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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Degrees of Separation
March 19, 2009 - 9:21pm

You may have heard of the concept of “six degrees of separation”. Made popular by a movie and a parlor game, it says that everyone in the world can be connected by at most six degrees of separation. That is, I would know someone who knows someone who knows someone, ect. It claims it would take only six such connections to unite everyone in the world. Think about it- what would it take to connect you to, say, the Pope? My guess is that you know someone who knows a priest who knows a Cardinal who then knows the Pope. And so on.

For those of us who are parents and teachers, this concept can be extended to include connections across time as well as space. Not only are we connected to people living now, but our efforts as parents and teachers connect us to people in the future. Our children and students are ways that we speak to and interact with those who will live years from now. I found myself thinking of this last week, when I learned that one of my students had been accepted into a Ph.D. program in mathematics. She hopes to teach some day, meaning that there will be only one degree of separation between me and her future students.

I was extremely thrilled to learn that she had been accepted into a Ph.D. program in math. I don’t know if she is the first from our school, but she is certainly the first since I have been at Ursuline. Indeed, I can remember the days when there were absolutely no math majors here; our first graduates to go to math graduate school for many years did so about five years ago. With her permission, I announced her accomplishment to her classmates in my Advanced Statistics course, and found my eyes tearing up. My students thought it was sweet that I was crying tears of joy for her, although I was a little embarrassed. The grad school-bound student saw my tears and ran up to give me a hug, as the entire class reveled in the moment. I don’t know if I have ever been as proud to be a teacher.

Then, as I surveying my e-mail account, I came across two messages. One was from the president of the math club, who had been accepted to a summer research program for women math majors who want to go to graduate school. As if that was not enough, the next note was from my dean, telling me that our college had been awarded a grant to offer a bridge to a graduate program in engineering at the local public university. This amounts to a potential scholarship for incoming math majors who want to pursue this option. Anyone who still believes that skills in math are attached to the Y chromosome should come see what is happening in our tiny math department in the last women’s college in Ohio.

When I assembled my dossier for full professor last fall, I did something very corny. I began with a dedication that read “ This application for full professor… is dedicated to Sister Sarah… who, in the early 1970s, when mathematics was still seen as a subject for men and boys, noticed that a little girl in her second grade class had a particular affinity for the subject. And that has been the story of my life.”

And now it will be the story of my student’s life, and of the lives of the students she will touch.


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