For most Americans, the months of June, July and August tend to conjure up images of sun, sand and water, preferably in large quantities. Backpacks find their way to the far corners of the closet, often with the final remains of last year's once-shiny school supplies still unpacked. Beach bags are loaded with towels, sun screen and books with simple plots that high school teachers would never consider positioning on their book shelves during the academic year. The subject of mathematics, in particular, is often relegated to some remote and distant crevice of the mind, only to be called upon for critical decisions like one scoop or two at the family run ice cream store on the beach or boardwalk.
Except for eighteen women, that is. Eighteen young college students with an interest in advanced studies in mathematics have recently converged at Carleton College for the Summer Mathematics Program for Women (SMP). This four-week intensive study of mathematics not only introduces these women to topology and dynamical systems but also to each other and to the distinct possibility of a career in mathematics. These19- and 20-year old women from across the country meet and interact with one another over the subject of…yes…mathematics.
They learn from women faculty. They hear research level talks by women in mathematics from across the country. They listen to panel discussions where, for example, an actuary, a high school teacher and a Mayo Clinic researcher discuss the way their mathematical training influenced their career choices. But they don't just take in these experiences. They act on them.
They eagerly leave the dinner table to join their study group to prepare for the next day. They talk about graduate school in mathematics as a viable possibility in life. They forge friendships with like-minded women who may or may not have a single other person on their home campus who understands their interest in mathematics. They make plans to reunite next February at the Nebraska Conference for Women in Mathematics. They begin to form that critical community that will serve them in good stead as they move forward in their mathematical careers.
More than a decade ago, the single question of "what can we do to encourage young women to pursue graduate training in mathematics?" inspired a married couple (both mathematicians) to create this opportunity for women in mathematics. Since they direct the program (the husband is the lone male in this entourage of women!), SMP also provides these women with a meaningful opportunity to witness a true team effort in an academic couple. It's inspiring.
While large and looming issues still exist for women in mathematics (and other academic disciplines for that matter), the SMP and other initiatives for young women promise that a more cohesive, informed group of women will enter the academic community in the years ahead. In the meantime, those of us "seasoned" faculty have a lot to learn from their vitality and interest. I, for one, don't want to miss out.
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