A Woman in Math--A Rarity Indeed

Lethbridge, Alberta--I am a mathematician, working in the research areas of universal algebra and semigroup theory. Since 1987 I've been teaching at the University of Lethbridge, a small liberal arts university in southern Alberta. Writing this article is an opportunity to reflect on my career and to think about how I got to where I am now.

I think my career progress has probably been quite typical relative to that of other women scientists of my generation: A slow start, not knowing what I wanted to do or believing that I could be a successful academic, a lack of confidence in my own ability, thinking of myself as a teacher long before I dared call myself a mathematician, struggling to balance research and teaching, struggling even more to combine home life and motherhood with a heavy work load. All of this has made me interested in working to help other women, especially students in math.

Mentoring has become an important part of my service role. Although I'm rather uncomfortable with actually giving advice to people, I do realize that I am a role model for many of my students, especially because there haven't been any other women professors in my department. I've been department student advisor for many years, and as such I have worked to make sure that students get good advice about courses and careers. For instance, I've held seminars every year on topics such as "Program Scheduling for Math Majors," "How to Apply to Grad School and NSERC," and "How to Survive a Third-Year Math Course." I especially try to ensure that promising female students are given the advice and encouragement they need and that they learn about how the system works.

I have also worked for the Committee for Women in Mathematics of the Canadian Mathematics Society. I joined this committee in 1996, and have recently completed a 3-year term as chair of the committee. Our projects have included a directory of Canadian women mathematicians, with a Web page for each woman, and a poster celebrating the accomplishments of Canadian women researchers in mathematics. My work on this committee has brought me into contact with a good number of women mathematicians, and certainly for me it has been a source of support and community.

When I started university in the 1970s, I didn't really have much idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I knew what I didn't want--to be a teacher or a secretary or a nurse, the three common options for women--but other than that, I had no clear goals. I studied math because it was what I liked best, but I had little idea what careers one could pursue with a degree in math, and it certainly never occurred to me at that time that I could become a mathematics professor. When I completed my B.S. in 1976, I got married, traveled around Europe for 6 months, then worked in a boring clerical job I hated for several years. I knew I should go back to school, but wasn't sure if I wanted to study math some more, switch to another subject, or go into an MBA program where the job prospects might be better.

What shifted me out of this stage of inertia was a move to a new city and a new job. My husband completed a master's degree in computer science and had a 1-year job teaching at the University of Lethbridge. It turned out that they needed a teaching assistant in math that year too, and I was offered the position. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I loved teaching math! With some encouragement from the department chair here, I decided that I would go back to school, to do graduate work in math. My husband also decided to pursue a Ph.D. (in computer science), and after much negotiation about where we wanted to go, we moved to Vancouver, where he attended the University of British Columbia and I went to Simon Fraser University (SFU).

At that point, we had no intention of returning to Lethbridge. But 2 years later, in 1983, when I had just finished my master's degree, the University of Lethbridge offered us both jobs. We were far enough into the academic world by then to realize how difficult it is for a couple to coordinate two jobs in the same place, and we decided to take this opportunity. But there was a price to pay. My husband was well into (but had not finished) his Ph.D. and was given a tenure-track position, with the promise of a leave to complete his thesis work. I had a 1-year position, with some hope that it would eventually become permanent, but only if I completed my Ph.D. I convinced my supervisor at SFU to allow me to be a part-time Ph.D student, with the idea that I would teach full-time from September to April, return to Vancouver for 4 months each summer to take courses and do research, and after 3 years take a 1-year leave to complete my thesis.

I had no idea at the time how difficult this would be! I was too naive to know that being a part-time Ph.D. student is almost impossible, but I was very focused and determined, too. We spent 3 years doing this Lethbridge-to-Vancouver commuting, followed by 1 year of full-time grad studies in 1986-87. Finally in 1988 I wrote and defended my thesis! Looking back now, I realize that I missed out on a lot by doing my graduate work this way: I missed taking extra courses, attending seminars, hanging out with other grad students, and generally being part of the grad student culture. On the other hand, our gamble paid off, and by the time we both graduated we both had jobs, and in the same place, which made us the envy of many of our friends.

My position was still temporary at this point though, with a 2-year term position in 1988-90. Finally, in 1989, this was converted to a tenure-track position. After years of being a part-time student, and worrying about budget cuts and whether I would be rehired each year, I had reached a point of some stability in my career! We bought a country acreage, had a child (a daughter, Alice, born in 1989), and settled in to enjoy life. I got tenure in 1992, and this past spring was promoted to full professor.

The University of Lethbridge would probably not have been a first choice for either my husband or me if it wasn't for the two-career problem. But the university has been good to us, and we now feel very settled here. The university is small but growing, now at about 6500 students, and is primarily undergraduate with a liberal education focus. The department of mathematics and computer science is also small and friendly, and we have small classes and a lot of interaction with students. I love teaching, and have been able to teach a wide variety of undergraduate courses--some 15 courses in all, including many areas of math and statistics and even a computing course.

I am fortunate to have reached a stage now where I have a great deal of freedom to choose what I want to work on. My research career is very important to me and has been helped by two sabbatical leaves, with a third one coming up in 2000-01. But I've also been able to achieve a balance between teaching and research that is comfortable for me, and I have had the chance to participate in some nontraditional teaching projects. For example, for the last 5 years I've taught the Capstone course, a multidisciplinary seminar course for 3rd- and 4th-year students that focuses on critical thinking and integration of knowledge across disciplines.

More recently, I've designed and piloted a course for prospective elementary teachers who are not math or science majors and who would otherwise not take any math courses at university, but end up teaching math in elementary school. This has been a very satisfying course to teach, and I'm eager to do it again soon.

Besides teaching and research, I have been active in a number of committee and administrative areas, including areas of interest to women. I've always been concerned about the low rates of participation by women, both in academia in general and in math and other sciences in particular. And I've learned that problems that seemed individual to me are in fact often shared by many women in math.

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