Early Success, Encouragement Add Up to Math Ph.D.s
Howard University female math doctorates achieve personal, university milestone
By Gabrielle Finley WASHINGTON
Mathematics has traditionally been a field of study reserved “for men only,” but two Washington-area schools are shattering the gender stereotypes that have kept the field a male preserve for so many years.
In 2000, three African American women — Drs. Tasha Inniss, Sherry Scott Joseph and Kimberly Weems — became the first African American women to receive math doctorates from the University of Maryland, College Park (see Black Issues, July 19, 2001). This year, Drs. Naiomi Cameron, Lynnell Matthews, Jillian McLeod and Iris Moche of Howard University joined that group of hardy pioneers. Their graduations marked a milestone: This is the first time in the institution’s history that four African American women have received their doctoral degrees in mathematics at the same time.
“This is the largest number of female Ph.D.s ever produced by the department of mathematics since the inception of its Ph.D. program in 1975,” says Dr. Clement Lutterodt, a professor in the math department. “The department is exceptionally pleased about this outcome.”
According to Dr. Orlando Taylor, dean of the Howard University Graduate School, “The graduation of four Black women in the field of mathematics at Howard University in a single year typifies the university’s continuing commitment to providing leadership in producing racially and culturally diverse individuals with advanced degrees. While Howard University is proud of its achievements, we urge our colleagues in other research universities to match its accomplishments.”
The four women credit the department’s supportive faculty, their friends, their families and each other with providing the inspiration and encouragement they needed to complete their degrees.
fear turns to love
Dr. Naiomi Cameron, a native of Providence, R.I., says that math has been a big part of her life since middle school.
“In middle school, I ended up being in this algebra class. I was in the 6th grade and the youngest student. I was also in the math club and on the math team. I saw it (math) as an activity more than a course that you take,” Cameron says.
When she entered Howard University as a freshman nearly a decade ago, Cameron, 28, wanted to be an architect, not a mathematician. But math professor Dr. Adeniran Adeboye encouraged Cameron to take his class.
“Dr. Adeboye encouraged me to take his Calculus II course. I was a little apprehensive, but I took the course,” Cameron says. “Once I took the course, that spurred me to take more math classes. I found out it was something I really loved,” Cameron says.
After completing her bachelor’s degree at Howard, Cameron, a mother of three, moved on to the University of Maryland, College Park for graduate studies but eventually returned to Howard.
“Once I started grad school at the University of Maryland, I think it was the first time that I realized there were obstacles,” Cameron says. “When I got to Maryland, I started to see the difference between other students and myself. That affected my confidence. It was more so the size of the program. My confidence was shaken by being in a bigger environment, and I had to compete with a lot of other students for that personal attention. That’s the major obstacle when your confidence is shaken and you start to question yourself.”
Cameron returned to her alma mater and earned her doctorate in mathematics with a research specialization in combinatorics.
In the fall, Cameron will be teaching discrete mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Cameron hopes to gain a tenured position in the future. a pivotal comment
Growing up in Upper Marlboro, Md., Dr. Lynnell Matthews gained a keen grasp of mathematics that she never let go of.
“I was in an eighth grade geometry class where Lydia Bowen was my teacher. No one really expected to get an A in her class. … A B+ to us was an A in her class.
“One quarter I got an A,” Matthews remembers. “She told me that I really had a talent for math. That comment made me feel like I was good at this. … At that point, I decided to major in math, not knowing what that meant.”
Obtaining a doctorate in math, however, turned out to be more difficult than anyone would have predicted for Matthews.
“One semester my mother suffered a stroke and became ill, and I had to leave school,” Matthews recalls. She quickly rehabilitated and recovered, but then suffered a second, more serious stroke, which paralyzed her whole left side.
“When my mother became ill, family responsibilities changed. I ended up leaving with a master’s degree, but my goal was always to go back and get my Ph.D.”
Matthews took a job at Bowie State University in Maryland and worked there for almost two years before she could return to Howard University and finish her doctorate.
She notes she couldn’t have achieved her goal without a strong support system.
“My husband was there from day one. We’ve been together since high school,” Matthews says, adding, “My family members have really been remarkable. … From an academic perspective, my adviser and Naiomi helped me. Naiomi and I studied together all the time. We literally had the same background. She was married and had kids, and we were in the same boat. I don’t know when I would’ve finished without her. I know I haven’t thanked her enough.”
Matthews recently completed a visiting professorship at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and will serve in a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania for the next two or three years. meeting high expectations
Dr. Jillian McLeod often reminiscences about her childhood in Trinidad, a childhood, she says, that fostered her love of math from the very beginning.
“As long as I can remember, I loved math,” McLeod says. “I would come home from school and give lessons in whatever we did in school that day. No one expected for girls to be less capable in Trinidad. I had good teachers.”
McLeod, 31, explains that people viewed her math skills differently only when she moved to the United States in 1990.
“In Trinidad, math and English were basics. It was when I came to the U.S. that me knowing math was considered a skill,” McLeod says.
And although McLeod was taking advanced math courses in high school and during her undergraduate years at Hunter College in New York, she says she had different plans for her future.
“All the way up until my junior year at Hunter College I intended on going to medical school,” McLeod says.
Then a strange turn of events occurred. A math professor who never even had McLeod as a student nominated her for a fellowship that would change her career path.
“Dr. Jane Matthews, a math professor at Hunter College, nominated me for the Mellon Fellowship. The fellowship helped to mold and navigate me toward graduate school. Even though she was never my professor, I consider her as my support system,” McLeod says.
Matthews believes Jillian’s focus and determination helped her obtain a doctorate in mathematics.
“When I first met her she was in pre-med. She loved math. She had goals and aspirations. She had an advantage of sticking to it. Jillian was focused; her first love was math. She was determined through her background, and she was able to network,” Matthew says.
When McLeod applied to graduate school, she reflected on her undergraduate years, remembering that she was often the only Black female in her classes and often felt as though she did not have the same access to professors that other students had.
McLeod chose Howard University for her graduate studies because of its warm environment.
“Dr. Adeboye, a math professor, was looking over my grades and encouraged me to take one of his classes,” McLeod says. “It was his friendliness that helped. I needed an inviting and welcoming environment.”
This fall, McLeod will be teaching two sections of Calculus I at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.a mother’s motivation
Dr. Iris Moche, a native South African, grew up in the midst of apartheid where the primary book she carried was the passbook that natives were required to have for identification purposes.
“I grew up in a racially divided society,” Moche says. “When it came to math and science, Blacks in South Africa weren’t expected to participate.”
Still, Moche’s upbringing did not stop her growing curiosity about math.
“I used to look at my brother’s math books, and I would be drawn to them,” Moche says.
Moche, 35, who arrived in the United States 10 years ago, says that her male peers received far more encouragement than she did.
“Math in general is a male-dominated field. In high school a lot of encouragement was given to the males, who weren’t even as good as the females (in math). I think growing up in South Africa motivated me because you can’t tell me I can’t do this. I’ll do it, and I’ll do it twice as good,” Moche says.
Moche, who earned a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science from Hood College in Frederick, Md., says her mother was one of the people who gave her the most support and encouragement.
“My mother doesn’t understand anything about mathematics, but she believes in motivation. She’s a very spiritual woman. She has been, more than any person, my support system,” Moche says.
Moche, whose research specialization is in topological semigroups, is an assistant professor at Southeastern University in Washington. She says research and providing encouragement for women who want to pursue mathematics are definitely in her future.
“I want to be actively involved in anything that promotes women in mathematics,” Moche says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com