From Numbers to Watercolors, an Alumna’s Story

photo credit: Ron Colbroth

photo credit: Ron Colbroth

As an undergraduate student at GW in the 1960s, Alexandra Tolstoy, CCAS BA ’68, CCAS MA ’72 remembers taking a class in matrix theory. Although she worked really hard to understand the subject, she bombed the first exam. Confused, she approached the professor and explained how hard she had worked.

“I am sure he had heard that ‘excuse’ 1,000 times, but he did not dismiss me,” she recalls. She aced the next two tests, and went on to earn an ‘A’ in the course. She was very thankful, she says, for the professor’s kindness. “It made a big difference to me.”

Not only did she manage to turn around her marks in that matrices course, but Dr. Tolstoy went on to earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees in math from GW, as well as a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from University of Maryland, College Park.

Much has changed since Dr. Tolstoy, who grew up near the National Zoo, was scoping out college options. At the time, Georgetown University didn’t accept women into their math programs, she recalls. “This was unacceptable to me, so I scratched them off the list,” she says. “Archaic days.”

GW had no such policy. “Good for them for letting females study what they wanted back then,” Dr. Tolstoy says.

Her years in Foggy Bottom helped prepare her for her future career in science she says, and she calls her training in research and problem-solving skills “invaluable.” “Getting familiar with the basic, technical aspects of math-oriented tasks was essential,” she adds. “Teachers often do not realize what an influence they have had on a student, but the emphasis on subject mastery and investigation of a subject were critical. The teachers at GW were first rate and encouraging.”

Knowing she didn’t want to be an academic, Dr. Tolstoy decided to pursue a doctorate in applied math. Her chosen field, ocean acoustics — which she says is one that people end up in, rather than choose — studies the ways that underwater factors, such as temperature, layers, and surface roughness, affect to transmission of sounds.

“By analyzing the sound that has passed through a region, one can infer what that region was like,” she says. Implications range from the Navy’s interest in detecting submarines to biologists tracking marine mammals.

When Dr. Tolstoy’s funding was up in 2012, she retired and went into art. “Boy, did I have a lot to learn there,” she says. “A whole different game.”

The Cove. Watercolor by Alex Tolstoy

The Cove. Watercolor by Alex Tolstoy

In her new field, Dr. Tolstoy didn’t draw on her science background, which she says relied on a different side of her brain than her art does. She had loved painting as a child, but stopped at age 9. She had promised herself that she would get back to it when she turned 60. For her 60th birthday, her husband Ron Colbroth, a professional photographer, bought her an easel, paints, and other supplies. Painting didn’t come easily at first, and she took one, and then another class.

“My watercolor teacher was so incredible,” she says. “She was so encouraging, so enthusiastic, and such an excellent teacher that I am totally addicted to watercolors.”

As an alumna twice over and an area artist, Dr. Tolstoy sees great opportunity for GW (and for the National Gallery of Art) as the two institutions merged with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Dr. Tolstoy called the agreement “a wonderful thing for GW to get involved in.”

“Yes, Corcoran will change,” she says. “The important thing is to keep the museum open and to help people to enjoy art. I think that it is fantastic that GW is involved with Corcoran. Not only does it help out that gallery, but it increases GW’s visibility in the arts. Onwards.”

—Menachem Wecker

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