If you build it, they will come: the Math Alliance and the Field of Dreams conference

A few weeks ago I attended the 2017 Field of Dreams conference. This is the annual gathering of Scholars and Mentors of the Math Alliance. I wasn’t really aware of this group until about a year ago, when I heard about it from Edray Goins. Even then, I don’t think I understood the reach and the power of the alliance until I attended the conference. With this post, I hope to bring more attention to the important work being done by the Math Alliance and their sponsors.

The primary goal of the Math Alliance is to mentor underrepresented students into pursuing Ph.D.s in mathematics. The Alliance was started as a partnership between three doctoral granting institutions in Iowa and four HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and was initially called the Alliance for the Production of African American Ph.D.s in the Mathematical Sciences. The success of this program allowed it to grow into a larger collection of schools, to include other underrepresented groups in the mathematical sciences (for example, Hispanic/Latinx and Native American students) and a larger number of colleges and universities. The rest of their goals, as represented in their website, are:

  1. “To increase the number of doctoral degrees in the mathematical sciences among groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in those fields.
  2. To improve placement of students from these groups in doctoral programs in disciplines that recruit undergraduate mathematics majors.
  3. To increase the number of Ph.D.s from these groups who enter the professoriate in the mathematical sciences as well as other appropriate professions.
  4. To increase funded research collaborations among faculty members at the universities with mathematical sciences doctoral programs and faculty members at colleges and universities focused on undergraduate students.
  5. To foster the growth of a community of mathematical scientists that promotes a diverse workforce.”

A lofty set of goals, if you ask me, and one that they’re accomplishing very well! If you look at their data page, the rate of success (number of scholars who entered graduate school and finished) is about 75%. That is huge.

Joseph Teran gives one of the invited talks at the Field of Dreams conference.

So how does this work? Usually it starts with pairing undergraduates with a faculty mentor, and these mentors follow the students into the graduate program. The students, or alliance Scholars, are “math sciences students, either undergraduates or students enrolled in a terminal Masters program,  who come from ethnic groups, families and/or regions that have had little prior experience with doctoral study in the mathematical sciences.” The criteria for choosing these students are that they are interested in and serious about pursuing a graduate degree. Usually they get paired with a mentor in the same region, ideally the same college. And the good news is anyone can become a mentor — I just signed up to be one!

One of the responsibilities of the mentors and scholars is to attend the annual Field of Dreams conference. These conferences are a combination of keynote speeches, “What is…” talks in the vein of the Notices column, panels (some of which are for students only), and social gatherings. All meals are included in the conference, and these are great opportunities to have informal conversations with the students. All of the students I met were eager to talk and ask questions about everything.

The conference this year was held in St. Louis on Friday Nov. 3 and Saturday Nov. 4. I was only able to go for Saturday, but everyone I met was raving about Christine Darden‘s talk and the Hidden Figures panel. By the way, what a perfect guest speaker and panel for a conference that is meant to inspire students from underrepresented groups to pursue mathematics careers! I’m so sad I missed it, but I am lucky to have seen her at the Hidden Figures panel at the JMM earlier this year (which Edray wrote about on this very blog!). Also, I must point out that the students were very lucky that Edray was involved in the organization of this year’s conference.

The math alliance is mentoring the next generation of hidden figures, and making them less hidden.

A highlight for me on Saturday was Joseph Teran‘s talk on the mathematics of animation. It was so amazing to see how much difficult mathematics and careful problem-solving goes into the movies that we watch, and the fact that bad animation can actually mess with the storytelling. I really enjoyed the parallels between good (realistic) animation and the bad kind, and his explanation of the uncanny valley, or the weird feelings of revulsion we get when something looks *almost* right but not quite right. It’s hard to describe without examples, which is why Joey’s talk was so fun. He didn’t over-simplify it either, and gave a clear account of the many layers and difficulties involved in the animation process. The animators themselves don’t know that much about what goes into it, mathematically speaking, and part of the work of the mathematicians is to create tools that are easy to use and won’t “break”. A bonus benefit, I gained some serious cred with my nieces now that I can tell them that I know someone who worked on Frozen.

This scene from Frozen took a while to animate correctly! Joseph Teran showed us several iterations and tries, this one being the final, more realistic one.

MSRI-UP 2017 alumna Ashley De Luna proudly poses with his year’s brochure (in which she is featured!).

I actually attended as an exhibitor, to represent MSRI‘s summer programs (in particular their REU program, MSRI-UP), so my main task was to “man” the table during the grad school and summer programs fair, together with my friend/colleague Tony Varilly. It was surprisingly fun to talk to so many students about the REU program, and to see their excitement and motivation. The atmosphere was extremely positive and hopeful, and that is exactly what we need to increase belongingness for so many students. I loved that MSRI gave me a chance to be a part of that.

I also moderated a panel about Surviving Graduate School. I admit, I kind of hijacked the title, and decided to rename it “How to Survive and to Thrive in graduate school”. The panelists were amazing and seriously insightful. I also thought that they brought a great balance of perspective and experience. Richard Laugesen, from Urbana-Champaign, has been the chair of the Graduate Studies program since 2012, and his department has made great strides in diversifying mathematics. Lakeshia Legette-Jones, from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, is an alliance mentor and a pure mathematician. I could tell she has been mentoring students for a long time — she had clear and sage advice for many of the students. The students had many pressing questions, but I think the overall clearest advice is that to survive (and thrive) you need people — mentors, friends, family, a network, a study group — anything that will give you a support structure for when the difficult times hit (because they will). I loved hearing from these two mentors, and I hope I grow up to be like them!

This was shared by Dr. Theresa Cullen on Twitter with this caption “This was on Facebook from #marchforscience. The end of Innovation in higher Ed is the new tax bill – no one will be able to afford to be a grad student.”

So, on to something slightly different. I have been writing about an organization/program that mentors students that have been traditionally underreresented in mathematics and helping them pursue doctorate degrees.  That is all great, but I would be remiss not to mention that in the near future, this may be impossible for most people. In fact, if the House tax plan is approved in the Senate, graduate school tuition waivers will be taxed, increasing the taxes on graduate students to an untenable degree. So who will still go to graduate school after this? Mostly wealthy people, or people who can somehow afford more student loans. This will disproportionately affect the same students that the Math Alliance is trying to help. If like me, you are appalled by this tax plan and the possible consequences for higher education, call your senators and tell them what you think. The Math Alliance is doing the work of mentoring the students, so we should do the work to make sure that this path is even available to them.

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