SIAM News Blog

Diversity: A Recurring Theme at the SIAM Annual Meeting

By Izzy Aguiar

Diversity is inherent to SIAM meetings. This is particularly true of annual meetings, where the breadth of topics rivals only the geographic, ethnic, and gender representation of attendees. This year’s Annual Meeting, held in Pittsburgh, Pa., in July, featured a variety of sessions that specifically addressed issues of diversity in applied mathematics, including biases against female mathematicians, challenges faced by African American researchers, and community efforts to support underrepresented minorities.

One such session was the aptly-named panel on “Celebrating Diversity in Mathematical Sciences.” An inspiring and informational panel, it consisted of Richard Tapia (Rice University), Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) President Ami Radunskaya (Pomona College), Ron Buckmire (National Science Foundation), and Shelby Nicole Wilson (Morehouse College). 

Tapia spoke of diversity as a bad word, a “cop-out” for universities to bundle all issues of underrepresentation into one easy phrase. He discussed the overwhelming progress of representation and equality for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the discrepancy between this movement and that of other underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic minorities. “Gender equity is stepping on the toes of underrepresentation,” Tapia said, lauding the successes of the gender movement.  He added that, whereas racism in the past was manifested in segregation, the racism of today exists in lower expectations for underrepresented groups. Tapia cautioned that the health and success of the scientific community and the nation depends on adequate minority representation. 

Radunskaya referred to diversity as “belonging and not belonging.” She identified both visible and invisible signs of belonging and not belonging within a group, namely gender, skin color, and perceptible disabilities, as opposed to socioeconomic status, unseen disabilities, and personal background. Despite the progress in bridging the gender gap, women still experience the feeling of “not belonging,” Radunskaya said. She delved into implicit biases and the following stereotypes: women will quit upon having children, women are maternal, and crying is a sign of weakness. Radunskaya observed that talking about being a woman is often easier and more comfortable than talking about the underrepresentation of other groups, and encouraged the audience to engage in difficult dialogues with people from different backgrounds.

Buckmire opened his discussion by quizzing the audience about the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. He used the poll as an opportunity to address the fact that non-minorities tend to overestimate the true percentage of minorities. “If you think there are so many more [minorities in the US] and they’re not being represented in mathematics, wouldn’t that increase the sense of urgency to increase representation?” he asked.

Buckmire compared diversity to a vector space of infinite dimensions. The vast variances of identifying human characteristics exist on these varied axes of identity. Individuals do not prevail on just one but subsist on multiple axes simultaneously; this concept is called intersectionality. People’s position on these axes determines their “positionality,” or power in certain situations. He urged professors to look for these axes in the classroom, which may not otherwise be readily visible. 

Buckmire also observed the so-called “cult of objectivity,” noting that the mathematics community tends to dehumanize mathematicians, celebrating the words on paper rather than the characteristics of the human that put them there. If we don’t value mathematicians as individuals, he argued, we can’t understand that these individuals also possess characteristics that define diversity. One of the first steps in increasing diversity is to fight this objectivity and dehumanization.

Wilson shared that during her graduate studies, there was a point at which she realized that while her gender would help her succeed, her race would not. Women receive much support from various groups, programs, and scholarships; black men, on the other hand, lack role models and are often excluded or judged. This realization inspired her to teach at Morehouse College, an all-male institution on the list of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Wilson emphasized that her students’ successes are due to high expectations and professor-student trust. She thus encouraged the audience to foster a similar sense of community and expectation within their own environments. 

From left to right: Richard Tapia, Ami Radunskaya, Ron Buckmire, and Shelby Nicole Wilson address the audience during the panel on “Celebrating Diversity in Mathematical Sciences” at the 2017 SIAM Annual Meeting. Photo credit: Izzy Aguiar.

The AWM panel on “Perspectives from Women in Research” also tackled issues affecting underrepresented groups. Panelist Lenore Cowen studied mathematics at Yale University before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her master’s degree and Ph.D. in applied mathematics. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, where she fell in love and got married. Cowen now has two teenage twin girls and researches computational biology in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University. 

Unlike Cowen, Anshu Dubey earned her undergraduate degree in engineering and worked briefly in industry before deciding to attend graduate school, where she received her Ph.D. in computer science. Mentors and colleagues warned Dubey that a zig-zagged path would be detrimental to her career, because others would perceive her decisions as inconsistent, a gendered comment in and of itself. Despite this, she continued pursuing new and exciting opportunities. Because of her research’s interdisciplinary nature, Dubey did not fit into any given department and would have been unable to find a tenure-track position in academia. She moved to Argonne National Laboratories—where she currently works—for stability, and emphasized that there are multiple ways to succeed; breadth is just as good as depth.

Fariba Fahroo, a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), majored in physics and applied mathematics, continuing her graduate education in the latter. She then became a professor of applied mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School, where—as the only female faculty member—she immediately witnessed the gender gap. Fahroo stepped back temporarily from academia to become a program manager in computational mathematics at DARPA, and enjoyed the job so much that she soon transferred permanently to the role. 

Alison Marsden, a professor at the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering and in the Departments of Pediatrics-Cardiology, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, spoke of her interdisciplinary background. She completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University and her graduate studies at Stanford University, with degrees in mechanical engineering from both. Marsden focused her Ph.D. on applications of fluid dynamics, aerospace engineering, and turbulence modeling with the intention of implementing those tools elsewhere: cardiovascular modeling. While she could not have foreseen her current position in the Department of Pediatrics-Cardiology, she loves how her research spans a large group of people and disciplines. With two children, ages nine and 12, Marsden noted that “work-life balance” is an elusive term. 

After their respective introductions, the panelists collectively shared opinions and advice on childcare, sexism and harassment in the workplace, and advantages women might have in fields where they are underrepresented. Marsden encouraged participation in women’s groups, which helped her overcome the feeling of isolation and not belonging. Since becoming a faculty member, she has continued this support system by founding and participating in more groups. Marsden commented that all women experience the same issues regardless of discipline or stage of life, and talking about these issues provides invaluable assistance. 

Dubey insightfully noted that the perception of women as “outsiders” has allowed them to develop various survival skills, one of which is clear communication. She has had to pay more attention to the context of dynamics and situations; having to continuously notice and analyze has improved her communication skills. Marsden pointed out that this relative advantage in communication enables success in collaboration, interdisciplinary research, and the management of graduate students. The panelists urged female attendees to take advantage of current opportunities meant to balance the ratio; the odds are so often stacked against women that this should pose no discomfort.

Ultimately, Cowen motivated the room to keep learning from one another, and hailed the women in the audience as the famous mathematicians of the future. Fahroo reassured attendees that no one does everything well, and there’s no shame in seeking as much support and help as needed. Dubey commended the power of trusting one’s gut to do what’s best personally, regardless of what others might say. And Marsden quoted Sheryl Sandberg by saying, “don’t quit before you quit,” and encouraged women mathematicians to overcome the initial hesitancy of trying new things. 

Izzy Aguiar earned her B.S. in applied mathematics and statistics from the Colorado School of Mines and is currently pursuing her M.S. in computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  She is passionate about interdisciplinary research, the power of education, and the importance of effective communication.
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