Cork student Anna Mustata proves prowess is possible in both English and maths, writes Marjorie Brennan.
The importance of encouraging children to study science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM) subjects has been clearly acknowledged in recent years. However, there is also a growing awareness that arts and literature should not be left behind and that there should be an emphasis on STEAM, not just STEM.
Anna Mustata is a shining example of how subjects like maths and English can work together in harmony. The 17-year-old Bishopstown Community School student has won medals at several prestigious international mathematics competitions and recently took first place in a national poetry competition. She believes that maths and literature have lots in common.
“They complement each other quite well because they are both about trying to find the best way to phrase and express things — in maths you do it logically and in
English, you do it with words and emotions but it is still the same kind of process.”
Anna’s achievement is even more noteworthy given that she and her family only moved to Cork when she was eight years old. Born in America to Romanian parents, Anna’s love for writing began in primary school.
“I preferred English when I was younger, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But then around secondary school, I discovered maths competitions and my interest in that grew.”
Earlier this year, Leaving Cert student Anna won a bronze medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, having previously won medals at the European Girls Mathematics Olympiads in 2015 and 2016. She has also won the Lord Mayor’s debate with Bishopstown Community School, and a national essay competition organised by the Law Faculty of UCC.
The poem for which Anna won first prize in the Professional Service Development for Teachers is called ‘Drowning’. The powerful themes and imagery of struggle, isolation and, ultimately, hope, belie the author’s young age. She says the poem allowed her express her emotions in an immediate and therapeutic way.
“It was to do with various emotions I had at the time. I was feeling overwhelmed and I was looking for a way to cope with that. I am a quiet, introverted kind of person and it is hard for me to keep up with the pace of life,” she says. “Poetry is the best way for me to express things because it is very direct. If I wrote a short story, it would be more complicated and not directly about myself.”
Does she think life is harder for teenagers now, especially with the pressures of social media?
“I mostly avoid social media, it is hard for me to deal with a lot of it,” she says.
Anna’s interest in poetry has grown along with her English studies for the leaving cert. However, one of her favourite writers is off the curriculum — Mihai Eminescu, regarded as Romania’s most famous poet.
“His language is very poetic and musical and flows really well, it feels natural to read. He captures emotions very well in his poetry,” she says.
Anna says she speaks a mixture of Romanian and English at home with her parents. “My grandparents only speak Romanian. Whenever we visit them, we only speak Romanian.”
Her talents also extend to music and she will be sitting her grade eight exams in the piano next spring. For the moment, however, her focus is on her interview this month to study maths at Cambridge. Her ambition to attend the prestigious English
university was fostered by her positive experience of the mathematics Olympiads.
“I know a lot of people from maths competitions who go there and they all think it is great. I really enjoyed the atmosphere at those competitions, everyone else was passionate about maths. I want to have that at university as well.”
Anna also has some encouraging, and wise, words for girls who are interested in studying maths and related subjects but are maybe discouraged by statistics that show a gender gap in STEM studies.
“Don’t think about what other people are thinking, just do it. Ignore any biases people might have,” she says.
Drowning By Anna Mustata
Life is chaos.
If you lose your grip, you will be swept away Into a swirling, raging whirlpool, A hurricane of emotions – Love, hope, fear, desperation – Panic, rising uncontrollably Flooding your lungs until you cannot move – And then you’ll sink.
Dark, still, murky waters – You gaze up from the bottom of the ocean.
Sometimes, you catch a glimpse Of sunlight dancing on the water’s surface And then it’s gone.
Sounds are strange and muffled, Images, far away.
The more you struggle, the deeper you go Until you forget which way is up.
Here’s a secret:
The human body is buoyant.
It wants to float back to the surface.
If you go still and close your eyes The air in your lungs will carry you up Until you feel a breeze against your skin And you can breathe again.
It is your own struggles that push you down Your flailing, grasping, wild panic, Lashing out blindly in hope of grasping land.
This is humanity in times of crisis:
A panicked beast Forgetting how to float.
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