Picture a mathematician. Now be pleasantly surprised.

Photo project gives face, voice to diversity in the field 

Picture a mathematician. Now be pleasantly surprised.
August 29, 2018

Annie Raymondmathematics and statistics, has experienced firsthand that women and people of color are underrepresented in her field. She has also felt the difference that representation can make in encouraging young mathematicians. How to help bridge the gap? Enter her Instagram project @_forall, where one can see and get to know working mathematicians, hear about their journeys to math and their love for the field, and perhaps begin to change perceptions—one image at a time. We recently asked Raymond about the inspiration for her project. 

How did you get the idea for the series, and why did you choose Instagram as your platform?  

A few months ago, I read a wonderful article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society highlighting the careers of many great female mathematicians, including our very own Andrea Nahmod. It was immensely inspiring. Upon finishing it though, I realized that it was unlikely that any of the undergrads in my class saw it—even though reading it would be even more beneficial for them than for me.  

There are many great projects out there that promote women in mathematics, but few of them actually reach younger women at the time when they are deciding what to study or what kind of career to pursue. We need to do a better job at reaching out to younger generations who have yet to decide whether they want to be mathematicians.

"Who do we picture when we picture a mathematician?"

But the problem is obvious: how do you reach these young women? Given that close to 60% of 18-29 year-old internet users have an Instagram account, and that women account for about two thirds of Instagram users, Instagram seemed like a great platform to launch a project targeting younger women.

I chose a format that fits this particular platform: every week, I feature someone new, and every day there is a different picture and quote from an interview I did with them. Throughout the week, we get to know this person in many ways: why and how they ended up in mathematics, what they love about it, what their research is about, as well as any issues they have had to deal with.  

Picture a mathematician. Now be pleasantly surprised.  

Who  do you feature and how do you find and choose them?  

I mostly feature female mathematicians at different stages of academia. Some of them are friends and colleagues I have known for a long time and others are strangers I meet when I go give talks at conferences or at other universities. I also try to take advantage of all the great researchers who come to UMass to talk at one of the seminars in the math department.  

 As I started working on the project, I realized that there are even fewer initiatives promoting men of color in mathematics than there are for women—even though, just like women, they are still underrepresented in math and have access to very few role models who look like them. 

Picture a mathematician. Now be pleasantly surprised.  

What is the main goal of your series?  

"Who do we picture when we picture a mathematician?" This is a question that has haunted me since seeing Francis Su give his amazing speech “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.” I have personally seen everybody from little girls to grandmas get positively giddy about math. I have stood in front of crowds of teenagers in poor high schools and rooms full of prisoners that erupted in cheers because of math. And yet, these are not the people we think of when we think of mathematicians. Even worse, minority students in mathematics often don't picture people who look like them when they think of what a mathematician looks like. I know I didn't.  

As an undergrad at MIT, I only had two math classes that were taught by women: neither were professors and both were there very temporarily. Had I started my undergrad the year before or after, I might not have had a single math course taught by a woman. This is troubling: I doubt that I would have stayed in math had I not met these women. Until then, I couldn't picture a future in mathematics—I couldn't recognize myself in my male professors, and it was hard to imagine that someone like me could belong among them. Such feelings are common among minority students, and they are damaging. 

 "I want people to know that the average mathematician is not a genius constantly working alone." 

I strongly believe the first axiom of Federico Ardila's Todos Cuentan, which states that "mathematical talent is distributed equally among different groups, irrespective of geographic, demographic, and economic boundaries." Unfortunately, this is hard to believe when we look around us—even more so for younger people who have access to a much more restricted pool of mathematicians. The same holds true for computer science.  

The goal of my project is to literally show everyone that the first axiom is true. How? By sharing stories from amazing mathematicians and computer scientists, presenting the fascinating work they do, discussing the struggles they have faced and celebrating their diversity.  

Mathematics has a whole subfield called representation theory: it is time that we realize that representation truly matters.    

Picture a mathematician. Now be pleasantly surprised.

 

What do you want people to know about math?  

 I want people to know that the average mathematician is not a genius constantly working alone.  

One topic that came up many times in interviews is how hard work is so much more important than being "brilliant" in mathematics. There is this perception that one has to be a genius to be a mathematician, and this is very far from the truth. Furthermore, different studies show a correlation between the number of women and minorities in a field and the prevalence of the genius myth in that field. We need to stop feeding this narrative.  

Another theme that kept coming back in interviews is how much of a social field mathematics truly is. Most research nowadays is done in collaborations, and most interviewees mentioned how the friendships emerging from these are one of the best parts of being a mathematician. The image of the lonely mathematician must also be shattered.   

Math is simply for anyone who enjoys tackling challenging problems—nothing else matters. 

Read on: 
‘_for all’ on Instagram