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© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Cultivating Success in Mathematics
By Dorothy Wright

Bryn Mawr is one of the most successful colleges in the country in encouraging women to pursue undergraduate study in the sciences and mathematics. One-third of the College’s juniors and seniors are science majors; in the academic year 2001-02, 20 percent of the senior class majored in the natural and physical sciences, and 12 percent majored in mathematics.

Victor J. Donnay

"This year we had a ‘bumper crop’ of math majors," says Victor J. Donnay, associate professor and chair of the Mathematics Department. "Since 1990 we have had about 20 math majors each year, or roughly 6 percent of each graduating class. So we have had a successful history of attracting and retaining students in math."

Considering that less than one percent of college students nationally majors in math, Bryn Mawr is doing the right things to attract and retain women in this field.

A Culture of Success

Bryn Mawr actively encourages women to go into fields that traditionally are not popular among women, including mathematics. "We make a determined effort to encourage women in math — not only strong math students, but also those who might consider themselves ‘non-math types’ or who might have had a bad experience with math in secondary school and don’t really think they can do it," Donnay says.

The effort starts in the introductory math classes. "Instructors Mary Louise Cookson and Peter Kasius specialize in teaching the introductory courses, giving students a fresh start in mathematics," Donnay says.

Lisa Traynor

Associate Professor Lisa Traynor agrees. "Our entry-level courses are taught by dynamic faculty members who are wonderful in encouraging women to pursue mathematics," she says.

One of these women is Namrata (Minnie) Das ’02, a math major who also completed a minor in growth and structure of cities. "I didn’t set out to become a math major at Bryn Mawr," she says. "Then I took a preliminary calculus class with Mary Louise Cookson. She’s just amazing — she’s so excited about math, and she makes everyone feel like they can do it. I realized how much I love math."

Paul M. Melvin

Professor Paul M. Melvin believes careful mentoring is essential as students advance. "There is a large chasm that must be crossed in advancing from introductory courses into the core major courses," he explains, "so we are particularly sensitive to students during their ‘middle years,’ remembering to encourage them to keep trying because we know they will eventually succeed in making the jump." 

Supportive Environment

In fact, Donnay says, the faculty is committed to the success of every student — not only the math "whiz kids." "At high-powered, research-oriented universities, math professors have a tendency to present the material and, if a student has trouble and can’t figure it out, well, that’s too bad. The few who survive will get their attention; the rest weren’t meant to be math majors. Here, we make a big effort to have a support system in place — problem sessions, office hours, extra help — to help everyone succeed."

For example, Rhonda Hughes, Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics, runs a number of programs designed to make math and science education an appealing and accessible option for women students. She is the co-director, with Sylvia T. Bozeman of Spelman College, of EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education). Hughes says EDGE "prepares female students academically and psychologically for the challenge of graduate school in male-dominated disciplines."

In 1998, Hughes was one of three people to receive the Mathematical Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Awards for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. "Rhonda’s insights into how to support students and set up programs that will help them move along has influenced the whole department," Donnay says.

Leslie Cheng ’92

Assistant Professor Leslie Cheng ’92 recalls Hughes’ influence on her own career. "When I was a Bryn Mawr undergraduate, I thought I’d major in one of the humanities. Then I took Calculus I with Rhonda, and I loved it so much I became a math major," she recalls.

The department’s pedagogy clearly works. "Time after time we have seen traditionally ‘weak’ or even ‘math-phobic’ students blossom into successful math majors," Melvin says. "Students realize that we are here to help them realize their potential, rather than stand in their way with rigid standards that do not necessarily represent true mathematical ability."

The fact that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college doesn’t hurt. "When women and men are in a class together, men tend to dominate the discussion," Donnay says. "We have men from Haverford taking our courses, and even occasionally majoring in math at Bryn Mawr, but having a concentration of women in our classes gives the women more opportunity to assert themselves."

Research Opportunities

The department offers undergraduates the opportunity to participate in faculty research over the summer and in preparation for honors theses. "We involve undergraduates in ways that allow them to use the knowledge and skills they have, while increasing their expertise," says Donnay, whose work focuses on chaotic properties of dynamical systems, including geodesic flow on surfaces and billiards. "They might work on a simpler case of a problem that a graduate student would work on, for example, or perform numerical studies on the computer, even if they might not yet be capable of proving a theorem."

Helen G. Grundman

The faculty has a broad range of research interests. Hughes has worked with undergraduate and graduate students on projects involving wavelets, operator theory and functional analysis, and stochastic processes. Other students have worked with Traynor on research in symplectic and contact geometry, focusing on the study of how basic shapes of space can deform with respect to equations that are motivated by physics. Melvin involves students in his work in geometric topology, focusing on the classification and properties of three- and four-dimensional manifolds, which are the models for our physical universe and for space-time. Associate Professor Helen G. Grundman involves students in her work in algebraic number theory and algebraic geometry, devising ways of using number theory to better understand and classify certain geometric objects.

"When students get to work on a research project doing something that they become knowledgeable about, it is a great motivator and a confidence builder," Donnay says.

Talking Math

A memorial fund for John Oxtoby, a mathematician who taught at Bryn Mawr from 1939 to 1979, enables the department to send majors to math conferences, where they may present their research. "These opportunities to ‘talk math’ are very important in learning math," Donnay says.

They also have informal opportunities to talk math, including Grundman’s Distressing Math Collective, a group of Bryn Mawr and Haverford students who get together to talk and learn about interesting mathematical paradoxes and unusual topics that aren’t covered in classes.

Students exhibit a wide range of interests, from a passion for pure, abstract math to a "practical" interest in applied math. New courses offered by the department appeal to those with the practical or interdisciplinary bent. For example, Melvin’s and Traynor’s introductory knot-theory course reflects an area of active research with applications to the study of gene patterns in DNA. Cheng’s seminar for senior math majors on mathematical finance explores a discipline that is being used in the stock market to price options and derivatives.

Students also have the opportunity to take a variety of interdisciplinary courses as math electives, including mathematical and computer modeling courses taught by professors in the Chemistry and Biology Departments, and econometrics, which is offered in the Economics Department.

Role Models

The Math Department’s graduate program also provides undergraduates with role models. "Undergraduates may take graduate courses, which puts them in contact with students who have made a commitment to advanced study," Donnay says.

Donnay says Cheng also is a positive role model for undergraduates. "I think there is a correlation between this year’s ‘blip’ of 38 majors and the fact that Leslie joined the department in 1998. Undergraduates are inspired by Leslie, who is both a Bryn Mawr graduate and a young, female mathematician."

Students also have been inspired by a series of colloquia featuring Bryn Mawr math alumnae talking about their careers and the contribution of their math education to their success. "I think the colloquia have contributed to the jump from 20 majors to 38 majors," Donnay says. "Students now better understand how important mathematics is to success in a wide range of careers."

Recent graduates, like alumnae/i over the past 40 years, have gone on to graduate school in mathematics and the sciences, and to careers in teaching, industry, government, and independent research and policy centers. "In terms of the ‘real world,’ we hear from businesses that abstract thinking and quantitative skills are much in demand," Donnay says.

A culture of success for women in science and technology, excellent teaching, careful mentoring, research opportunities, interdisciplinary courses and positive role models — it all adds up to a successful mathematics program at Bryn Mawr.

About the Author

Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering, Engineering News Record and Bryn Mawr Now.

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