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Building a Community of Mathematicians

Building a Community of Mathematicians

Dr. William A. Massey, an applied mathematician at Princeton University, considers numbers at a conceptual and a personal level. By doing so, he has helped to make notable progress in adding color — and valuable talent — to his profession.

“If you want to draw more minorities to the sciences, you have to create a minority science community,” says Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering.

Massey was recently awarded the coveted Blackwell-Tapia Prize, named for two distinguished mathematical scientists who have inspired numerous Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians in the field. Awarded every two years, the prize is given to an individual who has made a significant contribution to research, served as a role model and increased representation of minority groups and women in applied mathematics. 

“One can excel at both mathematics and mentoring,” says Massey. “It was that way for me.”

Massey began his career at Bell Labs [later, part of AT&T and then Lucent Technologies], where senior Black scientists thrived, he says. The company paid for his doctorate at Stanford University through their minority fellowship program. For Massey, mentorship means supporting the career development of young men and women whom he regards as his peers and colleagues. To this end, he initiated what is now an annual conference of Black mathematicians, where young scholars can network with their senior counterparts, learn about new research and more. 

Mentoring allows Massey to engage in what he loves to do — teach and learn mathematics. Already, Massey has published research with more than half a dozen doctoral candidates and fellows who now hold positions at top universities. Among these is Robert Hampshire, who will soon receive his doctorate at Princeton and join the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon University.

“Bill’s mentorship has made an amazing difference to my career,” says Hampshire, who first met Massey 10 years ago as a college intern at Bell Labs. “With Bill, the context is always academic rigor — he calls it ‘research-driven mentoring.’”

“I’m incredulous when I hear people say things like, ‘What do math and science mean for Black people?’” says Massey. “They’re the language of all technology and commerce.” 

Having more minority mathematicians contributing to the field means better mathematical science, Massey believes. “In the world of research, new results and discoveries get the credit,” he says. “How better to achieve this, than by seeing things differently? Coming from a minority background makes you see differently.”

— By Saira Moini

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