Microaggressions in the Workplace

When I was younger, I used to get this feeling sometimes that I couldn’t describe. It was like a combination of irritation, anxiety, and anger but at that age, my vocabulary was quite limited. So, I decided to call it “blue.” The color blue was what popped up in my mind when I felt this feeling or when I was revisiting a situation that caused that feeling. At that age, I couldn’t explain why I felt that feeling, it would just pop up without my control when someone said something that irked me. As I grew up, I realized that I felt “blue” when people said something about my identity that I perceived as a misconstrued stereotype or an invalidation of my struggle, but they viewed it as a passive comment. This realization came at a cost. It made me hyper-aware of the microaggressions I was experiencing and had experienced. What followed that feeling was an inner monologue of whether I should react or respond. Will it be worth it? What if I was overthinking it? If no one else said anything maybe I’m just making a big deal? Will there be repercussions? I don’t want to be “that girl.” This “blue” feeling never went away, and in fact, the inner monologue has only become more complex in my role as a grad student. 

Since the beginning of my graduate studies, I have experienced and witnessed more microaggressions than I could write in this blog post. In many instances, the microaggressions came from a place of good intent and got lost in translation; however, some of these instances were rooted in ignorance. After every single one of these microaggressions, my inner monologue followed suit. What amplified this inner monologue was the silence of my predominantly white peers. Perhaps some of them had their own inner monologue–debate on whether they should speak up for me and other students of color and maybe they recognized what the student/professor/staff worker had said was problematic.  In most situations, it would be silence. The silence transformed my “blue” feeling to loneliness more than anything. Occasionally people who witnessed the microaggression would take the time to validate my response one-on-one, but continue to stay silent in other instances. 

I understand that sometimes people feel as though it is not “their place” to say something. What if they say the wrong thing? How do you really be an “ally?” Realistically, I do not know the answer to this question and in fact, I reckon it varies from person to person. For me, having someone back me up is what I wanted in those situations. Standing alone made me feel like I was jeopardizing my relationship with my peers and professors. These were the individuals I was going to take courses with and work with for the next five years. In fact, I could be in a situation where I would require a letter of recommendation from one of my professors and I didn’t want to “stain” my image with a portrait of an “angry woman.” But if I didn’t say something, then I too was being complicit in their behavior, which could be replicated for other students. As a graduate student, I have a platform that other undergraduates do not. To some extent, it is my responsibility to call out my peers so underrepresented undergraduates do not have to face those circumstances. However, on the other hand, it feels unjust that I have to relieve moments of trauma for the benefit of another person. I haven’t been able to solve this conundrum yet and I doubt I will be able to. However, I can at the very least begin to vocalize my experience and that’s what I am doing now. 

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Reflections on a return to in person conferences

In late October, I attended the tenth annual Upstate Number Theory Conference at Union College in Schenectady, NY. By “attended” here, I actually mean attended, in the physical sense of the term! My physical body was relocated (by plane) to Upstate New York, I sat in a room listening to people talk about math in 20-60 minute increments (and took a turn myself), and afterwards we socialized over food and drink. From my perspective at least, it went quite smoothly, for which I am grateful to the conference organizers. Judging from the fact that literally each speaker (trust me, I kept track) began their talk with a variation of “it’s so great to be here in person speaking with all of you,” I think most attendees felt the same.

With the post-social-interaction high long gone, I have had some time to reflect on the in person experience as compared to the online conferences which have proliferated since the spring of 2020. After all, online conferences have talks, career and networking events, and even social gatherings, albeit virtual ones. What is it that sets the in person setting apart, and what place do both types of conferences have in mathematics moving forward?

The biggest selling point of meeting in person was the ease of starting informal, impromptu discussion with other attendees. At one point, I found myself in a group of four graduate students who were all involved with their respective school’s directed reading program (DRP), so I took the opportunity to pick their brains about how they run their programs. Questions at the end of the 20 minute talks extended into conversations during the break, or over lunch. After dinner on Saturday night, two of the panelists for the career discussion answered more of our questions over refreshments at a nearby beer garden. Sure, I also did my fair share of awkwardly standing in a corner with my coffee, but the number of meaningful and positive social interactions I had in one weekend likely outnumbered those I’d had in the past year and a half at online conferences.

I also had an easier time tuning in to the in person talks. There are more distractions at home, and when the Zoom fatigue kicks in, my temptation to turn off the camera and skip the rest of the session is awfully strong. In person, when I lost the thread of a talk, I didn’t have many options besides refocusing or doodling in my notebook about a math problem I was stuck on. Even in the latter case, I would sneak a little work in and have no trouble paying attention during the next talk.

Still, the online setting itself does have certain advantages over meeting in person, as noted by Kate Thompson in her recent blog post. She cites not having to travel, the lack of reimbursement paperwork, and avoiding when that “group way too large to split a check starts wandering in a zombie-like state to lunch…” as reasons she prefers virtual events, and all of these became reality for me on the trip to Schenectady. The main headache was definitely booking my travel, since I used a refunded ticket from April 2020 — an incredibly inconvenient process, thanks to my institution’s travel agency and their opaque policies. But even lunch proved to be perilous, as Kate warned, when eight of us chose to dine at a local Vietnamese and Thai restaurant, Pho Queen, on Saturday afternoon. Due to a combination of optimistic planning and slower than expected service, we ended up arriving five minutes late to the post-lunch plenary talk, our stomachs still full of hastily slurped (yet delicious) soup.

These individual inconveniences seem a small price to pay for the privilege of meeting in person, but it’s also worth considering the environmental impact of scores of mathematicians descending on single university by car or plane, when they could instead congregate on Zoom. This has been written about before on this very blog even before Covid-19. Viable virtual conferences and seminar series (like VaNTAGe for arithmetic geometry) predate the pandemic, in part with the goal of providing an alternative with minimal environmental impact.

Finally, the explosion of online events has brought new opportunities – both to speakers and attendees – through virtual seminars, conferences, and workshops that can be attended from anywhere in the world. At Emory, we hold learning seminars each semester, and last year we were able to open them up to a wider audience, including graduate students Zooming in from other continents! I was also afforded the opportunity to give talks and seminars that I otherwise may not have been able to attend, due to either a lack of funding opportunities or scheduling conflicts. In 2020 I attended more conferences than I had in any year prior, and I’m on track to surpass that total by the end of 2021.

So where does that leave us? Should we push en masse for a return to in person meetings? Or, was the warm atmosphere at this conference merely the result of the extroverts self-selecting in choosing to attend, and we’re all better off online?

I myself am eager to see in person events get back on the schedule moving forward. The social aspect of mathematics is part of what has drawn me in to this community, and I believe it is best enjoyed face-to-face. I am particularly looking forward to intensive workshops (like the Arizona Winter School) to be held in person again, as I haven’t experienced their unique immersive environment replicated online. Then again, virtual events have proven to be a viable way to share mathematics, with the potential to reach more people and minimize our environmental impacts, and I will continue to seek out quality Zoom conferences to attend. Ultimately, these settings do different things well for different people, and I suspect a blend of both is what we’ll see in the future.

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Making a Difference… One Math Department at a Time

There have been countless times that I have wondered to myself how I got here. By here, I mean: a first-generation woman of color navigating her way through a doctoral program in mathematics. As I reflect on my personal and academic upbringing, I think about all the obstacles set in place to prevent underrepresented students from furthering their careers. However, it is important to note this lack of support is not always present in every setting.

As an underrepresented first-generation student, academia is a space where we are marginalized. I did not want to pursue higher education only to be in a space that expected me to fail. When it came time to look for an undergraduate institution that can support me and encourage my success, I came across California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). CSUF, a public university located in Orange County, California, is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), populated by large percentages of Hispanic/Latinx and first-generation students. Specifically, the mathematics department has served “between 2008 and 2020, out of 628 students who completed a degree from the CSUF programs in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, probability and statistics, and teaching mathematics, 198 were underrepresented minorities, 300 (48%) were women.” It is important to point out that while there are programs in the sciences that can improve on their diversity and inclusion practices and how they respond to and support the community of underrepresented students, it is also important to shine light on programs that are successfully serving the needs of their unique and vibrant students that come from many backgrounds and CSUF seems to be doing just that.

On my own personal account, I have come to realize the significance of being surrounded by a community that appreciates everyone from diverse backgrounds and welcomes the voices of everyone. This is something that is especially exceptional at CSUF. As unexpected as this came, during my time there I was surrounded by individuals, both students and faculty, who encouraged creativity and expression. Because of my academic influences coming from a low-income background, I was a student that never even considered the possibility of pursuing higher-level math beyond high school or even a bachelor’s degree and CSUF is where I first began to feel that it was possible. 

I am fully aware, as a woman of color, that there are systemic hurdles in place that people of color often face. In an effort to combat this at the institutional and academic level, at CSUF, I was given a platform to seek connections that helped remove barriers for diverse students. I was very involved in on-campus student organizations, programs, and activities in my efforts to bring these issues to light. The goal of a lot of my involvements was to promote diversity, inclusivity, and a mutual love for mathematics in my community. In doing so, I was joined by a memorable group of people that shared this passion, individuals that I met through programs, in the classroom, and even in the office hours of our favorite professor.  As a part of our promise to the community, we organized events annually, specifically Sonia Kovalevsky Day named after the well-known pioneer for women in mathematics. Events like this were designed to empower young students and to increase diversity in the mathematical sciences. I enjoyed being able to contribute to an event that would serve to greatly impact underrepresented groups, especially in a field as male-dominated as math. Activities like the ones I participated at CSUF are important to cultivate curiosity and the idea that anyone can do meaningful science because the time a student spends in academia is a crucial developing period that must be filled with support of dreams, possibilities, and access to the means that give opportunity to advance in society.

It was recently announced the Department of Mathematics at CSUF will be receiving the AMS Award for Mathematics Programs that Make a Difference. This award highlights programs that have successfully supported and addressed the issues of underrepresented groups in the mathematical sciences. I would like to acknowledge the department for being so deserving of this award because of their powerful endeavors to nurture community, enhance creativity, and support their one-of-a-kind students. My story is only one of so many more that can vouch for their success in making significant differences in underrepresented college students. My experience was truly unique and I credit this to not only encourage me to pursue graduate school, but to make me know that I would succeed in a program. Much like Dr. Andrea Arauza Rivera stated in a few blog posts back, community is important. During my time at CSUF, I learned the true value of community and I am carrying that with me to wherever my life and career takes me. 

So, when I think about how I ended up here, I think about my time as an undergrad, but also everything that came before that. I came from a low-income, predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Southern California with limited resources, then attended a Hispanic-Serving Institution that not only celebrated me, but advocated for me, and now I am a doctoral student at a research university. Because of this experience, I know what I deserve as a student and aim for this kind of community in every step of my career. 

Posted in AMS, Diversity, First-generation, Grad School, Mathematics in Society, Social Justice | 1 Comment

A Letter to the Professors

Dear professors, 

First, let me start by thanking each professor for all of the hard work they’ve put in guiding students throughout our academic careers. Thank you for spending countless hours writing our shining letters of recommendation, giving us your sincere feedback on each of our statements, and grading our assignments and exams with constructive comments to help us learn from our mistakes. Thank you for opening up your homes to teach us over Zoom for almost 2 years now, and thank you for adjusting your class curriculums to be better suited to learning from an online setting. Thank you to the professors who make themselves available, whether it’s through plenty of office hours or just over emails and discussion boards. Thank you to those who recognize when a student is going through a hard time and do what they can to support them. Admittedly, it is easy for many students to forget all that our professors do for us. 

Through my time spent at an R1 university, however, I think some professors would benefit from hearing the following gentle reminders…

  • Remember what you mean to students. The things you say will stay with them, especially the higher-achieving students (the vast majority of graduate students). Choose your words carefully and don’t compare students to each other. We are individuals with unique backgrounds and experiences, think apples to oranges.
  • Remember that many students, especially first-generation college students, may not know what it looks like to succeed in academia. These students may lack a figure in their lives that exhibits the understanding, persistence, and management skills it takes to show up to class every day, know how to study effectively for exams, apply for research programs and grants, etc. For many of us, we are just showing up and doing our best. Don’t always expect us to understand how you would define that. Help us to understand these things through patience and communication.
  • Remember that many students come from broken families and have grown up struggling to make ends meet. Not everyone’s parents can afford to buy their kids a new car when they get their driver’s license. Many of us rely on other transportation that takes more time and is often less reliable (e.g., taking the bus, catching a ride with a friend, biking, etc.). We move through life much differently when juggling a job or two while taking a full load of classes. Then our beat-up used car (that we could barely afford in the first place) just broke down, and our parents can’t or won’t or aren’t there to help us. And, while all of these things are happening, our time is being spent. Focusing solely on your course without these external stressors is absolutely a privilege that not everyone has.
  • Remember what it was like to be a student. Show us your insecurities. Tell us which topics were more challenging for you to grasp and how you overcame them. Being vulnerable does not mean you’re weak; comparatively, much more strength is required to unapologetically be a good, authentic person. 

There is a particular moment in my academic career that will always stand out to me. Generally speaking, I think it’s common for many students to have a bit of anxiety when it comes to receiving our graded exams (myself included). We put in several hours of hard work studying to understand some material, and we are anxiously waiting to find out if we did well. To some students, “doing well” means they got the highest grade in the class; to others, it simply meant they earned the particular letter grade that they were shooting for. On this day, our class received the first graded exam of the semester. What stood out to me, and this is the moment that I’ll always remember, is when our professor got in front of the class to explain why he was NOT going to share the highest, lowest, or average exam grades. He said something along the lines of: “You don’t need to worry about other students’ grades. Are you happy with yours? Good, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, maybe try to study a little harder next time or come to office hours.” Thinking back, this seems like a very reasonable and relatively simple idea…  However, it was undeniably the most inspiring policy I’ve ever seen a professor implement in his own class. I started noticing in classes after that, almost all (if not all) professors did not implement this contemporary approach in their classrooms.

I’ve always wondered why competition in academia has been continually supported. As students, we’re essentially conditioned to compare ourselves to others, using grades as some sort of holy metric we should define ourselves by (and don’t get me started on classes graded on a bell curve). I do, however, recognize the importance of grades, as they attempt to satisfy our need for standardization and quantify the knowledge we’ve gained in each course. What I don’t understand is: why students are constantly being asked to compare themselves to one another, and why do many professors encourage this kind of behavior? 

The fact is we shouldn’t. My grades will remain on my transcript for the limited number of people, most of whom will choose to see them. At the end of the day, other students’ grades have little to no consequential effect on my education or its future applications. Frankly, other students’ grades are none of my business, so why are professors routinely announcing these metrics? We can Google what GPAs we need to aim for regarding our individual goals and/or ask which material is most fundamental to our majors. Encouraging a culture of competition in the classroom simply makes an unwelcome space to learn in. It exhibits this absurd idea that certain people are “better” than others, but if each individual has their own experiences, and knowledge, and background, how could this possibly be a fair comparison? One does not need a Ph.D. to conceptualize ways to improve the learning environment of our students. With that being said, what gives? Why do we continue to allow these attitudes of pretentiousness and condescension to live on? 

Professors— please remember that many of our responsibilities are not limited to that of a student. We are working to help support our families. We are navigating the school system, trying to figure things out on our own, and much, much more. One should never assume that they know a student (or a person) based on what they choose to show you. 

Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m not sure if this blog post will ever reach the ears (or eyes) of the professors that need to hear (or see) this the most. I’d assume it’s much more likely that any professor who might read this blog post already fully understands these concepts. If, on the off chance, part of this has offended you or you think this is foolish, I’d ask you to do a little self-reflection and think about why that is. What kind of relationship do you have with your students? You know what they say… “If the shoe fits…”

An already jaded second-year grad student 

P.S. Please stop saying material is “trivial!”

Posted in Advice, Diversity, First-generation, Grad School, Math, Math Education, Mathematicians, Mathematics in Society, Social Justice, Teaching | Comments Off on A Letter to the Professors

Motivation to Finish the Ph.D.

Ph.D. programs in the mathematical sciences frequently take five or more years to complete. After finishing all required coursework and focusing solely on research for a while, it can become challenging to find motivation to complete the doctoral degree. Without the benchmark of grades and exams, it can be difficult to gauge how much progress you are making and it may feel like the end is nowhere in sight. With this in mind, I asked five current mathematicians to share what their motivation was to finish their Ph.D.


“My motivation to finish my Ph.D. was twofold. First, I liked doing math and was not knowledgeable about potential careers in industry, so at the time I viewed becoming a professor as my ideal job (it turned out well!). Second, coming from a small rural town in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, me, my parents, and my then-girlfriend (now wife) had invested a lot of time and energy for me to get to the point where I could work on getting a Ph.D. At the time, I felt like quitting the program would have been a waste of that energy and effort. I don’t view this as a healthy reason now, but at the time it motivated me to keep going.”

Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Villanova University


“There were both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Unlike my pre-candidacy years, during my last 2 years of grad school, I knew I was smart enough and capable enough to get a Ph.D.  But fatigue (read: exhaustion) had really set in by then and staying the course was hard.  One big source of motivation was that I knew that this degree was the ticket to a job where I could wear a big afro, snarky t-shirts, and tennis shoes to work for the rest of my life (read: My credentials meant that I could bring more of my authentic self to work).  Another big source of motivation were my mentors.  They knew I could finish before I did (especially back in those pre-candidacy years) and all they ever asked of me was that I do my best (again, they somehow knew that my best was enough to get a Ph.D.)… I felt like the least I owed them was my best effort.”

Shelby Wilson, Ph.D.
Senior Data Scientist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


“In no particular rank:

  • Be the first to receive a Ph.D. in my close family.
  • I was told that “[I] won’t be a mathematician” by a faculty member in my undergraduate institution… Proved him wrong and am now an NSF Postdoc in the same department as him/my alma mater.
  • Get out of Kentucky as fast as I could.  There were personal motivations such as wanting to be near a large city, a desire for public transportation, being closer to family, and being queer; these played a role into motivating to finish.
  • Finish the Ph.D. to move past academic requirements and somewhat be the decision maker of my own mathematical interests and trajectory. You can say that now I can enjoy doing the math and not feel the pressure of trying to graduate (though there are other stressors like finding a permanent job, but that’s another topic).”

Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, Ph.D.
MSRI Postdoctoral Research Fellow 
NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley 


“By the end of year 1, I was reconsidering my prospects at Burger King. But having a Ph.D. means more backup options in the future, like getting a research position in industry or access to adjunct teaching positions in retirement. I won’t ever get the chance again: life gets busier with time and I won’t be going back to school. Plus, unless I feel really strongly motivated about another path, it’s smarter to not derail myself. It’s also the last chance I got to take classes tuition free in any skills I want.”

Ravi Shankar, Ph.D.
Mathematics Instructor at Princeton University


“The motivation for me to finish my doctorate mainly stems from my hesitation to choose a career path. I have never been certain on what exactly I wanted to do but I felt like having the degree would make me better prepared for whatever it is that I ended up doing. The pandemic also played a role in my decision to finish as the least year and a half of my degree was completed during it. This cemented my decision as entering the job market at the height of the pandemic seemed bleak and ultimately, I am very happy with my decision.”

Genesis Islas, Ph.D.
Lecturer at California State University, Long Beach


When I first started my Ph.D., my goal was mostly intellectual and I was motivated by the idea of learning more math. In the time between finishing undergrad and starting graduate school, I had somehow romanticized the idea of academia. After completing a summer internship, however, my motivation for finishing the Ph.D. has become much more practical. I now see grad school as more of a job than a passion. Since I do not plan on staying in academia after graduation, I am motivated by the prospect of having more stability (income), more limits on my work time, and less ambiguity in my research objectives.

A common motivator in the responses by current math Ph.D.’s is the idea that finishing the Ph.D. gives you more options and opportunities down the road. All of these individuals are proof that completing the degree is possible, even if you are doubting your ability to do so.

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