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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: The Equation for Success -- An African-American Female Ph.D. Tells Her Story


For as long as I can remember, I have always loved math and science. I grew up playing in my mother's lab at the public school where she taught both math and life science. I was fascinated with her microscopes, experiments, and many scientific books. I quizzed myself at her blackboard on the systems of the body and on geometrical relationships. This was simply my amusement as I waited for my mother to complete her work for the day.

I excelled in mathematics throughout school, competing in math quiz bowls and participating in summer mathematics enrichment programs. However, as much as I enjoyed mathematics, I still doubted my abilities when the time came for me to list a major on my college applications. I recall comparing myself to my peers and thinking, "Sure, I'm good at math, but I'm not good enough to be a math major." Perhaps I, like many minority and female students, had been socialized to think that pursuing such a career was not an option for me.

As an undergraduate, I attended Spelman College, an all-female, historically black institution in Atlanta, Georgia. There, African-American females surrounded me in my mathematics classes, which were taught primarily by African-American female professors. It was a nurturing environment--one in which I felt free to explore my mathematical interests.

I spoke with several professors and upper-class students as I attempted to declare a major. The one question that I always asked was, "Does one use a lot of mathematics in this field?" At one point, I had decided on economics, but after completing my math requirements for that major, I could not imagine continuing my education without studying more mathematics. Then, it finally became clear to me: Not only did I want to major in mathematics, but I also wanted to be a mathematician. I began to take more advanced courses, preparing myself to pursue a doctoral degree.

When searching for a graduate school, I was impressed with the University of Maryland's diverse faculty, staff, and graduate student body, as well as the flexibility of its mathematics program. Realizing that graduate school would be one of the biggest challenges that I would face, I wanted to study in a department in which I felt comfortable. With two African-American faculty members, the mathematics department provided a very supportive, welcoming environment. Also, I was encouraged by the fact that while I was a graduate student at Maryland, about one-third of the Ph.D.s awarded each year in math went to women.

Throughout my graduate years, I received tremendous support from the National Physical Science Consortium (NPSC), a fellowship program that is comprised of select universities and corporate and government sponsors. This program encourages students, particularly women and minorities, to pursue advanced degrees in the physical sciences. I had applied for this program while still an undergraduate and was sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA). This was the beginning of a very positive relationship for me. The fellowship provided 6 years of funding; thus, I was able to fully devote my time to graduate studies and research. In addition, I gained valuable research experience by participating in NSA's summer internship programs.

The consortium also has a very strong mentoring component. Through my participation in the fellowship program, I was assigned a mentor from the university, who met with me every week and helped me adjust to graduate school. I also had a mentor from NSA, who maintained contact with me and was always available for advice. The consortium holds annual meetings, which give its fellows an opportunity to present their research and to receive support from the NPSC faculty and administrators. This interaction greatly contributed to my success in the doctoral program, and I received my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park, in August 2000.

Obtaining my Ph.D. has been rewarding; however, there were challenges that I faced along the way. In terms of race and gender, I dealt with issues such as being the only female or the only African American in some of my classes. At times, some people seemed surprised that I was advancing through the program. Overall, however, my experiences have been positive. I attribute this to the encouragement received and confidence gained from my mentors at Spelman College and the University of Maryland. I am very much indebted to my African-American predecessors, particularly the women, whose paths to higher education in mathematics were not as easy as mine. I am extremely grateful for the struggles that they endured in order to open up opportunities for me today.

Currently, I am an applied research mathematician at the National Security Agency. I participate in a math development program that allows me to tour different offices every 6 months in order to become exposed to the applications of mathematics that are used. This program is ideal for me, since I desire to explore a variety of mathematical areas. The research techniques that I have seen range from those involving number theory to operations research. In my present office, I develop statistical models and perform analyses for massive data sets. My position is very exciting, since I am constantly interacting with other mathematicians, computer scientists, linguists, and engineers.

What advice would I give to young, aspiring mathematicians? Find a mentor! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of mentoring. At every stage in my mathematical development, I had several mentors from my family, educational institutions, and internships. My achievements are the results of a collaborative effort between all of us. As you search for a mentor, especially at the college level, attend seminars and conferences, and seek advice from more advanced students. Choose a mentor to whom you can relate both personally and professionally. Finally, build a strong support structure, work hard, and have confidence in your abilities.

In 2000, Kim Weems was among the first three African-American women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland.

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