We may be mathematicians, but first and foremost, we’re humans.

By Allison Henrich

Mathematicians are often portrayed as socially awkward, unempathetic creatures. This was not my experience of the mathematicians I met at the PIC MATH Data Analytics workshop in Provo, UT in the Spring of 2017. You see, at this workshop—900 miles away from my home, family, and support system—I had one of the worst experiences of my life. I had a miscarriage. After a year and a half of trying to conceive—naturally at first, and then with repeated attempts to conceive with medical intervention—I finally got pregnant. My husband and I were ecstatic, with all our hopes wrapped up in this sweet baby I was carrying. Our hopes would be replaced by intense fears when I woke up on Day 3 of the PIC MATH workshop to discover I was bleeding.

That morning, frantic, I texted one of my project group members to let him know that I would be missing our morning meeting so I could go to the hospital. He was caring and concerned and offered to do anything he could to help. Since he didn’t have a car, though, I decided to venture down to the hotel lobby where breakfast was served to find another workshopper with a car to drive me to the ER. On the way, I encountered another group member and told her, through tears, what was happening. She quickly gathered a number of women who would usher me to the ER, help me get checked in, and offer to stay with me as I tried to discover what was happening to my baby. They told me stories of friends who bled during their pregnancies and went on to have perfectly healthy babies. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.

At the ER, I told my newfound friends that they should go to the workshop and not waste this professional opportunity, though they were perfectly willing to stay with me. Reluctantly, they left after I was ushered into an exam room. Not more than an hour had passed of my fretting, sitting cold in a ripped hospital gown on an uncomfortable hospital bed before a familiar face popped his head into my room in the ER. There stood Michael Dorff, my closest friend at this workshop and the Director of the PIC MATH program. “Would it be ok if I came in and sat with you?”

Allison and Michael Dorff (center right) with the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Foregoing his own professional opportunities and responsibilities at the workshop, Michael spent the entire morning with me in the hospital. We spent hours in that room in between ultrasounds and lab tests, waiting to hear the results from the doctor. I told Michael about my history of trying to conceive. He told me amusing stories about his daughters. At one point, in an effort to get my mind off of the test results I eagerly awaited, Michael pulled out his laptop and suggested we work on our book. We actually had some great ideas that day about inviting guest authors—women from underrepresented minority groups—to write their personal stories and use these experiences to give advice on how to mentor students from minority groups. At the end of my hospital stay, the doctor confirmed that my pregnancy had failed to progress in the last few weeks, and Michael comforted me through processing this news.

After I was discharged, Michael made it clear that it was ok for me to take the rest of the day to recover. I was not expected to come back to the workshop, though I’d be welcome if I thought it would help. Michael made sure I had food, medicine, and anything else I needed when I opted to spend the rest of the day in my hotel room (googling miscarriage stats, talking to my husband and mother on the phone, and binge watching King of the Nerds Season 2, featuring contestants Jonathan Adler and Heather Wensler who I had just met the night before). That evening, my groupmates brought me leftovers from the workshop dinner.

I jumped back into the workshop the following day. I was met by a number of people with hugs, sympathetic comments, and offers of help. My group members also helped me get up to speed on what they learned related to our project while I was away. They made it easy for me to start contributing to our work, which is what I wanted to do.

Although having a miscarriage so far away from home was a truly gut-wrenching experience, I felt like I was on the verge of tears for the rest of the workshop not because I was mourning my lost baby, but because I was overwhelmed by the kindness of all of these people, most of whom I had never met before this week. It is easy to focus on those in the math community who are unkind or exclusionary. I believe there are far more people in our community who are loving, giving, and empathetic, and I’m so grateful for them.

Allison Henrich is a Professor of Mathematics at Seattle University. She has a hilarious 17-month old son named Charlie, an incredibly supportive husband named James who juggles his careers as a musician and as a stay-at-home-dad, and an energetic labradoodle named Ole (“ohhh-leee”). Allison is passionate about playing with knots, sharing stories, fostering supportive communities, and spending as much time as possible with her family.

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3 Responses to We may be mathematicians, but first and foremost, we’re humans.

  1. Julie Peterson says:

    I’m an assistant professor- not in math but this blog is amazing. This is really touching and I’m so glad she shared her story. This article also addresses the important topic of miscarriage on the tenure track: https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Miscarriage-Penalty/238526. Just last week I was surprised to realize it was the three year anniversary of when I had a miscarriage at a scientific conference. I was lucky that my husband was attending the conference with me (his degree is in my field but career has taken him elsewhere so this is not a common event), but man it was still a tough experience. We took an Uber to the emergency room right after I gave my talk. I was also on the conference program committee that year and my colleagues/fellow volunteers were amazing and scrambled to cover my responsibilities so I could take a day off. Now we have an amazing 10 month old ❤️ and I try to share my experience so others don’t feel alone and so people like our dept heads or others who evaluate us know that these things happen as a part of life.

  2. Marie Thoma says:

    I am not a mathematician but your post was shared with a tenure track moms group. Thank you for sharing your story. Currently heading to a meeting on breaking the silence around infertility – sharing stories is a big part. I thought you might be interested in this article as well.

    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/infertility-and-the-leaky-pipeline/

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