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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: A Statistical Anomaly: The Story of an African-American Woman Battling the Odds to Become a Mathematician


I was born into a very loving and supportive family in New Orleans, Louisiana. From kindergarten through grade 12, I attended public schools. It has been said that Louisiana has some of the worst school systems in the nation, but I did not let that deter me! The lifestyle of my family was very modest financially. Although I lacked material wealth, I had an abundance of riches in terms of family, love, and encouragement. My family instilled in me the faith and confidence that I could do anything I set my mind to do.

My biggest inspiration is my mother, Leslie B. Inniss. Although I grew up in a house with extended family, I grew up without my father. As a single parent, my mom raised my brother and me, worked a full-time job, and (through encouragement from my family) went back to school to obtain her master's and Ph.D. degrees in sociology. My mother is a woman of faith, courage, and strength; it is from her that I derived my inspiration and motivation. My grandfather and my brother served as male role models in my life. And despite being the products of a single-parent home, both my brother and I have been successful. (It's been cited that children raised in single-parent homes may not attain higher than high school diplomas.) My Ph.D. is special because I finished in the same summer as my beloved brother. He completed his Ph.D. in environmental engineering and is also a college professor (like our mother).

Throughout my school years, I was blessed to have teachers who cared about my success and about me. I excelled in almost everything in school, but no other subject excited me like mathematics! It seems as if I have ALWAYS loved math! I believe that a passion for mathematics is ignited while very young. If that passion is not nurtured and encouraged by family and teachers, then it will die. My teachers unceasingly fostered my interest in math and demonstrated their confidence in my mathematics ability, regardless of my race and gender. Their faith in me motivated me to be a hard worker and high achiever. The encouragement and nurturing I received from my family and teachers inspired me to pursue higher degrees and contributed to my overall success.

Xavier University of Louisiana is where I chose to pursue a B.S. degree in mathematics. It was one of the best choices I have made in my life. There I received the mentorship, the encouragement, and the foundation to later seek a graduate degree in mathematics. As a college student, I maintained a well-balanced life. My education was my first priority, but my involvement in extracurricular activities and community service was also very important to me. I was named in Who's Who Among Colleges and Universities in 1992-93 and graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in mathematics. It was an invaluable experience, and I am grateful to all my teachers, friends, and mentors at Xavier.

Because of my grade point average and involvement in extracurricular activities, I was offered many fellowships that focused on increasing the numbers of minorities in mathematics, science, and engineering. I was offered fellowships from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Physical Science Consortium, and the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science. I also received honorable mentions from the National Science Foundation's and the Ford Foundation's predoctoral fellowship programs. I decided to accept the offer from the Packard Foundation and became one of a small group of scholars from historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) pursuing doctorates in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. In addition, I received a dissertation fellowship from the Southern Regional Education Board. Thus, my whole graduate career was funded.

Being an African-American woman did not become an issue until I went to graduate school for my master's degree. Unfortunately, I learned a few lessons the hard way. My advice to African Americans looking at graduate schools is to choose a school only after thoroughly exploring the policies and philosophies of the department and the research areas of the faculty. I encountered many professors who were very discouraging. It saddened me when I realized that some were discouraging me because I am a woman of color from an HBCU. I felt I needed to be in a more supportive departmental environment.

MENTORSHIP is key! In fact, while I was still a master's student at this university, I attended conferences and networked with other minority mathematicians. At one of those conferences, I met mathematicians who served as mentors. It is due to the selflessness of one such mentor that I made the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park. My decision was also affected by the presence of other minority mathematics graduate students and the flexible departmental policies at the University of Maryland.

Ever since my studies at Xavier, I knew I wanted to teach mathematics. Not only did I love the subject, but I also discovered that I had a talent for imparting the knowledge in a way that could easily be understood. Hence, I decided that one of my goals in life was to become a professor of mathematics. This decision was not affected by the fact that I am an African-American woman.

And I have achieved my goal! I am currently a Clare Boothe Luce Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. I have the opportunity to teach what I love and also to mentor young college women. Along with this opportunity, I also have been able to continue the research I began in my dissertation. As a member of the National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research, I developed statistical models to help predict the arrival capacity of an airport during inclement weather conditions. These models, when used in conjunction with stochastic ground-holding models, could aid the specialists at the Federal Aviation Administration's Command Center in effectively planning for flight arrivals and departures and could ultimately help in minimizing airline flight delays.

The advice I would give to aspiring mathematicians and scientists is to have faith in yourself! Do what you love and NEVER GIVE UP when you are following a dream. Perseverance is the key! The Ph.D. is not necessarily achieved by the most intellectual but by the most determined!

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

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