Remembering Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani. (Photo credit: Stanford University.)

Nine days ago, we lost a bright star of mathematics: Maryam Mirzakhani. Ever since, it seems like the whole world has been in mourning. Many beautiful obituaries have been written in major publications, like Scientific American, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. She has been mourned in social media and blogs, by mathematicians and “civilians” alike. Mathematician-turned-politician Rep. James McNerney gave a tribute on the House floor. Iranian newspapers honored their national hero, some of them even showing her with her head uncovered, breaking long standing hijab rules.

Comic by Bozorgmehr Hosseinpour. Caption reads “In mourning of the passing of Maryam Mirzakhani (Mathematician).” (Translation credit: Shabnam Akhtari.)

I never met Maryam, and yet I feel a huge sense of loss. In trying to understand this feeling I realized that it’s because she changed mathematics for all the women and girls out there, including me — only two years younger than her. Not because I feel like I can accomplish what she did (I don’t!) but because she set the bar, or rather, moved it, for what women can do. We’ve had other math heroines (I know I have many), but in 2014 she achieved something no woman had before: she won the Fields medal. Not only that, she was also widely regarded as an incredibly generous and kind person. And now I find out that while she was achieving these important milestones, she was also in the middle of her quiet fight with an aggressive form of cancer.

I know it’s not fair to put people (real, vulnerable humans) on pedestals, but she did become a symbol of hope for women in math, and we are all feeling that loss together. She was ours. I have seen women in math emailing each other to share the news and their grief, an outpouring of support on the AWM’s facebook page, and math women friends have even reported receiving condolence emails from relatives. I thought about writing a longer piece myself, but honestly all the obituaries I linked to above are so wonderful I didn’t even think I should compete. Instead, I want to have a sort of gathering, a virtual wake, or rather a celebration of her life, and I asked a few friends to help. Below, I have collected some thoughts from women mathematicians expressing how Maryam Mirzakhani changed the mathematical world for them, how she influenced them, and how this influence will live on. Feel free to post your own thoughts, tributes, and anecdotes in the comments section below.

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Posted in Maryam Mirzakhani, tribute, women in math | 2 Comments


The 23rd Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS) was held from June 21-24, 2017 at the University of Michigan.  This annual event features research talks by African Americans throughout the country.

This year’s CAARMS felt like a homecoming of sorts for me.  The last time CAARMS was held at the University of Michigan was 1999 — when I was a graduate student at Stanford University.  Some 18 years later, I am now a full professor of mathematics who is bringing his own students to attend CAARMS.

Back Row: Joseph Sauder, Edray Goins, Robert Dicks; Front Row: Chineze Christopher, Danika Van Niel, Gina Ferolito

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Love $\simeq$ love : A celebration of LGBT+ Mathematicians

Today is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are now known as the beginning of a new age of LGBT+ activism around the world. On June 28, 1970, the first gay pride parades took place, which have now become an international tradition in the month of June — known as “Pride month”.  In this post, to honor the spirit of this month, I want to highlight some LGBT+ mathematicians, and celebrate their lives, accomplishments, and contributions.  As an ally, I don’t feel like I can speak for this group, but I have selected a few blogs and interviews which caught my attention this past year as being particularly awesome. This way, you get to hear from super cool LGBT+ mathematicians, in their own words.

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Posted in intersectionality, LGBTQ+, pride, spectra | 3 Comments

Feminist Theory and Research Methodologies for More Socially Affirming Undergraduate Mathematics Education

Gender research in education explores, among other things, the possible reasons for women’s lower rates of achievement and retention than those of men across STEM fields including mathematics. However, much of this scholarship, particularly in mathematics education, limits its analyses of gender to binary comparisons (namely, female-male or women-men) with males’ and men’s achievement and participation often held as standards for success (Leyva, in press). In addition, the sampled populations in this empirical work were mostly White, thus leaving mathematics achievement and participation among historically marginalized students of color at intersections of gender, race, and other social identities underexplored.

Analyses of gender as non-binary and dynamically shaped by other social identities (e.g., race, class, sexuality) hold promise in illuminating how mathematics operates as a White, heteronormatively masculinized discipline to shape variation in students’ experiences and thus further inform more inclusive educational opportunities. With mathematics serving as a gatekeeper for access to undergraduate STEM majors such as engineering and physics, the adoption of such analyses in higher education is critical for the advancement of socially-affirming learning and student support opportunities toward inclusion and broadened STEM participation.

(Image from Emily Griffith’s blog on Rhetorical Criticism.)

Feminist theory and research methodologies can be used to explore and disrupt forms of gender inequities in different parts of society, including education. Intersectionality, a theoretical perspective and methodology from Black feminist thought, allows for detailing forms of oppression and privilege that marginalized individuals uniquely experience at different intersections of their social identities such as gender, race, and sexuality (Crenshaw, 1991). In this blog post, I highlight the findings of intersectional studies from three interdisciplinary scholars — Dr. Lance McCready, Dr. Mia Ong, and Dr. Terrell Strayhorn – who pursued feminist analyses using queer of color critique, theories of body and embodiment, and the concept of othermothering. This blog post also raises questions about conceptual and methodological implications from this intersectional research for the advancement of more socially affirming undergraduate STEM educational opportunities. Please share your thoughts about the review, posed questions, and suggested references for other feminist scholarship in the comments section below.

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Posted in feminist theory, gender research, intersectionality, math education | 4 Comments

i/e Spotlight: SACNAS

As mentioned in our first post, one of the many purposes of this blog is to write about organizations focusing on supporting underrepresented people in math. In that spirit, we are starting a series called i/e Spotlight, where we feature different organizations and the many opportunities provided by them. For the first post in this series, I wanted to write about SACNAS, a Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

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Posted in conferences, equity, i/e Spotlight, leadership, mentoring, participation, SACNAS | 3 Comments

Get Out The Way

Update June 7, 2017: For a follow-up to this post, check out Piper Harron’s personal blog, The Liberated Mathematician.
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Posted in hiring, racism, sexism, women in math | 91 Comments


I’m going to say something political that some of you may not like. In the spirit of The Oatmeal,’m going to ask you to read to the end before you decide that I cannot possibly have said what I think I said (paraphrasing Rebecca Goldstein, who is summarizing Wittgenstein on Gödel). Thanks, I appreciate it.

Here it is: mathematics is political. In this post I’m going to reflect on what this means, why I believe it, why I think it matters, and what we might do as a result.

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Posted in cultural pressure in academia, equity, implicit bias, intersectionality, introduction, math education, social justice | 10 Comments

Two Days with a Chicano Mathematician: Bill Velez visits Purdue

When I was in graduate school in mathematics at Stanford University, I was very politically active on campus.  Not only was I an officer for the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA), but I was an officer for the Chicano Latino Graduate Students Association (CGSA) as well.  I am not Latino, but the passion and political savvy of the Chicano culture piqued my interest into becoming part of this organization.

Nearly twenty years later, I was able to bring “Chicanismo” to Purdue University by bringing William Yslas Velez to Indiana for a couple of days.

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Posted in cultural pressure in academia, mathematics experiences, participation, racism, social justice | 2 Comments

Math education in the Berkeley Hills: CIME 2017

(Guest post by Dagan Karp.)

I want to tell you about CIME, a super awesome workshop, even though it’s problematic in some of the ways that academic research-focused workshops tend to be, in my experience. What the *#&% is CIME you ask? For the past 14 years, MSRI has hosted an annual workshop on Critical Issues in Mathematics Education. I just returned from CIME 2017: Observing for Access, Power and Participation in Mathematics Classrooms as a Strategy to Improve Mathematics Teaching and Learning. (This was my third CIME.) Although there were insightful sessions centered on observation, the long subtitle didn’t do this year’s workshop justice. The workshop was demanding, situating math education within white supremacy and focusing attention on women of color. It was useful, with participants walking away with action items and a new community of collaborators. And it was fascinating, with brilliant ideas presented across a host of settings. In this post, I’ll talk about what stood out to me, including some of the challenges I saw.

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Profiles in Invisibility

When people ask me “who is your favorite superhero?”, I usually say Invisible Boy (played by the awesome Kel Mitchell) from the 90’s movie Mystery Men. Invisible Boy’s superpower is, you guessed it, invisibility, but there’s a catch: he can only become invisible when no one is looking. He says this is a power he developed after many years of being ignored. For a woman in math, it’s really not that hard to identify with this. (Also, it’s not a coincidence that he is also the only substantial black character in the movie.)

This feeling of invisibility is a feeling that I find hard to describe to people without triggering defensiveness or sounding like I am “whiny”. I have been on both sides of this (the defensive and the “whiny” sides), and I have had to do a LOT of work to try to listen instead of defending my actions/inactions. One of the things I have tried to do seems really simple, but really isn’t: if you have not experienced something, don’t assume that the person telling you about it somehow is wrong or “exaggerating” in their response. I was once riding in a cab in Ghana, and the driver was asking me about my home country, Venezuela. He found it hard to believe, at first, that I would feel safer traveling by myself in Ghana than in Venezuela; he didn’t know how dangerous Venezuela had become, especially for women. But he listened, and in the end he said: “Well, if a fish tells you that there are sharks in the water, you believe it.” Of course, the “fish” could be wrong, confused, etc., but why would you, the person outside of the water, automatically assume that you know better? This is called the “benefit of the doubt” for a reason. When we can’t be sure who’s right, let’s default to the person who has more experience.

Revenge of the invisible woman.

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Posted in implicit bias, racism, sexism, women in math | 6 Comments