DC or Bust: AWM and Villanova Visit Capitol Hill

The van ride to DC!

The van ride to DC!

On December 1, nine sleepy but nervous students and my sleepy but nervous colleague and I drove to Washington DC to meet with US Senators and Representatives about issues that matter to women in mathematics and other STEM fields. As part of the AWM Hill Visits program, Association for Women in Mathematics leadership, members from academia and industry, and members of the Villanova Student Chapter of the AWM teamed up to visit with over twenty legislative offices during the day. Visiting legislators from our home states, as well as those with connections to AWM members and priorities, our groups shared the AWM’s policy agenda with lawmakers and lobbied for support of several bills. And, I must say, we had an incredible time in the process.

Our top legislative priority was the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2016, which would require the National Science Foundation to award competitive grants to activities that would increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, and will need to be reintroduced in the new congress. AWM members also spoke in support of the Computer Science for All Initiative, the INSPIRE Women Act, directing NASA to support STEM initiatives for women and girls, and the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act to require that sexual harassment by Principal Investigators to be reported to funding agencies, and that harassment reports be considered when awarding federal funding.

This legislation addresses issues that are very dear to my heart, and lobbying for it was a phenomenal and exciting experience. However, my December 1 started at a very non-exciting 4 AM, when my alarm went off and I blinked myself awake in the dark of Katie Haymaker’s spare room. Out of bed and off to pick up donuts, the van and nine Villanova students. By 5:30 and after a few predictable hitches we were on the road to Washington DC, me driving a twelve passenger van as fast as was safe through the darkness and eventual sunrise. This was an adventure, not least because I gave up my car when I moved to Philly in 2014. No need tell the students I hadn’t driven in quite a while, right?

We were of course running late, but reached Capitol Hill in time for me to drop Katie and the students off within striking distance of the Russell Senate Building, where they attended a constituent coffee with Senator Robert Casey (D, PA). They were joined by Dr. Kristin Lauter and Dr. Ami Radunskaya, President and President Elect of the AWM. I was sorry to miss out, but someone had to park the van. My students told me that they were immediately impressed with how Kristin managed to get right to the point and tell the Senator about the AWM’s priorities. Having seen Kristin’s legendary effectiveness in action, I can imagine that Senator Casey is now totally excited about these bills.

Villanova students and faculty, AWM President and President Elect, and Senator Robert Casey.

Villanova students and faculty, AWM President and President Elect, and Senator Robert Casey. Note that I am not there, because I am parking the van.

But back to the van: there is nowhere to park in DC. Just saying. Luckily, Dr. Karoline Pershell offered to let us park it in her driveway. Karoline met me at the curb and we headed off to catch the Metro back to the Senate building. Karoline is also a force of nature. As a former AAAS/AMS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, she really knew how to make contact and navigate the Hill. Her efforts and experience were instrumental in planning the trip and researching the bills that we talked about with the legislators. Karoline had made a great impression on the students in her group in the emails and conference calls that lead up to our adventure. “She just got married last week and she still did so much to get us ready for this! And she had a Harry Potter and Star Wars themed wedding!” a student told me in the van on the way down. I had never met Karoline before, but I was already prepared to think she was awesome. And indeed she was.

So much work, by so many people, went into this trip. I really should have started this story in the weeks before the visit, with the mountains of emails and planning that put it together. The trip began with an invitation from Dr. Gail Letzter, Dr. Karen Saxe, and Dr. Julie Sutton, members of the AWM Policy and Advocacy Committee. They began the Hill Visits program in 2015.  We were the second group of students to take part. They put together a great roster of non-student AWM members and divided us into groups. We then began trying to schedule appointments. First of all, I had no idea until we started working on this that you could just do that. In fact, people can just call legislative offices and ask for a meeting. And that’s what we did. Though it turns out that persistence is key, the meeting will be about 10 minutes long, and you will most likely meet with a staffer. However, 10 minutes are all you need, the education and science/research specialists are the ones who advise the legislators on these areas, and the staff members we met were generally very kind and attentive.

Shantel Silva, Tasha Boland, and Madison Davis, all from Massachusetts, are stoked to be visiting Elizabeth Warren's office!

Shantel Silva, Tasha Boland, and Madison Davis, all from Massachusetts, are stoked to be visiting Elizabeth Warren’s office!

Groups met a lot of education and science/research specialists, including staff working for Tim Kaine, Richard Durbin, Elizabeth Warren, and Al Franken. Though the majority of the visits were with Democratic lawmakers, the offices of Representatives Pat Meehan (R, PA) and Charles Dent (R, PA) also agreed to meet with AWM members Dr. Betty Mayfield, Katie, and I, and expressed interest in the AWM priorities. Overall, many offices were supportive of the legislation and expressed their interest in meeting with students in particular.

Amazingly, the groups did meet in-person with several legislators, from both the House and Senate. Dr. Michelle Snider, Dr. Adele Merritt, Villanova Juniors Madison Taylor and Alexandra Golia, and many others met with Representative Jackie Speier (D, CA), sponsor of the Accountability Act. Snider and Taylor were joined by Kristin Lauter, Ami Radunskaya, and Villanova Seniors Katie Robbins and Patrick Saulino for a meeting with Representative Leonard Lance (R, NJ). All nine Villanova students, Katie Haymaker, and the AWM leaders all met with Senator Robert Casey (D, PA) for the constituent coffee I mentioned earlier. Katie and I also met with Representative Dwight Evans (D, PA). This was such a cool experience for me! We were Representative Evans first constituent meeting, and he asked us how we got into math. He was fresh off the floor, where he had given his first speech, so he was briefly distracted by CSPAN, but he was very gracious and expressed support for the AWM’s agenda.


Katie Haymaker, Representative Dwight Evans, and me!


Pat Saulino, Katie Robbins, and Representative Leonard Lance

The students came away with a sense of hope for the future of women in mathematics. Katie Robbins said, “It was a privilege to attend this trip and meet both non-student members of AWM as well as individuals from Capitol Hill. I felt as though our advocacy was well received by those we spoke with, and I am hopeful for the future of women in STEM fields.” Villanova Junior Shantel Silva said, “sometimes it feels as though there is a big disconnect between the nation’s government and its constituents; spending a day on the Hill gave me a little bit of hope that as citizens, we do have the possibility to affect what happens on the Hill.” Non-student mathematicians were also inspired. Dr. Snider said that meeting with Representative Speier in particular “gave me so much hope, meeting women who are in positions of power who feel strongly about fighting for our rights.”

Alexandra Golia, Megan Donofrio, Representative Jackie Speier, Dr. Talitha Washington, Katie Robbins, Madison Taylor, Dr. Michelle Snider, Kristen Austin, Pat Saulino.

Alexandra Golia, Megan Donofrio, Representative Jackie Speier, Dr. Talitha Washington, Katie Robbins, Madison Taylor, Dr. Michelle Snider, Kristen Austin, Pat Saulino.

The students seemed really pleased to have the opportunity to connect with women mathematicians from a range of careers. “The experience turned out to be extremely rewarding and educational.… It was wonderful to be able to meet women who have been successful in their mathematics careers and learn from their experiences,” according to Villanova Junior Tasha Boland.  Boland and Silva’s group included Karoline Pershell, Sophomore Madison Davis, and Dr. Evelyn Sander. Villanova Freshman Megan Donofrio was very happy, “to be able to speak with members of congress about my background and passion for math and other STEM fields. I had never done anything like this before; it was such a unique special opportunity.” Donofrio and fellow Freshman Kristen Austin teamed with Dr. Talitha Washington to meet with several congressional offices. “It was a wonderful experience to spend a day with such strong female mathematician role models and fight for something I am so passionate about. This is definitely an experience I will never forget,” Austin said.

This trip was a meaningful experience for me as well. Not only did I get to talk to legislators and make my voice heard on issues I care deeply about, but I met so many awesome math women and had the chance to see my students really shine as awesome math women (and one awesome math man) themselves. I was proud of them, and also glad that they wouldn’t have to wait as long as I did to realize that a trip like this was possible. They will carry this knowledge with them into whatever they decide to do. This is the kind of thing that I want to give my students. It was worth all the emails, the 4 AM alarm, the six hours of driving. I would do it every week if I could give all of my students the same opportunity. I mean, I couldn’t do it everyday, because I’d collapse. But every week for sure.

First Row: Shantel Silva, Megan Donofrio, Dr. Kristin Lauter, Dr. Beth Malmskog, Dr. Evelyn Sander. Second Row: Madison Davis, Katie Robbins, Alexandra Golia, Madison Taylor, Dr. Ami Radunskaya, Dr. Betty Mayfield, Dr. Talitha Washington. Third Row: Tasha Boland, Pat Saulino, Kristen Austin, Dr. Karoline Pershell, Dr. Michelle Snider, Dr. Katie Haymaker, Dr. Adele Merritt.

First Row: Shantel Silva, Megan Donofrio, Dr. Kristin Lauter, Dr. Beth Malmskog, Dr. Evelyn Sander.
Second Row: Madison Davis, Katie Robbins, Alexandra Golia, Madison Taylor, Dr. Ami Radunskaya, Dr. Betty Mayfield, Dr. Talitha Washington.  Third Row: Tasha Boland, Pat Saulino, Kristen Austin, Dr. Karoline Pershell, Dr. Michelle Snider, Dr. Katie Haymaker, Dr. Adele Merritt.

The Hill Visits program is open to all AWM student chapters, and also welcomes non-student volunteers to participate in the visits. Ideas on lobbying Congress? Want to take another math agenda to the Hill? Let me know about it in the comments.

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Join My GA Math Book Club

Last two GA math books, and the next one on my list. Oh, and my accordion. What hobbies I have...

Last two GA math books, and the next one on my list. Oh, and my accordion. What hobbies I have…

Reading is a vice for me—I can lose hours, nights of sleep, whole weekends in novels. Often I read non-fiction to keep from getting so  sucked in, and mostly that means general audience (GA) math. Everyone who has read many GA math books would probably agree that some are not good. It can be hard to strike a balance between including enough math to say something substantial and being willing to lie or speak generally enough for the book to be understandable. I think it may be really hard to do this perfectly for a truly general audience, which is the dark secret of some of these books—they are very difficult or impossible for non-mathematicians to understand, though they try very hard to be perfectly accessible and take great pains to explain concepts in non-frightening terms. However, if you are not used to reading math this can still be very dense, and who but a mathematician would care much about these topics anyway? So these books are often not good for a general audience, but perfect for someone with a PhD in a different area of math. No complaints here, as that audience is me. Presumably many writers, and certainly their publishers, want to reach more people; for example, at least undergraduate math majors. Good GA math books are actually perfect for undergraduate math majors, and I often find myself loaning out my books to students. Most are not returned.

I read two GA math-related books this fall that in fact reached much farther than the math world: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Birth of a Theorem, by Cedric Villani. These books both escape the GA trap in different ways. Hidden Figures is the true story of black women mathematicians working for NASA beginning during World War II (in case you’ve been under a rock and haven’t heard about the movie that is coming out soon). This carefully-researched book introduced me to a part of mathematical history that I had no idea existed. Many of the “West Computers,” as they were called, had originally pursued mathematics for joy, as they did not need to learn much higher mathematics to teach in high school, essentially the only mathematical path available to black women at the time. I loved reading about the pride that these women took in their work when a path was finally opened to them at NASA. I also had no idea of the major role that they played in many of NASA’s achievements, and the difficulties they faced down in the process.

How does Hidden Figures avoid the GA problem? By including very little math. Several physics/aeronautics ideas are generally explained, but it doesn’t contain a single equation. That makes Hidden Figures a truly general audience book, with additional interest for mathematicians. Which is great. I didn’t learn any math here, but I learned a lot that is relevant to my life as a mathematician, and really my life as an American, or a human in this time. Math is essential to this story, if only as the medium for these women’s undeniable awesomeness. Because they were doing math, there was some limited sense in which their correctness and in the end their contributions could not be denied. The answers were right, and the rockets flew. The importance of their contributions, however, is still being fully understood, and this book plays a big part in that.

Birth of a Theorem is in some ways a total contrast. It is the story of Villani and his collaborator Clement Mouhot’s proof of a fantastic result in mathematical Physics, after which Villani won the Fields medal in 2010, told through Villiani’s journal entries, emails, some mathematical and historical interludes, and many pages of just plain really hard mathematics. Villiani talks about his work with passion and self-awareness. He is not at all condescending in describing what he does—he explains things in a way, but also doesn’t expect to teach the reader everything. In fact, I didn’t understand much of the math from Birth of a Theorem.  If you already knew a lot about this area, perhaps you would.  But even as he uses all kinds of mathematical terms without definition, they take on the character of foreign language passages in a novel—you really don’t have to understand to get the feeling of it.   He describes the many horrifying setbacks and surges of joy that come with trying to prove something hard. He describes his favorite music and his favorite theorems with some of the same devotion. It seems to me that Villani is totally obsessed with math, in the same way artists can be totally obsessed with art. It’s basically about creativity at a really high level, in the form of mathematics.

I loved reading these books in sequence because it juxtaposed incredibly different paths in mathematics: Villani, already a world-famous mathematician before winning the Fields medal, now a figure in French popular culture and writer of a book with blurbs by Patti Smith and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The West Computers, just now being discussed at all, 70 years after they started at NASA.

To bring it back to undergraduates, I think these books could start a really good student discussion on what it means for mathematics to be important, and how we value people’s contributions to math. There are also great GA books out that do teach a lot of math along with the stories; for example, Journey through Genius by William Dunham, and The Code Book, by Simon Singh. So many big ideas in (and whole areas of) math just don’t fit into most undergraduate programs. Books like Hidden Figures and Birth of a Theorem don’t really teach much math, but do teach a lot about math culture, which is also very difficult to bring into undergraduate math classes but could give our majors a much greater sense of being part of a community. This leads to one of my current dream courses to teach: Math Book Club. This is not my idea; I heard about it from Dr. Amy Ksir, who teaches a wonderful Math Book Club class at the US Naval Academy. I sat in on her class and was really impressed.  At the end of the semester, students write up book reviews and submit them for potential publication. After talking to Amy, I started to think about my own version, which I want to develop as a course sometime in the next few years. In my dreams, Math Book Club would help students expand and fill in their pictures of the general mathematical world, as well as have these discussions about what math means.

What would you read in your Math Book Club? How do you share the broader world of math with your students? Please let me know in the comments!



Posted in books, math and art, math in the media, minorities in mathematics, Uncategorized, women in math | 4 Comments

No Electioneering Beyond This Point: Teaching stats in an election year


Election Day by Richard Yuan on Flickr, used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Election Day” by Richard Yuan on Flickr, used under CC BY-NC 2.0

This certainly was an interesting semester to teach intro statistics. My students analyzed poll data, linked to in detail on realclearpolitics, to see if jumps were statistically significant, explored the correlation between the way different states vote, and analyzed the dependence of different demographic variables or responses to opinion poll questions on preferred candidate in polling crosstabs. We talked about why online polls are unreliable, how to check the accuracy of pollsters, and how important it is to look at averages and long-term trends in polling. And after the election, once the dust settled, we talked through some of the reasons why things didn’t go the way a lot of people had expected. Those discussions continue every week or so as new information appears.

I harped on my view of the importance of voting in all my classes. I showed how few young people vote, and why it’s important for them to be registered in their new home state. I linked them to the voter registration form (we can do it online in Maryland), voting guides, ways to find their polling place, early voting hours, everything I could think of. More than a few of my students said they don’t vote despite all this, but I know I got a lot of others registered and engaged for the first time.

Through it all, I tried my best to be impartial, not even disclosing who I intended to vote for. But c’mon, look at me up there: I’m a hipster-y woman in my 30s with a Ph.D. It doesn’t take a social scientist to take a pretty good guess as to my political allegiances. One student asked who I was voting for in a contentious local school board election, and I told them, along with my reasons for my choices, but never went further than that.

I’m not sure exactly why I felt the need to act so impartial. I even start my stats classes every semester with an activity, adapted from Dave Kung, where the students take one data set and use it to argue for multiple different conclusions. I emphasize the inherent uncertainty of statistical analysis all the time: pretty much everybody’s got an angle when they’re trying to prove something, and if you dig hard enough you can almost certainly find numbers to back up your side, even if they don’t hold up to scrutiny. I teach my class how to p-hack, so they’ll know how easy it is. And they know that type I and II errors are always lurking, and you’ll never know when they’ll come out to bite you. But I do believe that I am in a privileged position there at the front of the class, and I’d like for my influence to come only through my math instruction, and not overt moralizing.

In Tuesday’s class though, I did have to lay my cards on the table a little bit: between the allegations of election fraud from the left, and voter fraud from the right, I felt obligated to dig in. I went through the results of Nate Cohn’s regressions on Wisconsin, showing that there’s no evidence of a difference between paper and electronic ballots once education level and race are accounted for. I said that I thought it was irresponsible to even appear to allege electoral fraud with no evidence. And it was unconscionable for a president elect to claim voter fraud with no evidence, and terrifying that he would propose stripping of citizenship for speech. I know I got a little passionate during this part of class, and a few of my students did too. I’m not sure if any of them thought I went overboard – guess I’ll find out in my evals.

In tomorrow’s class we’ll unpack the study cited for the prevalence of non-citizen voting and maybe talk about the effect of education level on precinct results. I’m sure I’ll keep it more buttoned-up tomorrow. But like my colleague said so eloquently, sometimes you’ve got to say something.


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