some understanding and the certainty that they won’t be ignored.”

Photo credit: Alex Irklievski

Submitted on: SEP 19, 2019

Category: Diversity | General GC News