Program Gives Mathematics Grad Students an EDGE
By Barbara Spector
When Susan DAgostino
arrived as a mathematics grad student at Dartmouth
College, she was stunned by the difficulty of
the material. But she wasnt stymied by the
terminology used in several courses. She had heard
those words before.
And mathematics graduate student
Farrah Jackson didnt have to face her first
daunting weeks at North Carolina State University
alone. A faculty member checked in to see how
she was adjusting.
These women had extra help
navigating the rocky transition from undergraduate
to graduate mathematical studies thanks to a summer
program called EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate
Education). The program, the brainchild of two
caring mathematics professors, Rhonda J. Hughes
of Bryn Mawr College and Sylvia T. Bozeman of
Spelman College, prepares female students, academically
and psychologically, for the challenges of grad
EDGE is funded by the National
Science Foundation, the National Security Agency
(a major employer of U.S. mathematicians) and
the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Hughes and Bozeman,
its co-directors, hope to counter the disproportionately
high attrition rate of women and minority graduate
students in the field.
"We were frustrated by
the small things that led to students leaving
grad school," says Hughes, the Helen Herrmann
Professor of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr. A student
accustomed to being at the top of her college
class, for example, may not be able to handle
negative feedback from an adviser or poor performance
on an early exam. If the student is shy about
reaching out to classmates, she may get the wrong
impression that shes the only one coping
with such pressures, or that the problem lies
with her inadequacy rather than the inherent difficulty
of the material.
especially minority and women students
internalize it, and when they cant take
it anymore, they leave," says Bozeman, associate
provost for science and mathematics at Spelman.
These students, the professors realized, could
benefit from a program that combines academic
preparation with coping strategies, presented
by women who have been through the experience.
"Mathematics is a white
male field," says Danielle Carr, program
officer for higher education at the Mellon Foundation
and a former faculty member at Bryn Mawr, who
has taught in the EDGE program. "If you put
females into the mix, they often feel as if theyre
walking into a male locker room. Its just
Hughes and Bozeman were introduced
at a professional meeting by a colleague who knew
they shared an interest in encouraging women to
pursue mathematical careers. Their first collaborative
effort, the Spelman-Bryn Mawr Summer Mathematics
Program, focused on encouraging talented undergraduate
women to continue their mathematical studies.
The NSF-funded program lasted from 1992 to 1995
and helped increase the ranks of female mathematics
grad students. Yet when they assessed participants
success, Hughes and Bozeman realized the women
wouldnt receive much help in acclimating
to grad school culture. They decided to turn their
attention to students entering that new environment.
"A lot of graduate programs
literally leave you alone for two years, and then
you have to pass a qualifying exam," says
Fern Y. Hunt AB 69, a Bryn Mawr College
trustee and a mathematician at the National Institute
of Standards and Technology. Students accustomed
to the feedback continually offered in undergraduate
courses may have trouble adjusting, says Hunt,
who has taught in the EDGE program.
Because grad students rely
on each other for academic support, Hughes and
Bozeman realized the program had to help women
from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds work
together. And because grad students can languish
alone, they knew they had to support participants
after they left the program.
Begun in 1998, the EDGE program
has nurtured 27 students in its first three years
and will have up to 10 participants in this summers
session, taking place June 4-29 at Spelman College.
The four-week program, held in alternate years
at Bryn Mawr and Spelman, consists of core courses
in analysis and algebra, minicourses in key areas
of mathematics and guest lectures. Women mathematicians
from academia and industry visit the program and
speak candidly about their careers, their grad
school memories and balancing work and personal
lives. Graduate student mentors live with participants
in dormitories and are on hand to address their
mathematical and personal concerns.
"Because the mentors
are graduate students themselves, we are a direct
link for the participants to the world they are
about to enter," says mentor Cathleen Battiste,
a Bryn Mawr grad student.
EDGE participants receive
an $1,800 stipend plus room and board for the
summer. Social activities include a weekly communal
dinner out courtesy of the program. Mentors receive
the same benefits as the participants.
With the participants
permission, Hughes and Bozeman will contact their
grad school departments to ensure a built-in support
network. "Its a comfort to know that
if I get in a jam, I can call on someone,"
says NCSU student Farrah Jackson.
Program participants say EDGE
helped them academically. "After seeing the
material again, I understand it a little more
than I did the first time around, which puts me
at an advantage over students who are being overwhelmed
by the new subjects," says Rice University
grad student Ebonii Anderson.
EDGE mentor Ulrica Wilson
Parker, a grad student at Emory University, says
the programs coursework helps identify trouble
spots. "They have a lot of work thrown at
them," Parker says. "You can see how
they stress out over that or they dont
take it seriously enough. As these flags get raised,
we try to deal with them."
Diversity among the EDGE participants
prepared her to meet her grad school classmates,
says Anderson. At Spelman, her undergraduate institution,
her classmates were all minorities. Rice, by contrast,
has a very small minority population. "It
helped me to get out of my comfort zone,"
When Dartmouth student Susan
DAgostino first got to grad school, "I
couldnt even understand what my homework
questions were, let alone answer them," she
It would have been easy for
her to believe she was the only one experiencing
difficulties, DAgostino says. But she remembered
the warnings of her EDGE instructors. "They
brought in so many women at all possible levels
current female grad students, tenured faculty,
women who had earned their Ph.D.s and gone
into industry. If there was one consistent message,
they were all saying, Grad school is so
Parker says the programs
social component helps stress the importance of
outside interests. "We want them to see how
to balance their work and social life," she
The connections formed during
the summer are maintained year-round via a password-protected
Internet message board, facilitating confidential
communication. Postings include expressions of
moral support as well as academic advice. "It
shows that they trust each other," says Columbia
University grad student Tara Brendle, an EDGE
mentor and one of the first participants in the
original Spelman-Bryn Mawr Summer Mathematics
Program as a Haverford College undergraduate.
An annual reunion enables current participants
to network with EDGE alumnae.
Brendle cites continuity of
personnel as a strong point of the program. "Theres
a core group of people who are committed to the
goals of the program," she says. "Students
see that, and it gives them a role model of how
mathematicians can work professionally through
networks." Mentors benefit, as well, she
says. "I meet so many other mathematicians
and make so many connections. The net gain is
The programs NSF grant
ends after this summer. Bozeman and Hughes say
they will huddle with advisers to assess what
form the next phase should take. They agree, however,
that its important to continue supporting
mathematics grad students.
Mentors, instructors and participants
feel committed to Hughes and Bozeman because they
see the professors commitment to others,
Brendle says. "The big joke about Rhonda
and Sylvia is that once you get into their programs,
they never let you go." If they havent
heard from a student, they will contact her to
ask how shes doing and what they can do
to help. "They involve themselves to a degree
that other professors dont," Brendle
"Wed do anything
for them. Theyve earned our very loyal support.
About the Author
Barbara Spector writes on
science and technology as well as business topics.
She is the executive editor of Family Business
magazine and former editor of The Scientist.