USA

Sanchita Chakraborty

Sanchita Chakraborty

Born in Bolpur, West Bengal, India • Birth year 1999 Studies Mathematics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA • Highest Degree ongoing Bachelors of Science • Lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA • Occupation Student Researcher and Undergraduate Student

I always loved how neat math was. No matter the problem, the answers seem to come with a simple number. After taking partial differential equations and numerical analysis courses, it seems so silly now, the subject is anything but “neat”. It is complex, chaotic, and elegant, but what I have come to appreciate is its beauty, its ability to explain the world around us.

When I imagined a mathematician, I thought of an old man sitting in a flickering candle-lit room with melted wax and papers strewn around on an old wooden table. What did that really mean in the era of supercomputers, high-speed trains, planes and rockets?

As a child, I never really thought of being a mathematician as a job to pursue. I mean, to be fair the greats that I knew of only existed in Ancient Greece or Rome. When I imagined a mathematician, I thought of an old man sitting in a flickering candle-lit room with melted wax and papers strewn around on an old wooden table. What did that really mean in the era of supercomputers, high-speed trains, planes and rockets?

[..], I took the route of role models like Howard Wolowitz from the Big Bang Theory and Dr. Amelia Brand from Interstellar, and chose a degree in Aerospace Engineering.

So, when I had to choose a degree to study, I took the route of role models like Howard Wolowitz from the Big Bang Theory and Dr. Amelia Brand from Interstellar, and chose a degree in Aerospace Engineering. When I entered, I was excited by the engaging new problems I would learn to solve – whether it was in understanding rocket propulsion or in the use of orbital mechanics within navigation. However, instead I became bogged down with solving mundane structures and material problems. Moving into my sophomore year, classes did become more interesting with my first fluids and orbital courses. Every time I stepped into an engineering classroom, I felt a sense of excitement in understanding the fundamental equations, rather than the applications to real-world problems.

While I had once run away from engineering, I found myself right back to where I began, but instead I was in the role of a mathematician.

I reflected on my prior math courses, thinking about how I would apply these geometric properties and analysis techniques to problems that I had been introduced to in my aerospace courses. I knew it was time for a change, so I switched gears to classes like complex analysis, partial differential equations, and introduction to proofs. I was hooked. Around the same time, I had my first laboratory experience in mathematics. I spent the summer working on neural networks to reduce the loss from the 2D approximations to the advection-diffusion equation in transport phenomena. It was one of the hardest learning experiences, coming in with very little knowledge of Deep Learning, but the hours spent on literature reviews seemed less like work and more like unravelling my favorite mystery novel. This was the moment in which the puzzle pieces of all my interests across engineering and mathematical disciplines clicked.  So when I finished my summer project, I immediately looked for new opportunities in applied mathematics, and I was fortunate enough to find a supervisor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department to work on Finite Element Methods and the Schrödinger equation. While I had once run away from engineering, I found myself right back to where I began, but instead I was in the role of a mathematician. My supervisor has helped me find confidence in my abilities and given me the opportunity to take lead on my first project, and is the reason I have found the confidence to apply to applied math MS/PhD programs for fall 2022.

I had women like Katherine Johnson to look up to, but she was merely a role model, not an individual I could tangibly connect to.

While I have been undoubtedly lucky to be surrounded by amazing mentors, the lack of women mathematicians and engineers did not go unnoticed. I found my experiences to be hardly unique. When talking to a good friend in the math department, I found that she too had been the only woman in her math classes. In four years, I had only had one woman math professor and one woman graduate student that supervised my research. In my graduate and advanced courses, I was one of two or maybe three women students. The world had long moved away from the old man in the candle-lit room, but the representation of women in the industry was grossly underdeveloped. Looking at research faculty in the graduate programs I applied to, I found the representation to be quite similar. I had women like Katherine Johnson to look up to, but she was merely a role model, not an individual I could tangibly connect to. She seemed just as far remote as the Greek greats.

Inequality seems to be quite an abstract notion and equality just an idealized concept, existing only in philosophical treatises. To encourage more women to pursue a career in academia and research, we must begin by creating real mentor-mentee relationships that go far beyond the professional. Only through this tangible bond can we expect to see true equality in every field, including this complex and elegant language we hold so close and I sincerely hope that one day the word mathematician comes with an image of a woman and a man working side by side in a world intertwined with modern technology.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico • Birth year 1983 Studied Mathematics at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI, USA • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in North Adams, MA, USA • Occupation Mathematics Professor

My love for math faded during my high school years. Being undocumented, living in the United States was challenging. Even though I was doing well academically, I thought I might never have the opportunity to attend college. I was sad, and at that time I turned to art as an outlet to deal with the challenges I was facing. I spent most of my senior year in high school in an art studio. I spent countless hours learning to draw, paint, and sculpt. I even dropped out of my calculus class just so that I could have more time to do art. I do not regret that choice, even though going a year without math courses hurt my mathematical skills. At the time, I needed something to help me deal with the anxiety and sadness I was experiencing, and art served me well. 

There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school.

After graduating high school, I was able to enter community college. How that was possible is a story for another day, but the main thing is that, upon entering the program, my mathematical skills were well below calculus. My first college math course was intermediate algebra, where I (re?)learned how to factor polynomials. I vividly remember that day’s lesson where the professor said “To factor x^2+5x+6 we need to find two numbers that add to 5 and multiply to 6.” I immediately raised my hand, proudly announcing that numbers did not do that. How can two numbers multiply and add to something different? Luckily, the professor was very kind and she allowed me to think of examples. After discovering that 2 and 3 did the trick, I felt such joy in understanding something that I had taken for granted: numbers are amazing and in fact multiplication and addition are two distinct things! From there my story began to take shape. 

After intermediate algebra I took all of the math courses the community college offered and later transferred to a four-year college to continue studying math. There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school. So, on I went! 

My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live.

I always knew that I would like to be a teacher. There is something so beautiful about seeing someone understand something. Most people call that an “aha” moment, and it truly is special. I also knew that education is a path out of poverty and into opportunity. Being an immigrant, I knew firsthand that having options is one key component to a happy life. So, I have always wanted to help others reach their goals and attain their dreams. However, it was not until almost the completion of my PhD that I decided to be a college professor. Finding this as a career option was great because it has allowed me to continue learning while doing research and teaching students. Creating new programs and platforms that provide mentorship and support for students from groups who have been historically excluded from higher education has also been deeply fulfilling. This outreach work keeps me grounded and reminds me that there is still a lot of work to be done in order for everyone to have meaningful and positive experiences with mathematics. My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live. 

Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in.

Being an immigrant, previously undocumented, and a Latina woman meant I rarely saw people like me in mathematics. Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in. Sadly, it took a long time to find a community of scholars who shared similar backgrounds and heritage. Yet this motivated much of my past work and inspired me and Drs. Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Alicia Prieto Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa to co-found the organization Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences. Our goal is to share and amplify the contributions of Latinx/Hispanic scholars in math. We do this through a variety of means including Hispanic Heritage Month (in the US it is celebrated between September 15 and October 15) events, a podcast, and even a new book — Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians. The book’s chapters will be freely available one per month starting in September 2021 and our hope is that this book provides a way for those within the community to learn of our stories while also giving advice to those who want to learn more about us and how to support our work. Although there is much work to be done so that those from historically excluded groups feel valued and uplifted in mathematics, I am hopeful that initiatives like Lathisms are making this reality possible.

Links:
Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences
Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians

Posted by HMS in Stories