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. Onethird of the College’s
juniors and seniors are science majors; in the
academic year 200102, 20 percent of the senior
class majored in the natural and physical sciences,
and 12 percent majored in mathematics.
"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 ‘nonmath
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.
Associate Professor Lisa Traynor
agrees. "Our entrylevel 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."
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 highpowered, researchoriented 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 codirector,
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 maledominated 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.
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 ‘mathphobic’ 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."


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 fourdimensional manifolds, which
are the models for our physical universe and for
spacetime. 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 knottheory 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.
