SIAM News Blog

A Conversation with Ron Buckmire, SIAM’s First Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Ron Buckmire, SIAM’s Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
In January 2021, SIAM officially welcomed Ron Buckmire—a professor of mathematics and the Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs at Occidental College—as its first Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). Ron has been heavily involved in numerous SIAM committees over the years and brings ample experience from his time in both academia and with the U.S. government. His first term as VP for EDI ends December 31, 2022.

The VP for EDI works to expand SIAM membership across all demographics, support equity and inclusion within SIAM programs and activities, and ensure that SIAM is effectively serving its entire diverse community. The position is a voting member of the SIAM Council and collaborates with SIAM leadership and the VPs for Industry, Education, Publications, Science Policy, and Programs, as well as members of the Diversity Advisory Committee and the Membership Committee

Lisa Fauci of Tulane University—who oversaw the creation of the VP for EDI position when she was SIAM President—recently sat down for a conversation with Ron. They discussed his longstanding dedication to SIAM, past employment at the National Science Foundation (NSF), passion for increasing the participation of underrepresented individuals in mathematics, and ideas for the remainder of his first term. Here they share their conversation with SIAM News.

Lisa Fauci: How did you first become involved with SIAM?

Ron Buckmire: I earned my B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Because RPI is very much oriented around engineering and applied mathematics, it was sort of expected that students in the Department of Mathematical Sciences join SIAM. The 1993 SIAM Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., was my first conference, and I graduated with my Ph.D. the following year. When I became a professor, I naturally retained my SIAM membership.

The first SIAM committee to which I was appointed was the Education Committee. I then joined the Diversity Advisory Committee and have since been involved with SIAM at various levels. I previously served as the program director for the SIAM Activity Group on Applied Mathematics Education and even co-organized the 2020 SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education, which unfortunately was cancelled due to COVID-19. I am also the outgoing chair of the Membership Committee.

LF: As an applied mathematician in training at RPI, you were expected to become a member of SIAM. How can we make that expectation more widespread for applied mathematicians at other institutions, including undergraduate institutes with a mix of applied and pure mathematics?

RB: One of the most important changes that I am hoping to implement with SIAM’s executive director, Suzanne Weekes, is to encourage more math folks to join SIAM. If you are an applied mathematician, SIAM should be your primary society. We can promote this mindset by making SIAM a welcoming place for all types of applied mathematicians and computational/data scientists. We want to appeal to individuals who work in the field of applied mathematics and perform math as part of their jobs in business, industry, and government laboratories — not just in academia.

Joining and participating in a community of individuals like SIAM is validating, especially for applied mathematicians and/or computational scientists whose departments are comprised primarily of pure mathematicians. SIAM members know that the work they do is important and applicable to a myriad of real-world situations, and this affirmation is valuable to young and early-career mathematicians who are just getting started.

LF: You’ve spent some time as a program director at NSF. What insights does that experience bring to your role as VP for EDI?

RB: NSF is a great source and supporter of innovation and excellence in mathematics throughout the U.S. It provides its employees with a bird’s-eye view of the best, most interesting scientific ideas and programs across the country.

Many people don’t realize that between a third and a half of NSF program officers are temporary at any given time. NSF uses the term “rotators” to describe these individuals, whose responsibilities and titles are very similar to “permanent” program officers. Rotators are typically people with Ph.D.s (usually employed at academic institutions) who spend one to four years working at NSF while on leave from their home institution. I was a rotator from 2011 to 2013 and a permanent program officer from 2016 to 2018 in the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), which falls within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

Working at NSF is incredibly rewarding, and I encourage people to apply there all the time. The Foundation is always looking for more rotators; readers of SIAM News might be more familiar with the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) than the DUE, but many of the projects and assignments are similar in both divisions. As a DUE program officer responsible for mathematics education, I often worked with DMS program officers. We co-funded projects, sat in on each other’s panels, and conducted outreach together at large conferences like the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Program officers have a lot of leeway and substantial autonomy when making funding recommendations; when the division director approves such recommendations, the money eventually goes to the principal investigators and sponsoring institutions. My time at NSF inspired me to seek positions with more responsibility at my home institution and in the broader national mathematics community.

NSF has an entire Office of Equity and Civil Rights. In fact, most federal agencies in the U.S. government have a paid person on staff whose job is very similar to my volunteer position as SIAM’s VP for EDI: to think about diversity and inclusion in multiple ways and within all aspects of the organization’s activities. The federal government is ahead of many other institutions in terms of implementing these types of practices. This fact was really eye opening for me.

LF: What would you like SIAM members to know about SIAM’s current EDI efforts?

RB: I think that SIAM does a lot in the area of EDI that members aren’t necessarily aware of. For example, the Workshop Celebrating Diversity (WCD)—a yearly event at the SIAM Annual Meeting that is organized by a subcommittee of SIAM’s Diversity Advisory Committee—has been around for nearly 30 years. WCD consists of a series of several minisymposia on various topics in industrial and applied mathematics; researchers from historically excluded and currently underrepresented communities attend these sessions and give presentations about their ongoing projects. This is just one way that SIAM has increased the diversity of attendees at its Annual Meeting — be sure to check out this programming at the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting, which will take place in a hybrid format this July in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Upon realizing that not many WCD participants remained engaged with SIAM after the workshop—and thanks to your leadership and suggestions, Lisa, during your time as SIAM President—SIAM established the MGB-SIAM Early Career (MSEC) Fellowship. MSEC is a collaboration between Mathematically Gifted & Black (MGB) and SIAM that will “promote long-term engagement of MSEC Fellows within SIAM and their continued success within the wider applied mathematics and computational sciences community.” Five to eight MSEC Fellowships will be awarded each year; recipients will receive free SIAM membership throughout the Fellowship’s three-year duration and discounted membership in the subsequent four years. They will also receive travel support and free registration for the Annual Meeting and one additional SIAM conference of their choosing (in the U.S. or Canada), during which they will co-organize one or more minisymposia in their research areas. Fellows will also present a talk at a WCD session. Applications for the first round of MSEC Fellows closed in November 2021, and we look forward to announcing their names in early 2022.

LF: How are you using the VP for EDI role to represent SIAM within the wider mathematics community?

RB: TPSE Math is currently working on developing resources to help the mathematical sciences community assess and improve their EDI efforts. These resources are based upon SEA Change, a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to propel the transformation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in colleges and universities so that they better reflect EDI. As SIAM’s representative in the TPSE Math working group, I have been helping to create these resources for the broader mathematical community.

I am also involved with EDI in the mathematics community in various other capacities. For instance, I am on the corresponding EDI committees of the Mathematical Association of America, American Mathematical Society, and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. I think that I bring many reciprocal synergies to SIAM by holding these additional volunteer positions.

LF: What are some of your goals for the remainder of your time as SIAM’s first VP for EDI?

RB: My primary goal as VP for EDI is to do what I do in every administrative or volunteer position that I hold. Specifically, I try to “leave the campground cleaner than I found it;” in other words, I aim to leave the organization better than when I joined it. With respect to EDI at SIAM, I want to help move the needle in the positive direction by increasing diversity and inclusion in all of the Society’s primary activities: awards, conferences, publications, membership, etc. In fact, one of my first major actions has been to convene a working group—formally called the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Task Force—to create a report that summarizes recommendations to enhance SIAM’s EDI efforts in the short term (six to 18 months). This report has been produced and submitted to SIAM’s Board of Trustees and Council for review. During the remainder of my first term, I will be working to get these recommendations enacted.

If I continue as VP for EDI for a second term, the next step would be a more comprehensive strategic plan that discusses and maps out SIAM’s EDI efforts on a longer time scale. I ultimately want to set SIAM on a trajectory towards continuous, measurable, and significant improvement in the realm of EDI for the foreseeable future.

SIAM News thanks Lisa Fauci and Ron Buckmire for their time and contributions to this piece.

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