Success to the Third Degree
History-making math doctorates talk about the challenges they faced with being both African American and female in a non-traditional field.
By Lottie L. Joiner
Those in attendance at last December’s graduation ceremony at the University of Maryland-College Park can proudly say they witnessed history in the making, as the university bestowed doctoral degrees in mathematics on not one, not two, but three African American women. On that day, Tasha Inniss, Sherry Scott Joseph and Kimberly Weems became the first African American women to receive doctorates in mathematics from the university. Since December, the three have gone on to begin their careers in the field, but not without remembering the many challenges they faced and those who inspired and supported them along the way.
“I always knew that my life would involve math,” says Tasha Inniss. “It was so much fun to learn. If I had the right method then there was only one right answer, and to me that was beautiful.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Inniss was introduced to math early by her grandfather, a sixth-grade math teacher and Harvard University graduate. By the time she was in the fourth grade, local teachers were entering her into math contests. It was during her undergraduate years at Xavier University in Louisiana that Inniss realized math was her calling. It was also there, while helping young middle-school students in a math summer program, that she realized she had a talent for teaching.
Inniss not only wanted to teach but she also had a desire to develop programs to help young people, especially minority youth, generate an interest and love for math. She knew that in order to do both, she had to get a doctorate. Inniss soon realized, however, that it wasn’t going to be an easy feat. There were challenges and obstacles, and eventually self-doubt. She encountered environments where minorities, let alone women, weren’t encouraged to pursue math. Her ability was questioned because of her undergraduate training at a historically Black university. And at times, she even questioned herself.
“Getting a Ph.D. alone is difficult, but when you have people intentionally trying to put obstacles in your way, it makes you re-
evaluate your goals and dreams,” says Inniss. “You lose self-esteem.”
Armed with her doctorate in applied mathematics, today Inniss is a Clare Boothe Luce assistant professor of mathematics at Trinity College in Washington. The professorship was set up for women in math, science and engineering to help in their professional careers. Inniss is one of only 64 women in the country who have been awarded the prestigious professorship.
Inniss also works as a full-time visiting researcher at the Federal Aviation Administration. Her research at the FAA predicts how much traffic airports can handle during inclement weather.
Inniss hopes to help increase the number of minorities in the field by creating programs to help students of color get over the fear and intimidation math seems to inspire in them. At 30, the future is hers.
“I felt that was my ultimate goal, getting a Ph.D.,” says Inniss. “I realize that was just the beginning.”
Sherry Scott Joseph
Sherry Scott Joseph never planned on becoming a mathematician.
“Mathematics was always there,” says Joseph. “It chose me. I didn’t choose it.”
Joseph grew up a faculty brat. She was at her mother’s side as the single mother earned her doctorate from Ohio State University. It didn’t take the young Joseph long to figure out that this was her destiny, too.
“I said, ‘this is the kind of lifestyle I want,’ ” says Joseph, who was born in Rome, Ga., a small rural town about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in math from Ohio State University in 1992, Joseph began the quest for a doctorate degree. The road was long, and at times, difficult.
Joseph was often the only student of African descent in her classes. She received the looks, the doubts and the occasional comments alluding to the fact that she didn’t belong.
“Unfortunately, you spend a lot of time dealing with those type of issues instead of dealing with mathematics,” says Joseph. “You’re constantly having to say, ‘Yeah, I belong here’ and speak up.”
But Joseph found solace in supportive professors, understanding friends and caring mentors. She also drew strength from the accomplishments of those African American professors who had reached the doctoral level.
Not having a financial burden also helped ease some of the stress. A fellowship from the Southern Regional Education Board allowed Joseph to concentrate on writing her dissertation. She was part of the organization’s doctoral scholars program, which strives to increase the number of minority university professors.
“They were exceptionally supportive,” Joseph says of the board. “They were understanding of situations and sincere in their efforts to help you.”
Today, Joseph is a visiting assistant professor in the department of statistics at George Washington University in Washington. This fall she will be a full-time assistant professor of math at Bowie State University, a historically Black university in Maryland.
Growing up in Cartersville, Ga., about 40 miles north of Atlanta, Kimberly Weems had dreams of becoming a ballerina. But while a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Weems realized that math was her stage.
“It seemed like every different area I explored, math was involved,” says Weems, 30. “I really just had a desire to learn more about math.”
Weems’ desire was inspired by her mother, a middle-school science teacher. Her interest in math was further nurtured by her female professors at Spelman who encouraged her to pursue postgraduate studies. Weems says the all-female historically Black college contributed greatly to her success in graduate school.
“I’m not sure if I would have even pursued math, especially not the Ph.D., if I had not had the professors at Spelman,” says Weems. “I gained a sense of confidence to pursue my dreams.”
After graduating from Spelman in 1993, Weems began her seven-year journey toward a doctorate degree, not realizing that she would be making history. Instead, she focused on overcoming the challenges and the doubt.
“There were several people who were just very surprised that I was advancing through the program as well as I was,” says Weems. “There was just this sense of disbelief that I could actually pass the exams and meet the requirements to get a Ph.D. in math.”
Weems didn’t quit. She received her doctorate, and today, she is interning in the Department of Defense’s applied math research program. This fall, Weems will begin her first year as a National Science Foundation VIGRE Postdoctoral Fellow. She will teach and conduct research in the statistics department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Though Weems never imagined all of the challenges she would face, she says her doctoral experience has made her understand the importance of African American women in the field of mathematics.
“Getting a Ph.D., I didn’t really realize what that meant, what an accomplishment this was until I actually finished the program,” says Weems. “It’s made me realize how few African American females are in the field and how important it is to have role models.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com