Dare To Share

Guest blog by Professor Mohamed Omar

It started as a dare between friends. Would you dare post a video of yourself doing math on YouTube, for the entire world to see? That was the seed of what has become a fulfilling endeavor: creating and building the YouTube channel ProfOmarMath. What I could have never expected was the empowerment this channel has given so many students across the world.

The first video I posted was on a quick method for solving a problem on the GRE Math Subject test. This test is a requirement for entry into many math PhD programs, and is filled with slick problems that are quite non-standard in nature. After posting the first video I realized a few things about the mathematics environment on YouTube:

• There were barely any videos on tips and tricks for the GRE Math Subject Test.
• There were barely any videos on undergraduate mathematics material presented by a person from an underrepresented group.

I was excited to be able to address both of these issues, creating roughly 15 (and now almost 30) videos on tips and tricks for the test. I then essentially abandoned the channel until about 3 months ago.

The revival was something I had planned to do during my sabbatical year when I had more time to devote to it. I expanded the channel to include videos on fun math topics like a combinatorial proof of Fermat’s Little Theorem, clear and empowering solutions to Putnam Mathematics Competition problems, and theorems undergrads don’t usually see like the Gershgorin Circle Theorem.

The impacts of doing this have been astounding. I’ve received many private messages from students across the world who appreciate having access to resources for standardized tests like the GRE Math Subject Test, and supplementary material on random interesting math topics. Students have come up to me at conferences expressing gratitude for the “out of the box” thinking presented in videos, giving them renewed perspectives on familiar topics.

But I think what motivates me the most to continue making these videos is filling the void of underrepresented mathematicians sharing non-standard undergraduate mathematics material on YouTube. Representation is such a critical force in empowering underrepresented students to realize their excellence. In a math culture where underrepresentation is often entangled with a deficit mindset, we need resources that reflect a different narrative. Resources that show underrepresented mathematicians engaging in creative, challenging and interesting mathematics happily.

If you are a student, come join me at ProfOmarMath and have some fun with mathematics. If you are an educator, or anyone interested in sharing your love for math, I highly encourage you to start a YouTube channel. It doesn’t have to be fancy. My first videos were extremely basic in sound quality and production value, but still had an impact to an extent I never could have imagined. Try it! Start today.

Dr. Mohamed Omar

Biography: Dr. Omar’s mission is to change the world from math phobic to math loving, fiercely devoting his life to inclusion in mathematics.  In 2018 he won the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder award, the most prestigious early career undergraduate math teaching award in the nation.  He has also been featured online in Forbes and Scientific American.  Dr. Omar is also a fierce advocate for overcoming obstacles of underrepresentation in mathematics.

He is the author of over 20 peer-reviewed articles in internationally recognized journals.  ​Dr. Omar is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College after a 2 year award-winning appointment at Caltech.

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A New Type of Learning Community

Setting high standards is expected from all educators. Yet, I think I may have taken this to an extreme in my 2019 spring senior seminar course in algebraic combinatorics. Students walked in to class, got a copy of the syllabus along with a community agreement (sample community can be found here) and saw:

With a pile of 30 or so textbooks on the front desk I pointed out that there was only one undergraduate book on algebraic combinatorics which was published in 2013 — Algebraic Combinatorics by Richard Stanley [1]. It covered classical subjects very well, but what I wanted to do in our class was to get students to a point where they could reach open problems in the field by reading recently published research manuscripts in broad areas of algebraic combinatorics. So to solve this problem we would write our own textbook!

Imagine the students’ surprise to learn of this during the first day of the course. Not to mention the level of work such an undertaking entails, both on the students and on the professor. Fourteen students took on the challenge, and below I discuss the process of building a learning community and how through this community we reached our goal of writing a book.

Sky high expectations

I believe I can do anything if I just try.” — Granville T. Woods

Naturally, some students felt very unprepared to take on the challenge of writing a textbook and decided to wait to take the course in a future semester. And even for those students that remained, they were not convinced that our goal was attainable. After all, it takes mathematicians sometimes decades to complete a book. So how would we be able to accomplish this within the span of a single semester course?

My motto was that we could not know whether this could be done unless we tried. So I set sky high academic standards for students, regardless of whether I or others believed that students were ready for such an academic challenge.

Contingencies and aims

The goal of the class was then clear. But what took more planning was determining the following contingencies:

  • Instructional — how would I support learning activities?
  • Domain — how would I help determine what students should focus on next?
  • Temporal — how would I decide if and when to intervene?

With these questions in mind I set the following aims:

  1. Move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.
  2. Create a scaffolding framework that
    allows students to meaningfully participate in and gain skill at a task that they could not
    complete unaided.
  3. Build a collaborative learning community that promotes critical thinking skills better than competitive/individualistic learning environments.
  4. Learn ways to deal with people that respects and highlights individual group members’ abilities and contributions.

To support the course’s goal of completing a book, I grouped students into pairs who would collaborate on writing a chapter of the book. The research topics were based on student interests, and I provided some initial manuscripts they would explore. The students’ initial job was to understand the material well enough to write about it in detail with the aim of making it accessible to students with calculus or linear algebra background. From this initial content, students then found new resources to further expand their chapter.

As is expected, writing skills would be paramount to completing our class goal of writing a book. Making sure students learned how to read research manuscripts and how to write accessible pieces of mathematics posed the major challenge. Most of our class meetings were spent in small groups working through mathematical arguments and discussing how we should be reading research articles and what constitutes a clear argument with enough detail so not to make huge jumps in logic. After all, what use is there to write another book in which we spend hours dissecting a paragraph? My mantra was “If you cannot explain it simply you don’t know it well enough.”

Logistics and assessments

Hot chocolate helps with editing

Given the goal of the class, a major part of the class assessments was based on chapter drafts. Drafts were due (approximately) every 3 weeks, they were typed in LaTeX, using the online platform overleaf. Given the small size of the class, I focused on giving extremely thorough feedback on students writing. This was the most grading I have ever done in one semester!

Belle at board teaching high school students visiting our course

Throughout the semester, students also gave short presentation describing what their chapter covered. These talks were peer-evaluated and I provided individual feedback based on what students wanted to improve. Also the talks were recorded and students were able to watch them to create a new list of things to improve on for the following presentations.

The last  piece of the course assessment were reflections. I provided students with short writing prompts from which students reflected on the experience of writing and learning math independently/collaboratively.
Reflection prompt included: How does collaboration enhance/hinder the writing and oral presentation of mathematical material? How can you leverage the strengths of each member of the group to create a better chapter and/or have a better presentation? What you think about quantitative evaluation systems like test scores and class rankings, as opposed to qualitative forms of feedback like written comments and conferences. Does one give you a better measure of the knowledge you have gained?

The reflections were key in helping me adapt the course throughout the semester. I also learned so much about the students motivation and how their confidence was growing as the semester progressed. The reflections were our way to communicate deeply and meaningfully about the purpose/value of an education and in fact one student’s reflection developed into a publication, see [2]. Reflections were a refreshing take on an assessment piece, one which I plan to include in all future courses.

Final Product

After a grueling semester we completed the book. There is of course more editing that should take place before any final access to the book is made available, and I hope to teach this course soon so that more students can contribute to it.  Below is the contents along with the authors for each chapter.

A Friendly Introduction to Topics in Algebraic Combinatorics

Chapter 1: Permutations and their peaks by Belle and Ben
Chapter 2: Combinatorics of parking functions by Alex and Maryanne
Chapter 3: Combinatorial representation theory by Franny and Anthony
Chapter 4: Combinatorics and Lucas analogues by Joanne and Francesca
Chapter 5: Chromatic polynomials by David and Katherine
Chapter 6: Combinatorial geometry by Naush and Teresa
Chapter 7: Numerical semigroups by Ben and Aesha

Parting thoughts

I have been asked if I think that more faculty should structure courses in this way. Honestly, I do not know if more people should teach in this particular way. Each institution has different student cultures. What works at a small elite liberal arts college like Williams may not work elsewhere. Moreover, this depth of active teaching is scary even for someone with ample experience. What I do know is that whatever way we structure our courses ought to help students hone their writing and public speaking skills — which will be key for all of their future careers. And we should do so by setting sky-high expectations and building a supportive community in which students can meet those standards.

Pamela and Anthony at is graduation

“This class gave me, or forced me to pick up, the confidence and ability to read a math textbook and genuinely understand the material. Above every lecture based class I’ve ever had, this experience is irreplaceable. Both because it was enjoyable and because it gave me skills that have translated into my life after school.” — Anthony Simpson

[1]. Richard P. Stanley, Algebraic combinatorics, Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics Walks, trees, tableaux, and more. Second edition of [MR3097651], Springer, Cham, 2018.

[2]. Dean, F. “Tired: A Reflection on Asceticism and the Value of Quantitative Assessment,” Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 10 Issue 1 (January 2020), pages 375-377. DOI: 10.5642/jhummath.202001.19 . Available at: https://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol10/iss1/19

 

Posted in career advancement, General, Journals and Publications, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Bank of REU/Grad Fair Questions

By Lucy Martinez and Eduardo Torres Davila

We attended the Joint Math Meetings (JMM) conference in Denver to present our research from our work at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program. At JMM, there was a fair of graduate schools and research experiences for undergraduate programs, which was attended by universities from all parts of the nation. At each booth, were university professors and current graduate students who could talk about their PhD program in the mathematical sciences. Selecting a grad school or an REU are critical moments for undergraduates wanting to pursue a PhD in mathematics, and attending this fair provided us with the opportunity of getting to know the schools/programs. Thereby, helping us in making the decision of which schools/programs to apply to. Although, we attended the fair to find out more about the programs offered, there were points in our conversations in which we were unsure what to ask. We quickly realized that if we had a list of questions prior to attending the conference, we could have been more prepared. We talked to Dr. Pamela E. Harris about our situation and she recommended that we go on a scavenger hunt for questions we could have asked! Our goal was to find people at JMM to share questions that students could ask when they attend such a grad/REU fair. We present these questions below, along with some we asked or came up with after this experience. Our hope is that these questions may help other undergraduates in the future.

REU Questions

  • How do collaborations happen?
  • What does the atmosphere at the REU look like? How does the week look like?
  • Are there talks about other topics besides the math?
  • Is there any professional development after the REU?
  • How competitive is your REU?
  • How was the previous REU? How successful was it?
  • What topics are offered in your REU, so that they may best be aligned to my research interests?
  • How is the area/location? What is it like to live there during the summer?
  • How much influence does the student have on the project they are working on?
  • Are the projects assigned or does the student pick their favorite topic?
  • Are the groups assigned or do students choose their group?
  • What kind of projects has your REU worked on?
  • Ask for contact information from professors that are running the REU so that you may send further questions later..
  • Do you have a big emphasis on submitting papers? If so what support is there for the writing?
  • What do you look for in a student for you REU?
  • How is the REU guidance towards the students?
  • Does your REU offer funding to attend math conferences to present the research?
  • Are there fun activities planned for the students during the summer?
  • What is the structure of the REU? Do students meet with faculty every day during the week?
  • How many students are admitted to the program?

Grad School Questions

  • Does your school encourage outside research collaborations? To specify, if someone were to like a professor at a nearby (or not nearby) university would they be encouraged to work with them.
  • Does your school offer funding to attend conferences throughout your grad school career?
  • What is your relationship with the university? To specify, there is not always a professor at a grad fair booth. Sometimes there can be graduate students and other times grad directors so it is important to ask their relationship to the university to know which questions you can ask.
  • How do you resolve problems between graduate students and faculty members?
  • Will there be guaranteed funding for all years of the graduate program?
  • How many years does it take to graduate from your Ph.D. program?
  • Does the university offer any scholarships for minorities?
  • How do students find advisors?
  • What is the grad student community like at your institution? To be more specific, do students work together in doing homework, classwork, or preparing for exams?
  • What is the process that is taken for the qualifying exams? On top of that how many attempts are given to graduate students to pass these exams?
  • What summer support system is provided for students trying to study for the qualifying exams?
  • What kind of research are the professors into?
  • Out of the graduate students who enter how many finish with a math Ph.D.?
  • When a student enters the Ph.D. program how is the funding for the student? Are they going to be a teacher’s assistant? A teacher? Research funding?

The following are questions for current graduate students:

  • What do students do outside of school?
  • Was it easy to find an advisor and did you like them once you were paired up with them?
  • What do you do when you’re not working on math?
  • What helped you to be most successful?
  • What is the social climate at the university? Are the professors approachable?
  • Are professors supportive in a student’s life events? Is there support for both people trying to pursue academia as well as a career in industry?

We thank the following JMM participants who helped us in collecting these questions:
Alex Barrios, Alex Burstein, Natasha Crepeau, Emilie Curl, Daniel Erman, Joshua Flynn, Anant Godbole, Matthew Guhl, Erik Insko, Christian McRoberts, Andrew Miller, Christopher O’Neill, Rebecca Rechkin, Joseph Rennie, Erik Slivken, Sherilyn Tamagawa, and Bianca Viray.

If you have suggestions or other questions to add to this list please comment below!

About the authors

Lucy

Lucy Martinez: I am currently a junior at Stockton University in New Jersey. My major is Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science. My goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics. I plan to influence other minorities to follow their dreams and advocate for more Hispanic women to pursue careers in STEM fields. My other passion besides math is parrots. I think they are amazing animals because some of them have the ability to learn how to talk and imitate humans.

 

Eduardo

Eduardo Torres Davila: I am currently a senior at San Diego State University. I am an Applied Mathematics major with a minor in Computer Science. I am currently applying to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Another passion of mine is riding motorcycles. Riding gives me a way to relax and remove all worries from my mind. I also like to do some computer programming on my downtime. My favorite languages are Python and Sage.

 

Posted in career advancement, Changing Graduate Programs, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | 1 Comment

Gotta catch ’em all, URM!

By Carrie Diaz Eaton and Pamela E. Harris

We received the same email: Tuesday, Dec 17, 1:37 PM and Tuesday, Dec 17, 1:42 PM. No time to personalize the email. Simply change last names. After all, any one will do, but only if they are underrepresented minorities (URM).

Aren’t underrepresented mathematicians interchangeable?

We have been on search committees, we have chaired searches. We have organized sessions and conferences, we have sent lots of templated letters inviting people to participate in numerous things. Here are some patterns we noticed.

  1. If it is someone we know REALLY well – we can simply ask if they are free to do a thing without the gallantry.
  2. If it is someone we know and respect, but don’t know well enough, we take the time to position why we need their expertise and connect that to the goals, and hopefully they agree that this invitation/request is legitimate and worth their time.
  3. If this is a standard thing to ask of a person, a workshop or dinner for many people, or a standard paper review, then we just write the same templated letter and change the title and name of the person.

These are the unspoken rules in academia. Maybe, we are opening up the black box for those that don’t know. But note that none of those template letters have ever been to invite an underrepresented mathematician to apply an open position for an Associate/Full professor tenured position.

The email read as if it was a personal invitation. As if, this person knew us and it was our track records which helped identify us as the perfect candidate for the job. It clearly states “We are searching for a new colleague with a deep interest in teaching and mentoring undergraduate students and a track record of advancing equity and inclusion in STEM. Our search committee identified you as someone who might be uniquely qualified for our position, and I’m reaching out to invite you to apply.”

The email made us feel needed, valued, but most importantly seen.

We are unique and we have a track record in addressing challenges of being underrepresented within academia and in particular in mathematics. Yet this email was received by the two of us and three others we know. The five of us are coauthors, colleagues, and friends. And it is very likely that many more of our peers received this email. The only requirement was to be a visible person of color.

Like Pokémon – we are interchangeable. It did not matter that some of us are pure mathematicians and others applied mathematicians. What mattered was the box we check: minority mathematician.

This is not a standard way to recruit anyone, let alone minority mathematicians. For example, Carrie’s math-adjacent department is hiring at the Associate/Full rank right now. She has thought a lot about colleagues she knows that might consider this a move up, are committed to anti-racist, decolonizing work, and can teach programming. And if she does not know a particular person really well, she has been shy to reach out. Why? Because as a Latina who has the experience of being actively oppressed by leaders in direct and indirect power over her, she is terrified that she might invite the wrong tenured person into her small department. And yet there are others for which any underrepresented person will do; There is no fear, because they still hold power and privilege. It must be nice.

Pam reached out to a student at the culprit institution and mentioned that we knew others who received the email verbatim. The student is also a URM and disappointment in their voice was clear as they heard how their institution reached out to try and hire diverse mathematicians. Against Pam’s advice they reached out to the author of the email, who said that they “[took] care to personalize the emails to some extent.” Yes, they did. They changed Harris to Eaton (not even Diaz Eaton) within a 5 minute span. Maybe even to other names in between.

But this is not about the particular person or institution. This is about power and privilege. The privilege that comes from not having to think of oneself as representative of a group of people. The privilege that comes from being in a position of power and seeing minority mathematicians as others and not as individuals – as visible and yet invisible.

So what does successful recruiting look like? We can tell you, because Carrie was recruited to Bates College just last year. There are some of the same elements. There might be an identified need to diversify the faculty. There might be a personalized email. But there were relationships built at Bates long before she was asked to interview there. These relationships were made in some ways because she is a URM. But these relationships were made by mutual respect, mentoring, and lifting up of each other’s mathematical work. There was an institutional acknowledgement that there was work to be done to create an inclusive learning environment and a commitment to do the hard work for their underrepresented students. There was also the kind of recognition and compensation for the experience and emotional sweat equity she would bring to the table.

So next time, because we know there will be a next time, before those “personalized” recruitment emails are sent, we ask chairs of departments and of search committees to answer, and discuss with their department, the following questions:

  1. What has the department/institution done to make the environment one in which everyone, specifically underrepresented minorities, can thrive?
  2. What anti-racist, anti-discrimination, implicit bias training has taken place and how long ago was this? What plans are there to continue this work?
  3. Does the demographics of students in the major(s) of the department match the demographics of the student body? If it doesn’t, why is that and what has been done to remedy this? Whose job is it to do address this? The new faculty member you are planning to hire?
  4. What resources are there to address challenges faced within the department by both underrepresented students and faculty?
  5. How will the department value the perspective and lived experience of a person of color within the department?
  6. Does the department’s evaluation process mention how the invisible work of underrepresented faculty will be valued and how it will be weighed at time of promotion and tenure?
  7. Will merit raises take into account this invisible work, or will “research” be the main evidence of academic excellence?
  8. Are you looking everywhere you should be looking, or do you only want a visible URM?
  9. Are you looking for someone to do the work, or look the part?
  10. Will you pay for all that an underrepresented mathematician will do? Whatever invisible labor you think you know of, multiply by 100, and it will still underestimate what marginalized faculty do for students, peers/colleagues, departments, institutions, and our community. Will you pay them adequately and/or give them committed workload reassignment time for all of their labor?

Lastly, to the naysayers. Contrary to what you may believe, minority mathematicians are not just handed academic jobs at the completion of a Ph.D. Nor are they only recruited simply because they are underrepresented. Even when recruited, the research and teaching background are often evaluated against a higher enough bar before anything else is considered. How we get to that initial recruitment stage is the issue here.

Posted in career advancement, General, Leadership, Negotiating faculty / post doc positions, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mathematical light shines blindly on us

By William Yslas Vélez
Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona

Bill and Bernice Velez enjoying retirement in Quebec.

“When I go to a Mexican restaurant I would gladly pay the musicians to stop playing.” John (not his real name) did not like the noise level. This statement came up casually as part of a conversation that I was having with a few friends at a mathematics conference in California. John had taught at a Hispanic Serving Institution for years and this was the music of his students. But all that he could say about it was that the music was too loud. I have heard this reaction to this wonderful mariachi music all of my life. In high school a teacher asked me to bring in “Spanish” music and I brought in a mariachi record (see below). The teacher was appalled and had me turn off the music, not even completing a song. She expected something softer, not the wild expression of emotion that is such a part of Mexican music.

Mariachi music is loud. When you have one or two trumpets in a room, full-throated singers accompanied by “gritos” (Yells of joy) from the audience, it is loud. But those “gritos” are an indication that the music and words are connecting with the audience. Going back to the conversation with John, I mentioned a traditional song, “La espiga” (grain, like grain of wheat) and loosely translated the words for him.

Qué poco le importa al sol                         What does the sun care
​que el indio no tenga techo.                      that the Indian has no roof.
Qué poco te importa a ti​​​                            How little you care
​Todo este mal que me has hecho.             all the harm you have done me.

El agua ignora la sed,             ​​​​                   The sea ignores our thirst
​el sol no sabe que alumbra,​​​​                      the sun shines blindly on us,
Y tu no tienes corazón​​​​​                              And you have no soul
​Porque has dejado penumbra​​​​                  Since you have left me in shadows.

John was surprised. He said, “Oh, there’s poetry in that music.” What must have been John’s concept of Mexican music? Was it just to convey noise, to somehow blot out our thoughts? The sentiments expressed in this music deal much with the heartache of love, unrequited, lost, then found, then lost again. And it is sung with such emotion. But also notice how much it alludes to nature.

There is a mathematical culture, and that extends to music. Mathematical culture was not created by Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was imported. With that came the formalism of mathematics from Europe, and its music. In my career as a mathematician, at mathematical events that I have attended, music is a rarity. But if it does appear it has all of the hallmarks of classical music. Contrast this to a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). In between sessions, music from Latin America, the Caribbean and Native American music loudly fill the halls. A SACNAS conference is a celebration!

How effective can our mentoring be of students when we are so ignorant of their background, of their culture? Our faculties continue to lack minority representation. If faculty think so little of their music and culture, what must faculty think of them? Now add to this that many of these students are first-generation college students and probably also in need of financial aid, further separating them from the life experiences of college faculty.

Our mathematics departments physically sit on lands that belonged to Native American nations. Walk around any mathematics department. Do you see any evidence of that history? Our departments are oftentimes surrounded by a local culture, yet when a local student walks into a mathematics department, it is like going to a foreign land.

The mathematical enterprise has not treated minorities well. Just look at the data on the production of minority Ph.D.s in mathematics and the paucity of minority faculty in our departments. Yet we all know that mathematical training is of absolute necessity for the future. I join with my community when I sing:

The mathematical sea ignores our thirst

Mathematics is brilliant, as are many mathematicians. How is this brilliance impacting the lives of students? It is unfortunate that choirs of humanity sing, in many different languages and dialects:

The mathematical sun blinds us

We live in a very complex and diverse society. We cannot hope to understand all of the different cultures that now grace our mathematics classrooms. But we should not hold any of them in disdain.
What can we do about these matters? I would like to make a few suggestions.

  1. Mathematicians at universities should redouble efforts to increase the number of mathematics majors, especially minority students. We cannot hope to increase the number of minority faculty without having minority undergraduates. The more prestigious the department, the greater its responsibility to increase the number of minorities pursuing mathematical careers.
  2. There is a culture of mathematics which has not been friendly to students. Not all students are capable (or interested in) a Ph.D. in mathematics, but a minor or major in mathematics opens up many opportunities.
  3. Native Americans are invisible in mathematics. This must change. Some Native American culture or symbolism should be present in our departments.
  4. Minority students often form student clubs on campus. Mathematics departments could contact them and establish a dialogue.
  5. Mentoring is a very complex activity. Faculty need guidance on mentoring techniques and how to have conversations with their mentees on course selection and career opportunities. Just as there are weekly colloquia that discuss the latest research, there should also be colloquia to address the serious work of educating and motivating our students to the further study of mathematics.
  6. Smile. It can be contagious.

The music of my youth: Miguel Aceves Mejia singing “La espiga.”

Posted in Changing Graduate Programs, General, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Nice to Meet You

Blog by Sean Hays

Out of all racial demographics in the United States, single-race Native Americans have the highest poverty rate at 28.3% [1]. Basic needs can be hard to come by for some Native Americans, as 7.5% do not have access to clean drinking water [2]. Conditions are especially severe when looking at reservations. For instance, the Navajo Nation has a poverty rate of 40% [3], and as of 2007 the Pine Ridge Reservation had a life expectancy of 48 years for men and 52 for women [4].

One of the pathways to addressing these problems is to increase educational attainment for Native Americans. Organizations like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) attempt to empower potential Native American scientists through community events and other avenues. People like me, who’s grandfather was full-blooded Choctaw, are invited to become members of SACNAS. Being a math major who conducted research under Dr. Pamela Harris, I was given funding to attend the 2019 SACNAS Diversity in STEM conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was the first STEM conference I had ever been to, and I was the first in my family to go to one, so I had no idea what to expect. There were many interesting events at the conference, from university-style lectures to an exposition hall featuring graduate schools. One of my favorite parts were the speaking sessions given by selected SACNAS members.

One speech stood out. A Native American professor, Karletta Chief from the University of Arizona, talked about her upbringing. She mentioned how she grew up in a household without running water or electricity. She explained how difficult it was to find other Native Americans in science, and that many potential ones do not make it through college or even high-school. It was inspiring to see some audience members give her a standing ovation when her speech concluded.

Another memorable moment happened right before the conference. I was attending an event called the Modern Math Workshop, which gathered mathematical-oriented students and faculty. There was a dinner reception where attendees could meet and talk about their backgrounds. Everyone seemed engaged in conversation, so I considered whether I should just head back to my hotel room.

However, I happened to see an old man sitting by himself leaning over his meal. His appearance had similarities to my grandfather. “Are you Native American?”, I asked him. “Yes, Navajo.”, he replied. I told him I was Choctaw, and that he was the first Native American I had met thus far. We briefly talked about how the Navajo and Choctaw served as codetalkers during the world wars, and then I left to let him finish his dinner. When I said goodbye, he responded: “it was nice to meet you, Sean.” Now I have been told that phrase many times before, but there was an authenticity to his voice that startled me. He did not say it in the familiar tone, as it is usually said in formality. He meant it. I could tell he was happy that I was there, as it showed that a Native American was progressing in mathematics.

What I gathered from that experience and the SACNAS conference overall, is that my journey through mathematics is an endeavor of many people and not just myself. It is a unique type of encouragement that only a conference like this can provide, and I would suggest it to anyone considering it.

Sean Hays

Sean Hays is a senior mathematics student at the University of South Florida. He plans to pursue a Ph.D in pure mathematics starting in fall 2020. Until then, he plans to work as a math tutor for local college students. 

 

 

Posted in career advancement, General, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Making the most of attending conferences

In this blog by Julianne Vega, graduate student at University of Kentucky, Julianne tells us how to make the most of attending math conferences.

If you are heading to a conference, challenge yourself!

Your first conference may not be the best.

The first time that I went to a conference as a professional was when I was a middle school teacher at Burgundy Farm Country Day School and it was a complete comedy of errors. I was at the 2013 NCTM Annual Meeting located in Denver, Colorado. I will save you from the travel and hotel fiasco, which left my travel-anxious, 22-year-old-self traumatized and convinced she would be sleeping on the snowy streets of Denver for a few days.

My only concrete goal for the conference was to find a possible new textbook for the on-level 8th grade class. Beyond that I was there to grow professionally. And, while I attended many great talks that I still think about today, I did nothing to push myself out of my comfort zone. The only conversations I had over those three days were with the textbook vendors and with one woman that handed me a business card for The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honors for STEM teachers, which is posted on my mirror and I look at everyday.

From this experience I learned two things:

(1) Attending and engaging in conferences is an integral part of being a professional.
(2) I had no idea how to engage in a conference.

Attending conferences is important.

Moving into graduate school, I was part of the NSF-funded Graduate Scholars in Mathematics program at University of Kentucky. This program is specifically to help students grow professionally and assimilate to the demands of graduate school. It has money set aside for the scholars to attend conferences and to my dismay there was little to no encouragement from the faculty to attend conferences. When I talked to my fellow scholars, I learned that most of them have never been to a conference and didn’t know what to do there so they didn’t feel qualified to use the money. In my opinion, this is all the more reason to go. I will pause here to emphasize the importance of faculty role models in this situation. More action than just mentioning there is money needs to taken to help these students get to a conference.

Proposed Conference Attendance Timeline (for graduate school):

Year One – Attend one general math conference which will allow you to understand the flow of the days, learn about the mathematics community, and meet graduate students from other schools.

Year Two/Three – Look for conferences and attend any that pique your interest, but don’t go overboard.

Year Four +: Attend the conferences that you know you like and present your work to your new mathematical community.

Challenge yourself to grow professionally.

With each conference it is important to push yourself to engage with the conference just a little bit more than the time before. This past year, as the vice-president of our AWM University of Kentucky student chapter, I created the following “Conference Scavenger Hunt”:

  • Meet 3 new people.
  • Go out for lunch or dinner with a group of people.
  • Ask a question during a talk.
  • Talk to someone that you have already met at a past conference.
  • Follow- up with a speaker/ Ask a question one on one.
  • Explain your research or an interesting topic you recently learned to someone new.
  • Ask about someone’s research and try understanding it.
  • When talking to someone about math, ask a question out of curiosity.
  • Make a connection between a talk and what you are learning.
  • For each talk, write down a new research question to ask.
  • Summarize each talk in a sentence or two. What question are they trying to answer?
  • Find someone that is in the same year as you and talk about a new technique you are using.
  • Learn two math culture facts about the hosting department.
  • Talk to someone’s advisor about work they are doing with their student that you met.

I urge you to try and complete as many as you can at every conference you go to! It will not be easy, but you will see growth. When I was creating this list I felt pings of anxiety as I thought about trying to complete them and I still have not completed all of the challenges myself. One thing that I know for sure, is that attempting to complete these challenges has made my conference experience richer than I could have ever expected. Before, conferences used to feel like a drain, several days in isolation, sitting in confusion. Now, conferences are a time to catch up with peers from other schools, learn about the research that they are doing, talk about my research with colleagues, meet up with collaborators, get advice from faculty and role models, and generally have a great time. So the best advice I have is to get out there and push yourself to meet new people.

Julianne Vega

Short Bio: Julianne Vega studies topological combinatorics with particular interest in simplicial complexes and posets. She earned her BA in mathematics and PA 7-12 teaching certification at Susquehanna University in 2012. Following her degree, she was a middle school mathematics teacher at a progressive, independent school. In May 2020, she will graduate with a Ph.D. in mathematics and a graduate certificate in instructional coaching. She is a highly engaged member and leader of her department heading diversity and equity initiatives including Appalachian Initiative for Mathematics and Inclusive Community Lunches. She is involved in several research collaborations including a teaching and learning project and undergraduate research. Julianne Vega deeply believes in the power of community, a place where everyone is growing together.

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Avoiding toxic mentoring

On September 20-22, I had the great honor of attending the workshop A conversation on professional norms in mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl. The workshop presented many great topics for conversation about the norms in our profession. The workshop’s program can be found here.

During the weekend, I had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on mentoring. Mostly from the perspective of having been the recipient of some rather awful mentoring experiences. My talk was titled “Avoiding the academic savior complex: How to mentor underrepresented faculty.”

I shared stories of three types of “mentors” I have encountered in my journey through academia. This included:

  • The self-proclaimed mentor – This was someone who volunteered to be my mentor, and who promptly started listing me in their CV as their mentee. Their mentoring was nonexistent. They only wanted to make sure they could say that they were mentors to women and people of color. Being at the intersection I was two birds and their “mentoring’’ a single stone.
  • The self-serving mentor – Their advice was based only on what they thought they could gain from me and my work. They asked me to work at all hours of the night, saying that producing scholarship at a fast rate would be what would make me successful as an academic and that this was more important to me than to other of our collaborators since I was starting a tenure track position. This was self-serving, as they were also listed as authors on that work.
  • The only-in-public mentor – This type of toxic mentoring has been the most emotionally challenging. This person in public plays the role of a big supporter of my work, while in private they provide me with very toxic advice. Here is an example. I once posted on social media a call to other academics to also request service work from white cisgender men. This was in light of being very overwhelmed with the high level of service invitations I was receiving. Their response to me in private was to continue to sacrifice more time to service commitments as this would start a conversation that could lead to some potential research collaboration. Years of evidence has shown me this is unlikely to occur.

These are obviously examples of toxic mentoring. Having shared these stories with the exceptional scholars in attendance at the workshop, Michelle Manes, Luis Leyva, Adriana Salerno, and Francis Su provided me with the following resources to share with you. (Thanks go out to them!)

Below are some articles on good mentoring in mathematics, author abuse, and lists of organizations that provide training on mentoring.

  • Bernd Sturmfels, Adventures in Mentoring, September 2019 Notices of the American Mathematical Society, p. 1301.
  • A. Susan Jurow and Jordan Jurow, We Need to Talk about Authorship Abuse, September 12, 2019, Inside Higher Ed.
  • COACh is a grass-roots organization that is working to increase the number and career success of women scientists and engineers through innovative programs and strategies.
  • NCFDD Mentoring Map – a worksheet to track your network of mentors.

These are just a few of the many resources available to those who are interested in becoming better mentors. But for me being a good mentor is intrinsically tied to being a good human being. Hence my definition of a good mentor:

A good mentor must value the mentee as a person. Of course this requires there to be a solid relationship that is built on trust and, more importantly, respect. A good mentor will offer advice, but it will be directly related to how the mentee may be able to solve a particular problem/challenge that they are experiencing. That is, a good mentor provided possible ideas, and not directions, and is never upset if the mentee does not take their advice. I think of a good mentor as a solid sounding board, someone who listens intently and provides a multitude of potential solutions – rather than telling me what they would do. Most importantly, and part of what is most challenging in academic settings, is that a good mentor has to have a mentee’s development as their primary objective, and should at all costs avoid trying to force their mentee to become their mini-me.

Being a good mentor requires a true commitment to helping a mentee reach their personal and professional goals. It is not easy and none of us are taught how to be a good mentor. This does not mean that we should not try to be better. After all, constant improvement and lifelong learning, are a part of what drew us to an academic profession, is it not? If that is the case, then we should continue to do more research on how to better ourselves as mentors.

If you have any additional mentoring resources please share them in the comments.

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For People Of Color, Succeeding In Academia Is A Political Statement

Blog by Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

When I began my freshman year of college, I—like any other college freshman—began to get acquainted with new, unfamiliar responsibilities. Go to class at 9:30, dinner with Maya and Kayla tonight, check out these new clubs, all on top of a fifty-page reading for Political Theory and my Calculus I problem set. My agenda was neatly filled with lines detailing responsibilities, followed by checkmarks of what had been completed. There was one responsibility, however, that I never wrote down but loomed over me wherever I went.

You see, before I left for college, my mom told me: Vas a la escuela para demostrar que los mexicanos no solo están aquí para limpiar casas o servir como mano de obra, y también para demostrar que las mujeres no solo sirven para casarse y tener hijos.
[Translation: You go to school to show that Mexicans are not only here to clean houses or serve as labor, and also to show that women not only serve to marry and have children]. I not only went to college to become educated but also carried the weight to act as a catalyst in reshaping racist and sexist stereotypes that permeate both American and Mexican culture.

Ideally, I’d like to say that my ethnicity has never impacted my academic life—that I’ve never felt a taste of isolation in my STEM classes as the only brown-skinned person, that I’ve never felt like I have been used as a brochure token for diversity, that I’ve never felt the pressure to speak in cogent and intelligent dialogue whenever I opened my mouth in my discussion-based seminars (not because I wanted to seem like an intelligent person, but an intelligent Mexican). I couldn’t make a mistake, because if I did, what would others think of Mexicans? As someone who has always been a part of predominantly white institutional environments, ignoring the fact that I am acting as a representative for people of my ethnic background is incredibly difficult, because for many, I am the first Mexican they meet. For most, I am the first Mexican or Latino/a they meet in the mathematics field.

These pressures, along with general disadvantages minority students face in academia, are something called “the minority tax”. Formally, it is defined as “an array of additional duties, expectations, and challenges that accompany being an exception within white male-dominated institutional environments”. This burden is what makes an undergraduate or graduate career for minority students more difficult than it already is, and additionally, what drives women and minority students away from Ph.D. programs and academia. It is a struggle to succeed in academics while enduring covert or overt instances of racism, implicit bias, and isolation—all byproducts of participating in a system that was not designed for women and people of color.

I’ve tried to talk to my peers about these issues, but many times, I’ve been met with lukewarm empathy followed by statements such as “but just work hard from now on and you’ll succeed!”, as if my ethnic background didn’t heavily impact the academic challenges I face. Despite these challenges, I choose to continue pursuing an undergraduate education in a difficult and often uninviting field and have plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program. Why? Because aside from my fervent love of mathematics, succeeding in academia as a woman of color is a political statement. Historically, people like me have had their voices shut and existence erased. Obtaining a Ph.D. and succeeding in academia is more than being recognized for my academic efforts; It is my way of giving myself a name when my ethnic group has been nameless, it is my hopes and dreams turned into tangible change.

 

Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

Melissa is a junior mathematics and philosophy student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA and concurrently enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in pure mathematics

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Itʼs the little things

Usually “Itʼs the little things” refers to the details that really help make something spectacular. However, for me these words have taken a different meaning recently. It reminds me of little things that I have experienced and which have affected my self identity as a mathematician and made me question my place within the mathematical community. Itʼs the small actions or words or micro aggressions (regardless of intent) that take me out of doing mathematics and bring only selective parts of my identity front and center.

Here are a few of my recent experiences fitting within the context of “Itʼs the little things.”

I was honored this summer as a recipient of an MAA Alder award for exceptional teaching by an early career mathematician. Not only this, but my dearest math friend also received this award. Two Latinas received the award in the same year! I was over the moon. We were eagerly waiting for the event ceremony to take place, as a woman came up to us and said “Ok girls letʼs get you to the stage.” And there it is. Girls. We are being recognized with a national teaching award and we get called girls. I spoke up and said that I am a woman and would appreciate if she not refer to me as a girl. I likely wouldnʼt have done this, but my 13 year old daughter was present and witnessed the exchange. I addressed it mostly to show my daughter that she too can speak up when things bother her and can do so calmly and respectfully. Yet, there it was. This little thing shifted my focus and mental space from the wonderful celebration about to take place, to feeling small and childlike – not at all feeling like an award winning mathematics educator.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am at a math workshop, sitting in a room with 40 other women. The hour is set aside to discuss challenges of being a woman in math. Iʼve been to many of these events in the last decade. I never feel better afterwards. Instead I am drained. The conversations are predictable. When should we have children? “A womanʼs reproductive clock doesnʼt align with the tenure clock” we were told – shouldn’t the tenure clock adapt to our reproductive clocks—I wondered. Move from service to leadership positions, since “service doesnʼt count, but leadership does.” All fine topics of conversation. But the conversation shifts when I point out that the experiences of women of color (WOC) are different and that I believe most of the challenges I have faced stem from racial discrimination – of course separating this from misogyny and sexism is impossible.

Yes, the experiences of WOC in math are different – we agreed. Yet it was suggested that more conversations are needed so that people can better help WOC. Iʼve heard this multiple times and in various settings. I now have a programmed answer. So much so that I can recite it from memory. “It is not the job of underrepresented minorities to educate others on systemic issues we did not create. Just as everyone in this room is capable of taking an abstract mathematics research paper and work to understand that, they too can learn from literature on these topics.” Full stop.

Not satisfied with my response, I was asked if I would answer personal questions. I asked if those could be googled. They said “No. What if itʼs a personal question. Would you answer?” I finally ended the (public!) conversation by saying that asking me personal questions during a math workshop is robbing me of the mathematical experience I came to be a part of.

There it was. I came to the event for the mathematics and the collaboration. Yet Iʼd been (once again) reduced to being a resource on issues of diversity for those that are unwilling to do their own research. Luckily, a friend that I highly respect commented that such actions are a form of “emotional hijacking.” She was right.

The rest of the day I spent replaying the situation in my head. Not being able to truly immerse myself in new math as I had intended on. I worried about what my comments may mean for any future collaborations with others in the room. Will I be labeled a “trouble maker” or “angry.” Will they later tell me, as a past colleague in a leadership position did, that my emotions were unwarranted, especially as I am usually so “articulate.” Thatʼs another little thing.

These little things build up and become big things. Like a snowball down a hill they carry weight. They change how I perceive myself and my worth. All regardless of someone’s intent. We should work on addressing the little things. Of course this requires understanding other’s challenges within the mathematical community. I just ask you to first google questions you may have in order to stop taxing underrepresented minorities with work you need to do.

If a google search fails you, I present you with the following resources to learn more about microaggressions, how to be a better ally and mentor, and how to design and implement effective mentoring programs:

Posted in Changing Graduate Programs, General, Uncategorized | 4 Comments