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In Historic First, Four African-Americans Earn Math Ph.D.s at Ole Miss


The University of Mississippi will become the first American college or university to graduate four African-American students with doctorates in mathematics at one commencement this weekend.

“Producing four African-American graduates with doctorates in mathematics is unprecedented, with only the University of Maryland coming close, in 2000” with three, says Dr. Don Cole, associate professor of mathematics and assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs. “This event puts us on par with institutions such as Berkeley and Michigan.”

The history-making candidates set to receive their degrees Saturday are Joe Anderson of Rosedale, Miss., Carla Cotwright of Los Angeles, Brian Williams of Missouri City, Texas, and Adrian Wilson of Jackson, Miss.

Dr. Tristan Denley, chair of the Department of Mathematics, termed the graduation of all four students as a “happy coincidence” and said the students were powerful role models to other minority students.

“A lot of graduates have stayed in the state and have clearly made an impact,” he says. “Given the geography and history of the state, there is a lot more to be done since we need people trained in the STEM disciplines.”

According to the Annual Survey of Mathematical Sciences conducted by the American Mathematical Society, only 35 African-Americans earned doctorate degrees in mathematics in 2005. In comparison, 48 Hispanic/Latinos, 384 Asian and 634 White students earned their math doctorate degrees.

Denley lauded the faculty for much of the work as well. Professor Gerard Buskes, a faculty member since 1985, has been the driving force behind procuring a $400,000 Department of Education grant in 2000. The GAANN (Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need) funding brought a new renaissance for the program, says Buskes.

“Math is an area of national need, and we happen to live in a state of many minority students who have the potential to see the beauty of mathematics. So we were able to recruit and that is starting to pay off,” he says.

The grant was recently renewed by the Department of Education for another three years.

“That the success would be as strong as it now turns out to be is beyond my wildest dreams, and I am proud of each of these students now receiving their Ph.D.s,” Buskes says.

The students are all now in the process of applying or accepting tenure-track or post-doctoral positions at Ole Miss and other institutions.

Cortwright, the only female graduate student, says she was surprised that the academic atmosphere outweighed any concerns she had about the university.

“I felt that while the Ph.D. in mathematics is a difficult program, it was something that I could be confident and successful in pursuing,” she says.

Anderson’s research is in matroid theory and graph theory and plans to teach at the college level, while Wilson has accepted an offer as a visiting professor in the department. This, he says, offers him the opportunity to continue his research in operator algebras. He eventually plans to work on the mathematics of the stock market.

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