Geralyn Caradona: Mathematical Constant

Summer 2012 | Article By Robert Morris

Geralyn Caradona: Mathematical ConstantWhen Geralyn Caradona first joined the Tulane University Department of Mathematics in 1984, mathematical equations were still being hammered out on mechanical typewriters, with secretaries tediously changing out the keys by hand for each symbol that needed to be typed.

Nearly three decades later, technology has transformed the way the department functions, but Caradona's devoted oversight has remained an unchanging part of the equation.

"She really administers the department," said Mathematics chair Morris Kalka. "I don't know that I could do my job without her. A lot of people in the department would have a lot more work, and their scientific work becomes more productive because of having her around."

In October of 1984, Caradona was an accounts executive for a school uniform business when she first applied for a job at Tulane, an administrative assistant position in the Department of Mathematics. After her interview, she was soon informed that she'd been chosen for the job — and that someone else on the staff had left unexpectedly, so she'd be needed the following Monday. Some of the financial duties of the job were similar to that of her previous career, she said, but the university environment would be completely new.

"I had never worked in academics before," Caradona said. "It was kind of like a baptism by fire."

As she became familiar with her new surroundings, Caradona realized she had found herself in good company. Dr. James Rogers had become chair of the department only about three months earlier, but his prior years of experience on the faculty gave him rich insight into how the department should be handled as he and Caradona began creating new standards and procedures for the office. Further, Caradona worked alongside an old friend, a longtime secretary named Hester Paternostro, and Hester knew everything that needed to be known about the department.

"We worked quite easily together," Caradona said.

At the time, the department had just purchased its first word processor for mathematical symbols, a harbinger of the technological changes Caradona would help implement throughout her career. There were no personal computers then; data processing was done on old keypunch systems, and the aforementioned typewriters used to create mathematical documents were extremely time consuming.

"It was a tedious process," Caradona said. "If there was one mistake, you more than likely had to retype the entire page."

Today, nearly every aspect of administrative work is done by computer. Communication, data entry, record-keeping, scheduling, finance — "every facet" of running the department has become more efficient through the use of computers, Caradona said. The change is growing in scope, as well. First, mathematical journals began shifting online. Now, the entire math research library is engaged in a project to digitize its materials.

No matter the task, Caradona juggles it with ease, Kalka said. Among her most complicated duties, she accounts for upwards of a million dollars a year in federal grants, and she orchestrates conferences that draw mathematicians from the world over to Tulane. Kalka arrives at the office before 7:30 a.m. each day, but Caradona is always already there before him.

"The amount of work that falls to her and the complexity of it has increased a lot," Kalka said. "We really couldn't function without her. In most departments, it would take two or three people to do all the work she does. The dedication she brings to the job is outstanding."

Caradona had no idea she would stay in math or at Tulane for so long. But the environment has always been right for her, she said — both the work and the people.

"There's always something new, always something to learn, always a twist that makes the job more interesting," Caradona said. "But in any job that anyone stays in for a length of time, that has to do with the people they work with or for."

Kalka agreed. Caradona has stayed so long, he said, because she senses how much the department needs her.

"We are a bunch of absent-minded professors," Kalka said. "I think she realizes we're hopeless without her."

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