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Changing the Culture of Math

Sylvia Bozeman, co-director of EDGE.

At last summer's reunion banquet for EDGE-- Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education--news that Farrah Jackson had received her Ph.D. in mathematics met with thunderous cheers and applause. "It was as if they were at a basketball game," recalls Sylvia Bozeman, Professor of Mathematics at Atlanta's Spelman College and co-director of EDGE. "It was just a wonderful moment for the other students . . . to be so excited about not only her accomplishments but anticipating their accomplishments."

Since 1998, EDGE has been helping women, especially women from underrepresented groups--African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders--make the transition into graduate programs in mathematics. Jackson's Ph.D., which she earned from North Carolina State University, is a milestone for the program. Jackson is the first African American from the program to earn a Ph.D.

The Leading EDGE of Diversification

EDGE certainly has its work cut out for it. When the program began in 1998, the American Mathematical Society's Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences revealed that among the 586 U.S. citizens who earned doctoral degrees between 1 July 1997 and 30 June 1998, 163 were females: 2 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 5 were African American, 6 were Hispanic or Latino, and none were Pacific Islanders.

The small number of minorities and women in math are precisely why Bozeman and Rhonda Hughes, EDGE co-director and Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr College, created the program. Throughout their careers, Bozeman and Hughes have witnessed women and minority graduate students--even the well-prepared ones--struggle and drop out. The EDGE directors attribute the high attrition rate in part to a system they say has persisted in many math departments for decades. "People just feel like only the smartest can do mathematics," explains Bozeman. "You have to have some special talent. You're born with it." In these settings, graduate students don't have much room for failure and they become discouraged and leave their programs when they struggle.

For women and minorities, proving they are just as capable as their peers is a tougher task. These students, especially those coming from small colleges and minority-serving institutions, have difficulty entering the mathematical sciences, say the two directors. These students are used to a close-knit, nurturing environment; they don't do well when they end up in large math departments with only a couple of women and no minority faculty. Moreover, many come from schools that don't offer many advanced math courses and, consequently, they enter graduate school with limited academic preparation, adds Hughes.

According to Bozeman, EDGE prepares women and minorities for Ph.D. study mathematically and psychologically. "We have watched many women [and minorities] over the years succeed, and we know that you don't have to be at the top. You can actually develop the ability to do mathematics."

The Empowerment EDGE

Currently funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, each program cycle starts with a 4-week summer session for 8 to 14 participants: all are women, half are students of color, and half are Caucasian. Each participant must be accepted into a graduate program in the mathematical sciences, or have completed their first year of graduate school in the mathematical sciences.

2005 EDGE participants.

The summer program is held at different host colleges each year and gives the women a taste of graduate-school life with two basic-but-intense graduate courses, one in abstract algebra and the other in analysis. Program participants are also taught how to cope with academic stress in part by utilizing assistance from 2 to 3 graduate mentors. When they do their homework, students are encouraged to work together.

The summer program provides additional survival lessons. During a weekend reunion, EDGE women from the previous year attend the summer program to describe their graduate school experiences to current participants. EDGE also offers a seminar given by a psychologist or sociologist to help the students learn to handle individual differences, as well as diversity and women's issues.

Finally, the participants meet with math experts who introduce them to various research and career possibilities. After the summer program, EDGE sets up a year of mentoring for the women with a faculty member at their graduate institutions. The women can get more support from anyone involved with the program at any time in the future, even years down the road.

Making a Difference

To date, three EDGE participants have received their Ph.D.s, and more of the 58 EDGE participants are expected to finish their doctorates. Thirty-three either have left their graduate programs or received master's degrees; EDGE directors don't consider master's degree recipients a failure. "Of those who have received a master's degree, we expect many of them to eventually continue their education," says Hughes. "We have seen [women] re-emerge back in graduate school," Bozeman explains; for one thing, she says, marriage and children typically prolong women's pursuit for a Ph.D.

Although only a few EDGE participants have completed their doctorate, EDGE has been influential in changing the face of mathematics. According to the directors, EDGE has prevented students from dropping out of their programs and encouraged others to switch to more suitable graduate programs when problems occurred. In the process, they've made math departments realize how things they've said or done have impacted women and minorities, for the worse.

In the case of Farrah Jackson, who is now an assistant professor in mathematics at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, EDGE's network of support kept her afloat in her graduate studies. "I've been the only minority in my whole class," she says. "Even if [women from the program] were in different universities, knowing I can talk to them and knowing that they're going through the same situation helped a lot."

Bozeman and Hughes hope EDGE will continue to alter the culture of mathematics. "We want the departments to give some attention to the fact that they are losing students and figure out what they can do differently? What we want to do is try and share what we've learned with those departments that want to improve their retention," says Bozeman.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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