“As a student at UMass, I thought I would be a medical doctor that majored in math,” says Heather Harrington ‘06, now a mathematics faculty member and Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. So what changed? “I took Professor [Nathaniel] Whitaker's Math 456 (mathematical modeling) where we learned about models describing biomedical processes, and thought — I could do that. I decided to combine the two, and I get a lot of meaning from this interdisciplinary research area,” she recounts.
While women in mathematics are still steeply in the minority (they make up only 15% of tenure-track mathematics professors in the U.S.), Harrington and others see some improvement in the gender gap. She notes that her classes have more women in them than ever before, and that an active Women in Math community has made significant inroads. Harrington personally credits a graduate prep program called EDGE for women with a “lasting impact” for her career, and also the previous generation of female academics. “The senior women have really paved the way for junior women like me,” she says.
One of those professors forging ahead is Andrea Nahmod, professor of mathematics here at UMass Amherst. She also came to mathematics through an interest in medicine, and has risen to national prominence in her field, becoming one of a select few mathematical scientists from around the world to be named a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society in recognition of her contributions to nonlinear Fourier analysis, harmonic analysis, and partial differential equations, as well as service to the mathematical community.
When she came to campus in 1998, she says, “UMass was a place where I saw something bright, a place where nobody else was really doing what I was doing."
"I could have a role in building something.” —Andrea Nahmod
That energy continues to build, as Annie Raymond, assistant professor of mathematics, can attest. She joined the UMass faculty last spring and started her Instagram project ‘for all’ soon afterward, photographing mathematicians and computer scientists who are women and people of color. She saw a need for outreach in this medium, so popular among teens and undergraduates, saying, “We need to do a better job at reaching out to younger generations who have yet to decide whether they want to be mathematicians.” Raymond notes that as an undergraduate, having women teaching in her department made it possible for her to envision a career in mathematics — the career she now has.
Harrington adds, “when there’s a critical mass of representation for a certain minority, there’s more of a community.” That ground work is making it possible for a new generation of students to imagine mathematicians who look very much like them.