Grad School and the NICU, by Julie Skinner Sutton

“Why are you here today? You need to go home and rest. Let’s catch up in a few days.” Those words from my supervising professor for my mathematics PhD were so comforting. The words may not be exact, but the sentiment is. I can’t remember who asked me first if I was OK; was it my advisor, or someone on my committee? I remember walking into the seminar I was helping with; then I was in the hallway with my advisor; it was early July and campus was pretty much empty. “I had a miscarriage.” Just saying the words were hard enough. The compassion and kindness that I was met with made all the difference. Not that I expected anything less; I had been very open from the beginning that I wanted to have kids and I was already 34 entering my 4th year of a BS-to-PhD mathematics program. The plan for Fall 2013 was to interview students in an undergraduate calculus class (some of whom were in a special program working on more intense questions in a group setting) and to teach a large section of pre-calculus. I found out I was pregnant on a Sunday, and by the next Sunday we were in the ER because I was having cramps. By that fateful Wednesday as I entered the seminar, it was over. I went home to rest, as instructed. Then, we went to one final appointment. “There’s a heartbeat.” I remember being shocked. My husband found his voice before I did, “How is that possible?” Within a few minutes a nurse was handing me a prescription. “Take these and start tonight. It probably won’t be enough. The heartbeat was too low.” This is not at all how I pictured pregnancy starting. I took the progesterone, afraid to tell anyone what was going on, and we waited.

At MathFest that summer (how was it hot in Hartford?), I was miserable. I slept so much. Thankfully, a dear friend was there, and I could confide in her. She brought me lunch more than once when I couldn’t muster the energy to leave the hotel. As classes began that fall, it seemed as though everything was working out. When I told my chair about the pregnancy, he exclaimed, “This is wonderful news!” He told me that in the late fall, we could figure out how to handle the spring semester. People kept asking how we managed to get Pi-Day as a due date. I didn’t realize the rarity of my having such a supportive department. I assumed that people would be accepting because women have babies all the time, and the department that I was in had lots of families and kids. The only time I heard anything negative (from a single, older male), one of our tenured professors corrected the person.

Then, I got sick. I had migraine headaches that the doctors couldn’t control. I was hospitalized over and over again. We had to delay the start of data collection for my dissertation research. It seems like it took months to get everything rescheduled. I came to class when I could (and my amazing officemate covered for me when I couldn’t), and somehow my interviews were completed. We joked that Fall 2013 was the worst time to have a baby. That semester, I had the worst teaching evaluations of my life: “She takes attendance but can’t bother to come to class herself.” Some days, my meds didn’t work, and I would pass out from the pain and end up in the hospital again. But somehow, I made it to Chicago for the PME-NA (North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education) conference. I remember walking around the city with a friend who lives there. She’s a physician, and I think that’s the main reason I felt comfortable going. It was raining so hard that my maternity pants kept falling down from the weight of the water soaking into the legs. I didn’t look 6 months pregnant, and almost no one knew. My health finally stabilized, and we enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family, talking about the new little one that would join us next year. The day after Thanksgiving, my wedding rings wouldn’t fit, and my shoes were uncomfortable. I met a friend from high school to go shopping and she brushed off my symptoms. “That happens. It’s nothing.”

The following Wednesday was my last interview for my study. Somehow, in the midst of all the pain and exhaustion, I had made it! I remember walking up the steps to the building, feeling winded. I was tired and looking forward to the break. A faculty member saw me walking in and asked how I was. I will never forget her telling me, “You look puffy,” before I reassured her that I was fine. “Let’s do lunch,” she offered. After that last interview, I caught up with my dissertation advisor. He was also concerned about me, but I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon and promised I was fine. I would start transcribing my interviews over the break and into the Spring. The department had offered to let me be a grader for a few classes and I could teach a special seminar until I had the baby. We had meetings scheduled to finalize the plans.

“Get back on the scale again.” I looked at the nurse, confused, but I did as she said. “Your doctor will be right in,” she told me as I sat on the cold table, my husband playing on his iPad. In less than 30 seconds, the door opened and my doctor entered. “You’re going to the hospital. You’re going to stay there until you have the baby.” Shocked, it was again my husband who first recovered enough to speak, “That’s 15 weeks!” She just nodded. I had gained 35 pounds in less than 4 weeks and had high protein in my urine sample. I had preeclampsia. I remember trying to tell my husband what to pack in a bag because, of course, I hadn’t packed one yet. It was a balmy 70-degree day in early December, and somehow, he found the rattiest nightgown and holeyest pajama pants I owned. And he forgot the shampoo. The nurses and my doctor did their best to comfort me as I moved into the hospital’s ante-partum floor, “You can have your baby shower downstairs if your blood pressure is low enough,” and (my favorite) “You’ll make friends on the floor!” (I did, in fact, meet a woman two years later who had been on the floor with me). That night I cried, alone in a hospital room. As soon as it was ‘decent’ to text someone on the East Coast, I reached out to a math professor I knew who had had premature twins. She had also had preeclampsia. I remember the care in her voice as I apologized over and over again for calling. “This is what we do – we support each other.” Word got around that I was going to be in the hospital for a long while and people texted and called. My doctor friend from Chicago called – she’s a pediatric hospitalist and I was her sounding board throughout her NICU rotations in residency. When I said I was 25 weeks, she responded, “Oh, Sh-t!” I hung up. We had so much stacked against us. Then it snowed. (Remember the 70-degree day?) Well, in fewer than 48 hours, the DFW airport had turned into a hockey rink. They cancelled exams at my university (which doesn’t happen in Texas!). All day, my blood pressure kept rising. I finally called my husband. “Get here, I need you.” He hemmed about the weather but came up. I ordered dinner and got in the shower. There was a nurse with an IV waiting when I got out and, at 9:01pm (so, technically AFTER classes ended in 2013’s Fall semester), my 640g (1.4lb) daughter was born via c-section. Our families couldn’t get there because of the weather. It was just us.

A few days later, my department sent out an email saying that I’d had a baby and I received so many congratulatory emails (and some saying, “We didn’t know you were expecting!”). My advisor and his wife (who is also a math faculty member) came up to meet my daughter in her little isolette in the NICU.

And this is where I thought the story would end: with me and a Master’s degree. But that wasn’t the end. My department let me grade and coordinate a set of classes, and there was a grant I could contribute to as a research assistant for the next semester. I kept in touch with my advisor, but most of the contact was when I initiated it. My daughter had complications, and we moved to a children’s hospital. She had more surgeries. After 173 days in the hospital, she came home on May 28th. I taught a class over the summer, and I did eventually get my transcriptions done. We had to navigate the world of in-home nursing instead of daycare and nanny shares. Throughout all of it, though, I knew that my department was behind me. In fact, after my daughter was born, it seemed like there was a baby boom among the graduate students! We all finished our PhDs. They instilled in us that we were worth investing in, and then they did just that. I’m not saying that everyone got a semester to grade instead of full teaching duties—mine was certainly a special case—but no one was made to feel like they had “messed up” by getting pregnant during their education. Even now, when I go back to my Alma Mater to have a meeting or teach a class, people ask first about my family. It’s been 6 years, and they still think I’m worth investing in. And, I am.

Julie Skinner Sutton is a researcher in Undergraduate Mathematics Education who teaches at The University of Texas at Dallas in the department of Mathematical Sciences and is affiliated with the department of Science & Math Education as a Senior Lecturer. She has found a passion for teaching those students who choose a path into the liberal and fine arts disciplines and considers herself an ambassador of mathematics.

Julie first attended The University of Texas at Austin with plans to become a Chemical Engineer, but quickly determined that life in a cubicle wasn’t for her. In fact, after a tenured faculty member commented (to her father) that she would “be a fine entertainment director on cruise ships,” her dreams of even attaining a Bachelor’s Degree became dark. Eventually Julie decided to continue the chase – this time at The University of Texas at Arlington – to obtain a teaching certificate and teach high school math. However, a faculty member took an interest in Julie and invited her to apply to graduate school. After receiving a GAANN fellowship at UT-Arlington, Julie also worked on a large NSF-DOE grant researching the impact of group learning on calculus outcomes. Through the Association for Women in Mathematics, Julie was awarded several Sonia Kovalevsky grants with faculty at UT-Arlington and routinely worked with middle school students at events.

After completing her dissertation, Julie took her position at UT Dallas. She enthusiastically teaches pre-service and in-service teachers and those working to obtain a non-science degree. She won a TENSOR foundation grant at UTD and hosted 45 students from a local Title I high school on campus for a day of mathematics fun. Routinely she spends her summers showing students how fun mathematical exploration can be! In 2019, UT Dallas awarded Julie the Non-Tenure Track Teaching Award from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Julie and her husband have a healthy (and energetic) 6-year-old now. She went home with a feeding tube and oxygen, but is now just as normal as the rest of us (well, as normal as we can be).

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Helping other women, helping myself, by Amy Prager

One of the most important topics to me in academia and industry is that of gender discrimination. To discuss this problem in the abstract is one thing, however, to actually live through it and have personal experience is quite another. I view this issue through a rare lens, as I am a postoperative transgendered woman.

When I was younger, and assumed to be a cis-gendered male, I let my eyes and ears be my guide to what those around me thought about what the proper role of women and their education should be. My grandparents—on both sides—would actually say things like, “It’s OK for a boy to be bookish or nerdy, but for a girl its very bad, of course.” My mother’s father was actually proud of the fact that he wanted/allowed his daughters to be educated, too, as if this was an unusually progressive attitude for him to take. I remained silent, but I vowed in my mind to investigate further exactly how normative these prejudicial attitudes were when I was older, hoping someday that information would become easier to come by (through a worldwide, interconnected computer system of “webpages,” perhaps?). When I looked at undergraduate colleges, there were still some good universities, most notably Columbia College, that would not admit women. We have come a long way, but in many respects, not nearly far enough.

When I attended university, I took further notice of potentially sexist and other discriminatory attitudes all around me. Some in my family actually said if I did not marry a member of my ethnic group, I would be disowned or worse. These statements are clearly not supportive of an LGBT identity, especially when they were expressed before the legalization of same sex marriage. But these attitudes went far beyond romantic or reproductive relationships—they affected every aspect of my daily life. Dismayed by what I saw happening back “home” and vowing to myself that that place will never be considered my “home” again, I approached my advisor and colleagues about these ideas. My advisor, trying his best to be supportive, told me that, horrifyingly, some women attend college with the goal of obtaining their “MRS degree.” I then queried my female STEM friends and students about their experiences. I was genuinely saddened by what was self-reported. One of my own students lamented that her mother told her she was destined to be a housewife like her and, therefore, did not need an expensive education.  When I tried to intercede on her behalf, I actually got branded as a villain. Tales of parental, familial and societal disapproval were the norm, not the unfortunate rare exception. What was even worse was that the academy, whose very job it was to encourage their students, acted in an even more discouraging fashion. However, I felt more than sadness. I was in disbelief, as I could not have imagined—from my unknowingly privileged vantage point—that such institutionalized discrimination could exist against an entire class, indeed the majority of people on earth. However, all of that was about to change dramatically once I began transitioning.

When I first sought out therapy to help me through my transition, I did not realize that there are religious therapists who believe that their role is to encourage heteronormativity and cis-normativity, and they know that the only way they can do this is by removing the patient (or victim) from other sources of more neutral help. I had my work cut out for me! I had one encounter in my search for a therapist that is amusing in hindsight. A therapist yelled at me that if I did not show up in a business suit, pressed dress shirt, and perfectly tied tie, he would throw me out of his office. His rationale was simple: only these clothing choices would make me at all employable. (He apparently has never been to a tech company office or university campus.) He told me to grow up and get a job, pointing out that he didn’t want to have to pay increased taxes to pay for my welfare my entire life. Oddly enough, he and others like him have inadvertently taught me a great lesson. They made me more sensitive to others’ needs and instilled in me a desire to help.

And it is my need to help others—and especially those who need help strictly because they come from some marginalized group—that has altered the course of my life, my career, and my research. When helping others becomes something you are disrespected and degraded for, you know you know you are dealing with people that have a lot to hide and a lot to lose. These are people that have too much to lose from a fair world, and too much to hide about themselves. As a result of negative experiences, both directed at me personally and those I observed out in the world, my work transitioned from research mathematics and computing to STEM education and, in particular, math education, with a focus on helping women achieve their fullest potential in these fields. In the course of my research and my work in these areas, what I have learned and experienced has been absolutely astounding. I have found that there is a powerful community that uses threats involving educational expenses as leverage to realize their vision for the next generation. It has both encouraged me to continue onward, and it has depressed me so much that I have had difficulty doing exactly that.

I cope and manage to keep going by observing the success stories of my students and mentees. I see the effects on those who have been hurt and those who I am trying to help. Despite the challenges I face on the path I’ve chosen, the positive change I am able to contribute to makes it worthwhile.

Amy Beth Prager is an applied mathematician and computational scientist who has become a STEM Education researcher and passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, encouraging young women and underrepresented groups in STEM, sharing her love of science and technology to inspire the next generation of scientists and technologists, and people everywhere to embrace learning and education.

In the 20th century, she graduated Johns Hopkins University in applied mathematics and theoretical chemistry, and studied postgraduate level quantum chemistry for 1.5 years beyond her bachelor’s degree, and successfully worked on scientific projects in a wide variety of locations, within Nothern America and Europe.

In the 21st century, her research interests turned towards the disproportionate barriers and resultant income inequality in countries with high education costs such as the USA and UK, that fall on women and underrepresented groups. She entered the doctoral programs in math education and mathematics at Columbia University, featuring additional coursework at Princeton University and IAS, and after becoming ABD at Columbia, completed over a calendar year of post-ABD study at MIT.

She currently devotes herself to these issues in a number of capacities. She serves on the NCWIT Aspirations Team in her native Massachusetts, lectures in mathematics education at Cornell University and other universities in New England, and is an active member and participant of SACNAS, and the Mathematics Alliance. She has served on panels , led discussions, and given keynotes at SWE conferences and similar organizations, and contributed to books and book chapters on encouragement of women and underrepresented groups in STEM.

Posted in Gender Discrimination, LGBTQ | Leave a comment

I am a Depressed Mathematician, by Matthew Pons

I was diagnosed with depression as a graduate student.  My therapist at the time worked with many graduate students and she understood the external stressors that such programs place on individuals.  She was also well aware of the fact that many graduate students abuse drugs and alcohol in an effort to cope.  I thought that I was just like everyone else. I worked hard, I taught my courses, and I went out for drinks frequently.  I lied to her about my alcohol use as I was embarrassed about how much I drank – not a healthy choice.  However, I’m sure she knew I was not being truthful, and she worked with me regardless of my unwillingness to be honest with both her and myself.  Eventually, she helped me see that my feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide were part of something that we could work through.

My therapist helped me to see that I had been depressed since I was around 17.  Throughout college, I had very little self-confidence, was terribly intimidated to speak in public spaces, and thoughts of suicide were frequent. I only made a plan once, and, luckily, I was not determined enough to carry it out. However, math was a place where I felt safe. I understood things quickly in my mathematics courses, my professors were encouraging, and I gained a little self-confidence in that arena. Unfortunately, that changed. As a graduate student and pre-tenured faculty member, math was a large contributor to my feelings of worthlessness. My classmates in graduate school seemed far more intelligent than I was, and I compared myself to them too often. When I couldn’t prove the result I was trying to prove, I felt stupid. Then I questioned my self-worth.  Then I drank. This was a frequently occurring cycle.  I abused alcohol quite a bit throughout grad school (though I would be sure to sober up for therapy appointments). And then there were the days when I didn’t even try because I couldn’t face it—or even get out of bed, for that matter.

What I’ve learned is that I’m not worthless, no matter what my brain tells me or how often it tells me. Fighting those kinds of thoughts can be exhausting and can affect sleep patterns and mood, which in turn, affect how I interact with my colleagues and students.  I have discovered that I can combat a thought of worthlessness by accomplishing something, anything: a load of laundry, an email, preparing or giving a lecture, etc.  This seems simple, but it reminds me that I am a functioning human being.  But that is just one piece of the depression puzzle.  To deal with the bigger issues, having a schedule is crucial for me.  My days are planned pretty thoroughly with meetings, class, and office hours.  I don’t allow myself the time to fall into the trap of thoughts waiting for me, and at the end of the day, I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished.  It’s not about ignoring the depression but on focusing on things that counterbalance those thoughts and symptoms. Where it gets tough is when there are big chunks of unscheduled time. As academics, we have huge breaks in our normal schedule.  Winter and summer breaks are a difficult time, and sabbaticals are completely overwhelming.  In these times, I have learned that I need to be organized and have projects, both big and small, that I can focus on. And for days that I can’t move, I have to accept that they exist and try again the next day.

I’ve also realized that mathematics is actually a great tool for someone like me. Instead of focusing on obsession over proving the theorem, I now end a day of research looking back on what I have learned. It’s about finding the positive.  Ok, so I didn’t prove the theorem, but I learned why my method is insufficient.  Or, I learned about a new result that may prove useful in my research.  Or, I went back to the basics and dug into the foundational aspects of the problem, solidifying my overall understanding. Hell, somedays I just work some fun calculus problems. Learning is one of the strongest tools I have. The fact that I live and work in a discipline that has an endless supply of things to learn is a huge blessing. I know that there is more pressure on graduate students and pre-tenured faculty to “prove that theorem,” but this perspective can still be useful. You are not defined by your mathematics. It’s a cliché, but I wish that we were more acculturated to focus on the journey rather than the destination.

The above change in perspective came about as I began to practice yoga.  My practice focuses a lot on gratitude and has helped me to look for places to be grateful in all aspects of my life. With regard to mathematics, what I know now is that I can be grateful for the mathematics that I do know.  I can be grateful for the mathematics that is still eluding me.  And I can be grateful for my colleagues and students who allow me to discuss mathematics with them. It’s ironic, but many of us communicate the above ideas to our students frequently, and yet we cannot internalize these same messages.  As I continue on my journey, my hope is that I will continue to remember what I’m grateful for and trust myself.

Matthew Pons, Co-Editor, is a Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Department at North Central College, where he has been a faculty member since 2007.  He earned his PhD from the University of Virginia in 2007 and his undergraduate degree in 2002 from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Matthew’s favorite professional activity is teaching and his approach to classroom learning is shaped largely by his faculty mentors as both an undergraduate and graduate student.  They taught with passion and enthusiasm, and they knew how to push a student to excel all the while providing guidance and support.  As an instructor, it is not always easy to watch students struggle with the challenges inherent in the study of mathematics.  But seeing students overcome these challenges is a constant source of inspiration for Matthew, not only in his teaching but also in his own research.

Posted in Mental Health Struggles | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Follow Your Heart, by Jeff Weeks

Throughout my seven years as a math grad student, there was a constant struggle for attention between “what I was supposed to be working on” and “what my heart was into.” This theme played out in different ways over those seven years.

When I first arrived in Princeton in 1978, I discovered that I was the only one in my entering class who hadn’t already taken graduate-level courses as an undergrad. Worse still, the Math Department, catering to its typical clientele, offered no introductory graduate courses. None at all. Our mandate was to learn—or, for my classmates, review—the basic stuff on our own, and then dive into the research-level courses that the various professors offered.

I was adrift. What should I have been doing? Studying even harder about Noetherian rings, the Radon-Nikodym theorem, etc. etc., all at a level of abstraction that I found neither useful nor interesting.  What was my heart into? Learning some concrete geometry and topology, along with some general relativity. You can guess what I spent most of my time doing.

As you might imagine, my qualifying exams did not go well. On my first attempt, they let me off the hook on the basic topics with a humiliating but welcome remark that “you can learn this stuff when you teach it.” But for the advanced topics, they wanted me to try again the next year. They weren’t impressed then either, but they decided that I should start working on a thesis anyhow.

By then, I’d signed on with Bill Thurston as my advisor. I don’t remember what problems I was supposed to be working on, but I made no progress with them. What was my heart into? By that time, my fellow grad students, colored chalk in hand, had introduced me to the beautiful world of low-dimensional topology, and I’d fallen in love with it. I’d also noticed that all books on the subject involved a lot of graduate-level algebra and analysis that really wasn’t needed to understand and appreciate the core concepts of geometric topology. So, I decided to ignore my thesis problems and instead took it upon myself to write the “missing book,” something that would welcome everyone—from high school students on up—into the magic world of multi-connected spaces.

That project took several years, with the book, The Shape of Space, finally completed in my fifth year as a grad student. My grad student stipend ended that year, so during what would have been my sixth year, I taught at Stockton State College and saved up enough money to return to Princeton and write a thesis in the seventh year. I don’t remember what I was supposed to be working on, but while Bill Thurston was away for the winter holidays, I decided to grant myself an indulgence to investigate some especially simple 3-manifolds and write a little computer program to find hyperbolic structures for some of them. I was lucky enough to stumble onto the smallest closed hyperbolic 3-manifold. During my first meeting with Bill after the holidays, I figured I’d briefly mention this little discovery. Bill responded with some ideas for how I might move forward with these investigations and how I might extend my little computer program. He said not a word about my old boring thesis topic, so by the time the hour was over, it was clear I had his blessing to do a thesis with my software for putting hyperbolic structures on 3-manifolds. “What my heart was into” had finally become “what I was supposed to be doing”!

Throughout six-and-a-half of my seven grad school years, I’d always felt that I would have been better off with a different advisor at a different school, with a firmer hand to guide me. But in retrospect, Thurston’s approach was exactly the right one: he let me find my own path. By the end of those seven years, I had some research software (SnapPea) and a book (The Shape of Space). In my heart, the book was my true dissertation. Even though it did nothing to satisfy Princeton’s Ph.D. requirements, it set the tone for my whole professional life, both in content (geometry, topology, cosmology) and style (exposition for the general public).

As for my advice to current students, I dearly wish I could say “follow your heart” and leave it at that.  But, of course, it’s not quite that simple. One needs a paying job. So, my advice is: follow your heart, and find a way to turn your passion into your livelihood. I wish you good courage and the best of luck.

Jeff Weeks is a free-lance geometer, topologist and occasional cosmologist.  His favorite successful projects are the third edition of his book The Shape of Space and the Geometry Games software.  His favorite unsuccessful project was collaborating with cosmologists to deduce the topology of the universe from the cosmic microwave background.  Support over the years has come from the National Science Foundation, a MacArthur Fellowship, lectures, and occasional work for science museums.  In his spare time, he enjoys biking (spring, summer, autumn) and cross-country skiing (winter) with his wife, and learning foreign languages.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Invisible struggles – when the mask stays on at work, by Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson

It has taken me a long, long time to recognize my own story as one of resilience and to recognize my own experiences as a struggle. It is still at times difficult for me to fully embrace it. One core reason for this is that we value work very highly – and I rarely struggled as a student, postdoc, or professor. Instead, the energy I expend masking my issues raises my stress level and brings the pent-up emotional storm to bear at home.

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1980s and 1990s – I’m at the very cusp of the “Millennials.” We had computers at home as far back as I can remember, and my parents both worked with computers already in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a household that encouraged academic endeavor and seeded it with a lot of literature – literature that I devoured as soon as I could read.

I always dreamed of working in academia. We have a family story from when I was four and was asked by a man I was talking to what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Researcher,” I lisped as precociously as I possibly could. Since that day, my plan has not changed noticeably – it has merely become more precise year by year.

I was precocious. I was odd. I was a rampant geek. Kindergarten through 9th grade was a period of constant exclusion and bullying at school. Grades 10 through 12 came with some specialization in the schooling, and with that selectivity came relief.

Selectivity as relief is something I have noticed through my years. Even when bullying was particularly bad, my extracurriculars have always provided me with a haven. Scouting, orchestra, theatre and the Young Scientist’s Association all took their turns as a place of refuge and safety. Selecting peer groups for shared interests rather than shared geography has always led to better outcomes for me.

As far back as my family remembers, I have always had problems with my mood, with my emotions going haywire on me. I am still right now digging through the why and how, and I am finding diagnoses and letter combinations along the way that may explain parts of it all. Certainly, there is some sort of PTSD from the years of bullying, but my family has told me stories of mood swings from before Kindergarten.

I am pretty good at masking, though: keeping stable while out among relative strangers and forcing my mood to stabilize. It is something paid for dearly once I let go of the force. As a result, I tend to have more and more severe mood swings at home than in school or at work. My colleagues could have gone for years without knowing that I have any issues whatsoever, because I stay stable and balanced during the day. Instead I will crash at home, reacting with anxiety, tears and sometimes freezing up completely at the slightest of causes.

There are some particularly noticeable crashes I can remember because they caused me to go and seek help. The first time I got started with psychiatrists and psychologists was thanks to my wife. During her first family dinner with my family, she got to witness my meltdowns firsthand as I crashed out, fled the dinner table and hid in my room. She came after me and encouraged me to seek help. A few months later I was seeing a psychiatrist, taking Lamictal for mood stability and seeing a psychologist for therapy.

Another time – earlier than this – during a postdoc in Scotland, my wife was enthusiastically looking forward to my cooking a lamb curry for dinner. I did not want to, but I could not bring myself to tell her that I did not want to cook the curry. Instead, I froze up in the middle of the frozen foods aisles and then broke down. That’s the first time I got restarted on mental health care.

During a research semester in Minneapolis, a car turned in front of me at a crosswalk and the world just … slowed down. I froze up on the sidewalk and stood just still and shaking for several minutes. Once I managed to get myself to move again, I could not push myself beyond an extremely slow pace. Once I got home and inside, I cried so hard the muscles in my face hurt from it. A few days later, I sought out the student health services and saw a psychiatrist for advice on the antidepressants I was taking and a psychologist for a sequence of therapy sessions.

There was a time period when the hacker / security research community faced a sequence of high-profile suicides. Almost all of them were of people who were very close to one of my close friends. Feeling the impact of these deaths, the community stepped up and organized conference panels, support groups, and tried hard to increase visibility and support for mental health issues. I was watching this as it happened and looking over to my academic circles where I could see no visibility, no support, leaving each of us feeling alone and isolated in our struggles. I wanted what the hacker community built for my academic world.

At one point, people were posting texts “coming out” with their own struggles – to put a spotlight on how widespread issues with depression and anxiety were in the community. So, I wrote up a text about my mood stability, I put it on my website, and I tweeted about it. A day later I got an email from one of my colleagues during my postdoc in Scotland. He told me he had depression, and that he had not noticed me struggle at all. I told him about the hacker community and their work – so we founded a group blog for “depressed academics”: http://blog.depressedacademics.org.

Since then, I have been consciously choosing to be open about my mood instability. I write online under my own name about moods, medications, therapy. Sometimes very personally. I tell people early on about my mood disorder – for instance I often weave a mention into my teaching early in my courses. As a result, people open up to me. Students come to me with their own struggles instead of hiding them.

Just because it was not visible in the workplace did not mean I did not struggle. Now, I am making it visible.

Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson, Assistant Professor of Data Science at CUNY College of Staten Island, started out in computational homological algebra before moving into topological data analysis (TDA) a decade ago. After a MSc at Stockholm University and a Dr rer nat at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, he went through 8 years of postdocs at Stanford, St Andrews and KTH before settling in New York at CUNY. Beside TDA and running the blog blog.depressedacademics.org, his interests are wide and varied – touching on linguistics, necktie knots, and psychology as well as most recently mathematical art (exhibited at JMM, Bridges, ICERM and the AAAS) and the Illustrating Mathematics research semester.

 

Posted in Mental Health Struggles | Leave a comment

Recovery, Like Mathematics, Turns Out to Be Fun! by Anonymous

Thirty years ago, I expected to die from alcoholism. Suicidal ideation gave way to a complacency that I would just drink myself to death. Mired in hopelessness, I went through the motions of life, pretending to teach, pretending to do research. Despite my every instinct, I managed to ask for help. Today, I am a happy, successful member of Alcoholics Anonymous with a lively career in mathematics. I share my story hoping to help even one person who is now in the place I was all those years ago.

In school, I was that student who could solve all the problems quickly and showed a natural gift for mathematics. How poorly that prepared me for the actual practice of mathematics, where we must learn to spend most of our time feeling confused. Indeed, in college, I think that my strongest motivation for doing mathematics was to earn praise and make myself look good, rather than a sincere love for the subject. As I started drinking and smoking marijuana more and more, my life started to break in two: an outer persona who won academic prizes and an inner one who became increasingly insecure. However, for a few years, it was all great fun.

Going off to a top-tier graduate school opened my eyes to the reality that having a knack for mathematics was just one possible starting point for study, not a free ticket to success. Among my colleagues were people who knew how to face challenges and work hard when things did not come easily. I felt increasingly out of place and turned to self-medication to avoid the reality of my situation.

My gift got me through a PhD, but without distinction. I took a post-doctoral job that I felt I didn’t deserve. My drinking became heavier and I started to accumulate the subsequent embarrassments that I will leave you to imagine. Suicide started to seem like my best choice. Hanging on by my fingernails, I started a tenure-track job at a nice university. As my outer façade became increasingly difficult to maintain, I squeaked through the tenure process.

One summer, I supervised a brilliant student’s summer research. It made me cry to realize that I had once been just that promising, but my prospects for success in mathematics were now few. I encouraged others to think that I was just a mediocre mathematician who spent too much time working on teaching (I didn’t), which was better than being known as the drunk that I was. It was during this period that thoughts of suicide gave way to the idea that I could simply keep drinking and be dead in some small number of years.

Some part of me did not want to die. For those last years of my drinking, I would make plans to stop, try to stop, pray and beg to stop, but not stop. My health started a serious decline. After about ten years of heavy drinking, I finally called my health care provider to say that I thought I had a problem with alcohol.

When the voice on the phone told me, “We have a drop-in meeting that you could attend today,” I said something akin to, “Don’t you know who I am?” Alcoholics build up narratives of sweeping grandiosity and unreasoned pride. I was no exception. I drank for two more weeks while awaiting a one-on-one intake appointment. The doctor helped me learn about alcoholism, explaining the difference between abstinence and recovery. I knew that I wanted to recover, but did not believe it possible. I asked, “How can I go home and not do the thing that I have done every day for ten years?” He answered with a question: “Do you think you could go to an AA meeting?”

Primed by the doctor’s information, I thought I could give it a try. The people in the meeting seemed energetic. They read through a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand. Then a woman at the podium addressed the whole crowd and said, “I don’t know you, but I love you.” This is not any famous cornerstone of AA, but that was what broke through my shell. I was desperate for help, ashamed of myself, and all but certain I did not belong in that room; here was someone willing to say that she loved me just for being there.

Through that crack poured the light of recovery, though very, very slowly. I was extremely reluctant to embrace what I was told. Don’t mathematicians, with our pride in rigorous proof, always think that we know best? Over time, I’ve learned to listen for a match between the voice of my best inner self and the voice of the loving community of people in recovery. That combined wisdom leads me to discern my next right action, the most basic of which is not to pick up the next drink.

By grace (identified by Francis Su in his wonderful writings as “good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but you’re getting them anyway”), I’ve been sober since my first AA meeting. Relapse is very common and I don’t look down on people who experience it; my continuous sobriety is a reflection of the depth of my desperation when I finally was able to ask for help.

What has all this to do with being a mathematician? For one thing, I would have been helped by a different mathematical education that was less about my talent and more about the things I did not understand. It seems to me that we invite young people into mathematics only when they measure up by the same old yardsticks of speed and innate comprehension. It seems to me that we reward people who chase after mathematics, the way I used to do, solely to show themselves powerful and bright. Can’t we encourage that student who’s good at explaining something to a friend; who thinks about ideas after the test is over; who enjoys drawing a picture to illustrate ideas? Rewarding innate talent set me up in a game I was destined to fail. I’m sad to think that others are being taught the same way.

My greatest gift in sobriety comes on the days when I feel what a friend taught me to call “right sized.” I am not puffed up by a paper that I’ve written nor driven to self-abasement by a mathematical error that I’ve made in public. I am not riding on an imaginary wave of brilliant accomplishment, nor led to wallow in suicidal ideation because I have not measured up. I am just me, one of many, participating in a mathematical community that more and more values the variety of our members. If you are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, please ask for help. Mathematics can become much, much more fun.

This story was written by Anonymous. Why do I write anonymously? In Alcoholics Anonymous, we say that “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” In order to maintain my own practice of this simple program, it is better if I do not step forward as myself, but rather as one of many whose stories are like my own. This story is not really about me, but about the help available to anyone who, like me, has experienced “incomprehensible demoralization” from drugs or alcohol.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I’m Living Proof, by Danielle Amethyst

In one way or another, mathematics has been a partner in my life for as long as I can remember. Sometimes as a progenitor of crisis.  At others, as a savior.  And even as a fixed point when all else was shaken.

My first crisis in mathematics came in sixth grade. In my current language (as an adult 25 years later), I now understand that I had a hard time accepting that the multiplicative and additive identities for the field of real numbers were not the same number.  Back then, I really wanted 0 x n to be n, not 0. I don’t know why, but it really seemed wrong to me. I remember crying in the closet area in the back of the classroom, throwing a veritable tantrum. Thankfully, my teacher, Bob Stanko, consoled me and worked to convince me, patiently, through tears and protest, that it’s 1, not 0, that is the multiplicative identity. I finally accepted it a few weeks later – crisis resolved. I wonder what would be different in my life if Mr. Stanko had gotten angry with me, had shouted at me or belittled me. I probably wouldn’t have gone on to become a mathematician, but instead turned away and never come back.

My multiplicative identity crisis provided me an important experience. I learned that I can be frustrated with something yet continue to work on it and through it. This has been invaluable as I’ve moved further into the world of mathematics as a numerical algebraic geometer. I call on this lesson frequently when programming. And I even tap into this tolerance in interpersonal relationships; it’s ok to be frustrated!

A very different set of circumstances really *made me a mathematician*. I had breezed through all the available classes in high school and earned a minor in mathematics accompanying my Bachelor of Liberal Arts (yes, that was my major in undergrad, it doesn’t get any more generic than that). But in 2004, I found myself working at a grocery store selling fish, utterly unable to communicate with my coworkers about the things that kept me up at night. Awake at 2 am, I kept coming back to my analysis book, my abstract algebra notes, thinking about proof and reason. I realized I was unhappy not being around others with my interests.

My unhappiness was much deeper than not having mathy friends. I was struggling with depression, which I now know stemmed from gender dysphoria (I really couldn’t have labeled it at the time at all), and I became fascinated with the altered states afforded by psychedelic drugs. I moved with reckless abandon into a dangerous underground world, nearly losing everything.

It was late at night in a moment of clarity that I decided to become a mathematician. I realized that I needed something to challenge me, to lift me from the hole I was digging for myself – that I would keep self-destructing if I didn’t do something *hard*. I reasoned with a friend: what’s more difficult than earning a PhD in math? And, thus, it was decided. Math would save my life.

Having not earned a major in math, I was ill-prepared for a graduate program in mathematics. I signed up for a second bachelor’s program at my university, with only the intention of taking enough classes to be able to handle graduate level work. I took the GRE in December 2005, and I officially started graduate school in January 2007.

Finally, I was surrounded by a community of people who were as passionate as I was about the wonderous world and surprising connections of mathematical theory. I had permission to go as far as I wanted. And I did, earning my PhD in 2012, enjoying several postdocs, and obtaining a permanent position at a university.

The mathematical community has embraced me as I have embraced it. This provided crucial support to me during gender transition and through the debilitating depression that came to a head while I worked as a postdoc at Notre Dame.

Earlier in life I had tried – several times – to transition, not knowing what I was doing, lacking the language to describe what I was feeling, and thinking I was utterly alone in what I was experiencing. Attempts to come out were met with strong resistance, and I would repress again – pushing down the feelings, throwing out the garments, stopping the conversations, replacing the thoughts with unhealthy behaviour. This cycle finally led me, in the summer of 2016, to search for answers; Google was my tool. The primary question I was afraid to ask was, “Why do I want to be a girl?” To my surprise, I found that I was not alone. I learned, with the help of so many strangers on the internet, the words I was looking for: “transgender”, “gender dysphoria”, and “transition” are a few.

I shed a lot of my identity once I started to work on transition. I lost my name, wandering namelessly. The nature of all my relationships changed. I questioned everything. But through that was a love of mathematics, an unrequited love born of persistence and wonder. I used math as a pivot, as a fixed point in the map I was living through as I moved toward becoming a woman.

I am so happy that I have found allies and friends in math and that my colleagues and students have allowed me room to be my true self. I wouldn’t be myself without my identity as a mathematician. When everything else was crumbling, mathematics was solid. When I needed a way out from a dark place, mathematics saved me. And when I didn’t even know I needed a lesson to guide me, mathematics taught.

Now that I’m mostly through transition and back to a nearly steady state, mathematics beckons me further. Here I go…

Danielle Amethyst is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. All three of her degrees are from Colorado State University. Her research is in algorithms and implementation of numerical algebraic geometry, and visualization and computation of real algebraic varieties. She is absolutely enthralled by 3D printing on her own machines, both for mathematical art and practical problem solving. Emails from the broader community bring her joy. Danielle also enjoys bicycling and gaming.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Living Proof blog!

Welcome to the Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey blog! We are so happy you’re here. 

Living Proof is a project that was borne out of interactions Matthew Pons had with a number of his students. One semester, Matthew had a strong cohort of women in his Analysis class. He was impressed with their work–their ability to grapple with the course material, try problems, learn from their failures, and seek help when they needed it. From his perspective, they were succeeding. Unfortunately, from their perspectives, they were failing. They felt like mathematics shouldn’t be so hard, that the fact that it was difficult for them must mean that they aren’t intelligent or aren’t cut out to study math. Matthew tried to reassure them that everyone struggles–that he himself struggled with the subject as an undergraduate–but they brushed aside his encouragement. Perhaps they assumed that he was being dishonest just to make them feel better. Perhaps they assumed that his struggles couldn’t have been as bad as their own. In any case, Matthew thought, “If they don’t believe me, who would they believe? Maybe they can’t identify with me because I am not a woman. Maybe they can’t hear what I am saying because I am their professor.” This gave Matthew an idea. He needed to collect stories from a wide variety of mathematicians about times that they faced crises of confidence when they were in school. So, he got to work assembling an editorial team and reaching out to people to ask them to tell their stories. 

With tremendous support from the AMS and the MAA–especially Steve Kennedy, MAA editor and the project’s biggest cheerleader–the Living Proof dream became a reality. Stories of struggle and resilience, told by 41 mathematicians, were shared in a book that was made freely available by both organizations. But there are many more than 41 of us in our community. And people aren’t defined by a single story–there are so many stories we can share. This is why we felt it was important to start the Living Proof blog. We need to continue sharing our stories. We need to hear new voices and hear about different types of struggles. We need to hear more people talking about the same struggles so that people who are just now beginning to live through these experiences know that they are not alone. Our ultimate hope is that someday–perhaps years from now–someone tells the story of how what got them through their biggest challenge on their own path to becoming a mathematician was reading the stories of so many others in Living Proof.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment