Before finishing her Ph.D. in math at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), Concha Gómez (pictured left) envisioned her dream job: "I would be in a large research university and teach math and be around mathematicians. But my job would be to focus on students of color in science." Five years later, that's precisely her role at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UWM). Gómez is not only a math teacher, she supports and helps retain underrepresented minority students in science, math, and engineering as director of the Wisconsin Emerging Scholars (WES) program. As a Latina mathematician, Gómez is, without question, a rare find, but one who is committed to helping others follow in her footsteps.
Problems Fitting In
Coincidentally, 25 years ago Gómez was a minority student herself at UWM, and because she lacked the financial support and encouragement, she dropped out after 2 years. At age 20, Gómez left Madison and moved to San Francisco. She did odd jobs for a while; getting a college degree was not foremost in her mind. But when she started taking classes for fun at a local community college, she found a new direction in life. "I remembered I liked math and I was good at it," she says. She tackled a few math courses and realized that she enjoyed the learning experience. Encouraged by friends and classmates, Gómez transferred to UCB to work on her bachelor's degree in math.
Although she fell in love with the subject, she didn't feel like she was part of the math academic community. Despite getting top grades, professors didn't remember her. When she offered solutions to math problems in study groups, students didn't listen. Gómez believed she wasn't respected or even noticed because she was a Latina and a woman. Nevertheless, she stuck with it. Gómez completed her bachelor's degree in math mainly by working independently.
The Noetherian Ring
This ability to succeed in the face of prejudice faded when she started graduate school. According to Gómez, in the early 1990s, UCB's math department was "unfriendly towards women." She found the strength to persevere after becoming acquainted with other female graduate students in math, who also "felt isolated." In 1991, this solidarity crystallized in the form of a 'mathematician group for women called the Noetherian Ring, which Gómez co-founded. A Noetherian Ring is a mathematical structure named after the notable female mathematician Emmy Noether.
The group's goals were to make mathematics more welcoming to women. Members provided advice to incoming and current female math students. They also were involved in selecting women mathematicians to speak at colloquiums. The group scheduled time every week for women to socialize and talk about math, and they pushed UCB's math department to actively recruit more women. Eventually, their activism created both controversy and hostility; it took time for the group to be fully accepted in the department.
"People tore down fliers [that announced meetings] and defaced them. ... Male graduate students were confronting us in the hallway," Gómez recalls. Eventually the backlash died down, and word of the group's vision and enterprise reached and inspired other female mathematicians. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University, and UWM eventually formed their own math groups for women.
For Gómez, being part of the Noetherian Ring was key to her survival in graduate school, and the experience influenced her immensely. "I became an outspoken public speaker. ... People knew they could count on me to speak up not just for minority and women issues. I became a radical in a way, trying to make changes."
Just before finishing her Ph.D. and as Gómez was taking the lead on minority issues, her health became a concern. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. Gómez kept the disease in check using medication, but one symptom, chronic fatigue, limited the amount of time she could work. Since her diagnosis, she has sought less stressful jobs that don't require conducting research.
On a Mission
Gómez completed her Ph.D. in 2000 and contemplated her next career move. Although she had reached an important plateau in her academic career, as a Latina mathematician she was a rare species. According to the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2004 , two American Indians/Alaskan Natives, 14 blacks, 15 Hispanics, and 70 Asians/Pacific Islanders received doctoral degrees in math in 2000. The report doesn't list data that combine race and gender, e.g., Hispanic women, but 258 women received doctoral degrees in math that year compared to 790 men and 463 Caucasians. Although Gómez conducted mathematics research as a doctoral student, her deeper passion lay in working to achieve more ethnic and gender equality in mathematics. She decided to find a teaching job that emphasized support for minorities and women college students in math.
When Gómez was hired as an assistant professor to teach mathematics at Middlebury College in Vermont, she hoped this would be an opportunity to make great changes. Unfortunately, the academic atmosphere of the college made the task more than challenging. "I would speak my mind [about minority and other issues], ... then I was told that that wasn't done. Junior faculty was supposed to keep a low profile," she says. She also found many of the middle- to upper-class white students who attended the small liberal arts college disrespectful. They sometimes treated her as if she were a domestic rather than a professor.
Eager to leave Vermont, Gómez took her current job in Madison. Since the fall of 2004, Gómez has been employed in a nontenure track position to teach math and direct WES, one of the Emerging Scholar Programs nationwide that has been created to help retain underrepresented students in science.
Through the program, Gómez targets minority students and students from rural areas who have great academic potential as science, math, and engineering majors but who need additional support to do well in UWM's calculus courses. Getting a grip on calculus is not a trivial undertaking in these degrees; several calculus courses are required for these majors, and many students find them tough, even prompting some to drop out or change majors, Gómez explains. Therefore, the program hones students' skills by conducting workshops in which students tackle complex math problems together.
Gómez may have faced unique challenges as a Latina in mathematics. But eventually, she realized that her talent and her passion for mathematics have given her a successful career despite the field's lack of diversity. More importantly, overcoming these challenges has made her committed to teaching and diversifying the sciences. And these days, there's nothing else she'd rather be doing.
Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at email@example.com.