When early-career meets early-family

When my husband was first starting out in grad school, he took a crosslisted graduate/undergraduate physics class. One day the professor looked away from the board for a moment, gazed out at the class, and said, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Academia is not compatible with family life.”

This was also the day the only two female students in the class were both absent.

There’s a lot to unpack in that line. Sometimes, sexism isn’t even subtle. This isn’t the tyranny of low expectations, or unintentionally writing weaker letters for female students, or women getting crappier student evaluations. Sometimes, we’re still straight-up telling people that women don’t really belong here.

And we’re telling men that they can’t expect to both be a good father and succeed in this business, and that they’d be ridiculous to even want that in the first place. When asked on a survey “Do you think having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?” one responded (also a physicist incidentally, not that I think they’re all that much worse at this than we are) “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.

I couldn’t have finished grad school with a baby. I know people who’ve done it and I think they’re incredible. But it wouldn’t have worked for us. For one thing, I doubt we could’ve even afforded the hospital stay with our stipends and crummy insurance. I knew students who were foreign nationals who’d fly home to have their babies where heath care was government-supported, because there’s no way they could have paid for it here. Not to mention getting time off to recover, affording child care with no family nearby, and finding the time to teach and research. I barely finished as it was. I can’t imagine doing it with a baby.

Then we lived apart for three years while we finished school and postdocs and tried to find positions close to one another. Maybe we could have managed a baby then. But neither one of us wanted to spend such an important time in a child’s life apart, and that’s completely ignoring the problem of timing. Ovulation doesn’t schedule around school breaks and weekend redeye flights.

So we got going late. Once you’re over 35 you get branded at the doctor’s office with either “geriatric pregnancy” or “advanced maternal age.” I don’t feel either geriatric or advanced, but they didn’t ask me. I know about the increased risks, and the decreased fertility. But I also know that plenty of people have kids a little later and the vast majority of them are just fine.

But so far it hasn’t been so lucky for us. A warning here: the rest of this post discusses managing the loss of a pregnancy. If you’d rather skip out now, I don’t blame you and I wish you the best of luck.

This spring, as we got ready to close on our house, I found out I was pregnant. We were thrilled. I had thought for sure it’d take us a long time, or maybe just wouldn’t happen at all. But here I was, feeling like I had a chronic hangover and barely able to keep a thought in my head, but happy.

I knew the risk of miscarriage was nontrivial. The miscarriage rate for confirmed pregnancies is somewhere around 20-30%, but good data is hard to find.  So I did what a mathematician would do: I found a model that showed my approximate risk of miscarriage per day of pregnancy and watched that number slowly drop as I waited the agonizing four weeks for my first appointment. So far so good, but I also knew it was possible that I’d already miscarried and my body didn’t even know it yet.

When I went for my ultrasound and the midwife found a too-small, too-dark spot on the screen, I thought I was prepared. I made the followup appointment, gathered my things (including the big bag of prenatal vitamins and mommy stuff they’d given me before they did the ultrasound, for some reason – this bag is still in my trunk) and went back to the office.

I didn’t even make it that far. As soon as I saw my female colleagues, I lost it. They let me go home. I did.

After that awful first day, it honestly wasn’t so bad. Work went on without me thanks to my incredibly supportive colleagues, including my co-blogger Beth who bailed me out of my bit of our Pi Mu Epsilon ceremony. Ultimately I needed surgery, but it was easy and almost painless and I even made it to a conference the next day. I had some complications the following week, but my husband was able to stay home with me and I still taught all the rest of my classes. He picked up all the slack at the house we’d just moved into while my body tried to figure out what the hell just happened. It still hasn’t quite gotten back to normal. Maybe it never will.

I was lucky. My husband was a dream and could take time off work so we could both recover. My insurance covered everything. My chair and colleagues were easy to talk to and more helpful and kind than I could ever have hoped for. I was never worried about how my absences and missed meetings and ungraded homework might affect my tenure dossier. A truly shocking number of friends came out of the woodwork to share the stories of their losses and, for most of them at least, their ultimate successes having adorable kids.

I can’t even imagine what a early-career professor in this situation – male or female – would do if their chair was one of the two jackasses at the top of this article.

I’m writing this not just to get it all off my chest, though I have had a hell of a time trying to write about anything else these last few months. I’m writing this because while the academy has gotten a little better at dealing with having families (The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics has issued a call for papers for an upcoming issue on math and motherhood!), we’ve only barely started talking about the pitfalls of trying to start one. A fabulous Chronicle article by Jessica Winegar was about all I found when I was grieving. Her article is much more eloquent and well-sourced than mine, but I’m writing this anyway. One column about a problem this common and this devastating isn’t enough. My words will have to do.

It’s reasonable to put off children for the sake of an academic career, especially when the doors to the ivory tower slam shut behind you if you leave even temporarily. It’s a myth based on truly ancient data that fertility drops off precipitously after 30 or 35. The idea of “scheduling” a baby around an academic calendar should die as too, because successful pregnancy is a poorly understood process and not the inevitability of nature they scare you into believing it is in high school health class.

Chairs, advisors, tenure committees, and administrators need to be aware of the issues their students or faculty members might be having outside of the office, and be willing to be flexible, including extending fellowships or the tenure clock if necessary. There are an awful lot of doctors appointments involved with issues of fertility and pregnancy, and not all of them can be scheduled around classes and conferences and grant cycles. And due to all the weird taboos around early pregnancy, your colleagues might not want to give a ton of details about why they’re missing work.

There are people who would prefer that those who decide to devote their time to issues of family just stay out of the academy entirely, and leave the profession to those who are sufficiently dedicated to their field. Certainly it would be easier. But professors aren’t monks anymore. And believing that we should be will continue to drive many of our best and brightest away from academia and into government or industry, where having a life outside of work is less of a liability. We have to be aware of what we lose when we limit our vision for how a good professor looks and acts.

I hope this post can help to continue the conversation about how to keep people in the academic mathematical community, whether they choose to have kids or not. If you happen to bump into me (I’m in Chicago at MathFest right now!) and you’d like to stop and chat, I hope you do. If you’d like to anonymously tell your story here in the comments, or share what you wish your chair or colleagues had done when you were dealing with loss and frustration, I hope you do. If you’d like to email me, I hope you do. For the sake of our sanity – and our profession – we must be allowed to stop trying to do this alone.

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New Installment of Math Book Club.  Also, Talking Math Life at BIRS with Richard Guy

I started this blog right after a hike around Lake Louise, in Banff National Park, AB Canada. It was so beautiful that I did not even think to break out my book.

GA Math Book Club Continues

My spring and summer reading has been dominated by Swedish noir and giant historical novels, most recently the incredible A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. The French Revolution—Aaaaaaaaaaah! So brutal!  However, I needed enough breaks from the guillotine to make it through two very worthwhile mathy volumes in the last few months: Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil, and Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, by Siobhan Roberts.  Neither of these books were what I expected, but I was pleased with both in their own ways.

Weapons of Math Destruction came out last year, and has been on my reading list since Evelyn Lamb reviewed it in the Scientific American blog. It hits some of my usually disconnected strong interests: interesting and unusual career paths in mathematics, the intersections of mathematics and social justice, and the ways in which acting with good or neutral intentions can lead to negative unforeseen and sometimes devastating consequences (I know, this is a weird interest, but where would all those depressing novels and plays be without this principle?). Cathy O’Neil has followed an unusual and interesting path, from academic life to Wall Street, data mining, and now her own company auditing algorithms. I enjoy reading O’Neil’s mathbabe blogWeapons of Math Destruction was an important book for me to read, because my usual vision of mathematics and social justice involves the ways that mathematical tools can be used to fight for fairness or justice (for example, to identify gerrymandered congressional districts).  However, O’Neil describes how the algorithms we design for efficiency and optimization, and even fairness, can treat people very unfairly and lead to systemic injustice.  She does this well, though without any real technical discussion. This book is truly accessible to a general audience. This spring, I gave it to some of my students who were taking summer jobs in finance or considering careers in industry.  This was not at all to discourage them from working in these areas, but to provide some context and some case studies. I want my students to love their careers, and I know that many of them have a strong sense of responsibility to the larger world.  Weapons of Math Destruction is, among other things, a manual for those who feel this sense of responsibility, of things we should not overlook or sweep aside as we try to build the better, faster, more efficient algorithm for everything.

Genius at Play also interests me as the story of an unusual mathematical life. John Horton Conway has, in some ways, followed a very narrow path in math: from early talent to Cambridge student, then Cambridge professor, and then on to Princeton.  However, his remarkable approach to mathematics and life, as well as his totally wacky charisma—captured in his own words whenever possible—make this a very different mathematical biography.  Siobhan Roberts does us the service of allowing us to meet Conway through their relationship as biographer (or “amanuensis”, as Conway sometimes refers to her) and subject.  I found the conversational and non-linear narrative style of Genius at Play uncomfortable at points, but I really liked it in the end. One reason I read this book was to get a bit of context on the history of cellular automata; I came away with much more than I bargained for.  I also learned that, if I ever get the chance to meet Conway, I should probably not ask him about the Game of Life.  Roberts walks a careful line to respect Conway’s privacy, but hints at some of his personal adventures.  This has the possibly unintentional consequence of making the reader, used to tell-all type biographies, even more curious about what is left out. On the other hand, a significant amount of math is kept in the book, and Roberts/Conway do a remarkably deft job of explaining big picture topics and even elucidating full proofs, while never seeming to oversimplify or condescend to the reader. This book gave me a new sense of the explosion of mathematical creativity brought on by the rise of computers, and the sense that I had experienced the extraordinary personality of John Conway first hand.


I hope that I can read a book about Richard Guy someday.

This week I am blogging about books from a conference in Diophantine Approximation and Algebraic Curves at the Banff international Research Station (BIRS).  This has been a great conference in several ways—seeing some of awesome math friends, meeting new people, very good talks, the chance to play exceedingly non-serious but very fun bridge.  I had a really valuable math discussion in which someone explained a difficult idea to me in an intuitive way (thanks, Benjamin Maschke!).  All this, plus BIRS is in a stunning natural setting in Banff National Park (in the Canadian Rockies). Finally, the conference was great because I got a chance to talk with Richard Guy.

Our group photo for the conference. Credit: Banff International Research Station.

Number theorist Richard Guy really deserves his own book.  He did just get his own 100th birthday conference, but that’s not going far enough.  Richard Guy collaborated extensively with Conway, and was mentioned many times in the GaP; however, there is so much more to his life and career than this collaboration. A few highlights: Guy was born in 1916 in England.  He excelled in mathematics, obtaining BA and MA degrees at Cambridge, then got a teaching certification from the University of Birmingham and became a mathematics teacher. He worked as a teacher in England for several years, though he was sent to Iceland and then Bermuda with the meteorological branch of the Royal Air Force for a period during World War II.  In the 1950s, Guy moved to Singapore and then to India, teaching at the University of Malaya and the Indian Institute of Technology. In 1960, Guy met Paul Erdös in Singapore.  Erdös encouraged Guy to pursue his interests in mathematics more seriously, and they began a mathematical collaboration that led to four joint papers.  Guy and his family moved to Calgary, Alberta, in 1965, where he joined the mathematics department at the University of Calgary and is still an active emeritus Professor.  He has written many books, including the classic Unsolved Problems in Number Theory.  He is also a very accomplished mountaineer, and… well, I could go on for a long time. I am a great admirer, of both his mathematics and adventurous spirit.  Sometimes it seemed that Richard Guy was essentially the star of the conference—the lecture room was full for his talk on the final afternoon, and all week people shared stories about their experiences with him and spoke with reverence about how he still proves theorems and walks up tall mountains.  Just before his talk, Jennifer Park said, “I hope I still love math as much as he does when I’m 100.” Agreed.

Thursday afternoon I found him in the lounge chatting with Andrew Bremner about Wimbledon, so I took this opportunity to introduce myself.  I asked Richard about mathematical life and I really loved his response.

Me: “What would you say to early career mathematicians about how to have a great life in math?”

Richard Guy: “Math is fun, and it is difficult, but you have to find your own level.  When you’re a small child, you learn to count and add and subtract and such.  There are lots of whiz kids at arithmetic, who then just kind of fold up when algebra, with all the x’s and such, comes along.  And it happens again with trigonometry, calculus and so on.  When you hit more and more abstraction as you go along, it’s easy to feel you’ve got beyond your depth.  But you can find your own level of abstraction and work there, because there are plenty of things to work on at each level.  The thing is not to get depressed when you don’t understand—and I mean sometimes I hardly understand—what people at conferences are talking about.”

Richard Guy, me, and Andrew Bremner. They were talking math and tennis when I dropped in on them.


Thoughts on the books?  Hopes for your relationship with math at 100?  Please share in the comments.

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Ximera Updates

Last year I wrote about a cool project I’d joined called Ximera. Bart Snapp and Jim Fowler at OSU have been developing a great set of tools to turn LaTeX documents into interactive websites for students. Within one of these sites, you can ask questions and get real-time answer checking, plot with desmos, and embed videos. OSU uses Ximera for their calculus courses, where you can get a good look at different types of questions that one can ask with this platform. With a small change in the header, these websites can be converted to handouts or even a book.

Example Ximera activity

When they announced another Ximera workshop, their fourth, I jumped at the chance with one goal in mind: writing documentation.

A few of you had reached out to me last year about how to get Ximera up and running locally, and I wasn’t much help. It takes some work to make all the moving parts work together correctly on any individual machine, and that is not my area of expertise. But we have a way to circumvent all of this now using CoCalc (formerly Sage Math Cloud).

You’ll need a CoCalc account with internet access (maybe only to get it started?), which costs $7/month. But if you can swing that, our getting started documents should let you edit your first assignments and set up your first course. And if something doesn’t work properly or if you spot a typo, let me know so I can make edits. Bart and Jim streamlined the workflow a bit since last year, but you will still need to use a terminal within CoCalc, and you’ll need to stay on the right side of the git gods, which can be frustrating. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to produce beautiful custom assignments that would take ages in an online homework site or a learning management system.

We also included some documentation on how to install Ximera locally but they might not work quite as well as I’d like. The Ubuntu directions are fairly solid (I think), but you’ll probably hit a snag on the Mac instructions when you get to the gpg key. Those problems are not unresolvable, but they’re technical and temperamental and beyond what was possible to write up nicely. PC instructions don’t exist at all, though if anyone would like to try to install and explain what you did, I’m sure we’d all be overjoyed to add them.

The dev team have worked out a couple more technical kinks since last time. They treat answer checking on things like factoring polynomials in a much more clever way. They’ve implemented non-numerical or -functional answers, so it’s easier to make things like fill-in-the-blank questions now. And they’re getting closer to a functioning free response question environment (one already exists, but the answers don’t really get stored anywhere that’s easily accessible right now).

There’s more documentation yet to write. Another workshop participant is working on describing all the environments and how they work, so once that’s ready I’ll pass it along. And we don’t have anything written on the instructor tools or how to sync to Canvas as far as I know.

The authors are looking toward an official release sometime next year, and I’ll update you when I know more. I’m excited to be a part of this project and I plan to use it a bit in my calc 2 class in the fall. When that’s ready I’m sure I’ll post about it so you can see how it comes together.

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