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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Women in Science and Math
October 15, 2009 - 8:34pm

A long time ago, in a college that now seems to be a galaxy far, far away, I started my college career thinking that I was going to major in physics. While I did go on to earn a minor in the subject, it wasn’t long before I realized that I could apply the same math used in physics to study the economy, and I changed my major to economics, going on to earn a Ph.D. in the field. Besides, when I was in high school, I had gone so far as to take out a classic economics textbook from the library and read it, for fun. I guess I should have known that economics would grab me in the end.

I remembered those days as a physics major this week as Ursuline College put on its annual “Women in Science, Math and Technology” day, a day for high school girls to visit the campus and learn more about studying math and science at the college level. Several of us faculty members put on seminars for the visiting students, and the day concluded with a speaker and lunch. I was particularly inspired by this year’s speaker, in part because she had just written what sounded like a really cool book, in part because she is a physicist, and perhaps mostly because she raised three children while pursuing a successful career in science.


The speaker was a woman named Evalyn Gates, who wrote a book called “Einstein’s Telescope: the Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe”. She is an astrophysicist who currently works at the University of Chicago. She began her talk by telling us “ten things I wish I knew before I pursued a career in science.” Among these were things like (“I wish I had known…) “all the different kinds of science there are to study”, “what you can do with a science degree” and, the one that absolved me of abandoning physics, even as I listened to her and started to fall in love with it again, “[you should ] go into what really interests you.” Perhaps the most inspiring and relevant comment came when she said that “gravity is a law of nature- tenure clocks are not.”


Since I currently teach in a math department, I was particularly intrigued with her description of math and its usefulness. She said that, when describing the universes as expanding, the common metaphor employed to describe it is a balloon being filled up with air. This, however, is not exactly true. She pointed out that the balloon expands into something, while the universe expands into nothing. It is very difficult for people to picture a balloon expanding into nothing, and therefore the metaphor does not really work. Instead, she said that the math used to describe this expansion accurately describes it, and allows us to picture something that our minds can’t really imagine. Math, in fact, extends our human, limited imaginations.


When I got the chance to speak to her later, she filled me in on how she had been so successful while raising three children. As her career unfolded, she would let those in charge know what she needed to succeed, and, since she was one of only a few women in her graduate program, and therefore usually the only one proposing such options, most of the time they would accommodate her. Today, she mentors younger women as they navigate the challenges of being both scientists and mothers.


She said that she did not make everyone aware of her family situation right away. Indeed, she told the story of the reaction she obtained when her superiors at her post-doctorate appointment at a prestigious university found out about her family life. One of them was so amazed that he pulled another aside to say “did you know that she has THREE children?”


I asked her what she might tell the readers of Mama, Ph.D. about her own struggles and success at raising a family while having a career, and she did not think long before answering “I would absolutely do it again.” Now that is something I have no trouble imagining.


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