• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: A Productive Collaboration

Working with those from different backgrounds.

February 27, 2014

In Economics, “indifference curves” can be used to show that consumers will prefer mixed bundles of goods to those consisting of only one good. To illustrate this, imagine how we often serve meals consisting of a protein, a starch and a vegetable. Such a combination is certainly preferable to meals consisting of only proteins or only starches. I found myself thinking of this when I read an article appearing in Inside Higher Ed this past Monday about which pairs of co-authors seem to be most successful, claiming they are those that come from different backgrounds. I smiled to myself as I read it, because it seemed to reflect my own relationship with my co-author. No, he does not look like me, but what makes us successful is that he is indeed, nothing like me. We both bring very different skills to the table, and these different skills complement each other.

My co-author has a very “Anglo” sounding name, and would probably not have been identified by the authors of that study as being of a different background than myself. In fact, I suspect that my Italian name would have attracted more attention from the authors at Harvard than would his name. He is, however, from the Caribbean, and is of African descent. I did not meet him in any international conference, but when I worked with him for a few years at my previous position. We began writing together when I took a job in a math department, rather than an economics department, and I wanted to make sure that I continued my work as an economist. I smiled, because, although our backgrounds are very different, what makes us a successful writing team is not that our skin is of very different colors but that our backgrounds are indeed very different. Our academic backgrounds, that is.

My co-author and I come to our research with the same set of skills. We are both schooled in statistics and can both do Calculus with our eyes closed. However, he has seen much more of the world than I have, and he comes with a perspective unique to those who grew up outside of the U.S. Indeed, he once owned a business in his home country of Granada, and is therefore very aware of the ways economies other than our own function. As for me, although I enjoy traveling, I also really enjoy spending time alone in my office reducing linear systems of differential equations. I laugh when I recall once responding to a referee’s comment by invoking the chain rule of Calculus. I wonder if the mention of this dreaded rule from Calculus I (and any bad memories that might have come with it) was enough to convince the referee to recommend publication.

I am afraid that graduate school, for all that it taught me, never did teach me how to deal with the publication process. While I published a few articles on my own, I was always less than competent in dealing with editors and with revising and resubmitting articles that I had not yet been accepted. Further, finding appropriate journals that were within “shooting distance” was always a weakness when I published as a single author. Once I found my co-author, however, he was able to guide me in these things, as they were skills that were taught, along with the more traditional skills, in his graduate school. Had I never found someone to guide me, I am sure that I would not have been able to publish much of what we have written together.

However, the final way in which we complement each other is less academic. When I left my first job just steps ahead of what would have surely been a tenure rejection, I left defeated and wondering if I ever wanted to call myself an economist again. My co-author, however, would have none of that. He helped me brush off some papers I had begun and pushed me to publish them. And so I did.

In the end, we are a successful team because we are so different. However, these differences are not because we look very different or because our families come from very different parts of the world. No, we are successful because we complement each other in our work, much as my husband and I complement each other in parenting. I am not sure how the researchers in the article from Monday would quantify that, but I have to believe that it is the issue that is most important.

Today is the last day of February, a month designated as “Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month.” This rare, deadly cancer claimed the life of my younger sister, leaving her husband as a single parent to a young girl and an infant boy. She would have turned 45 on Tuesday. I miss her every day.


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