By Kristen Cole
the email from alumna Marian Schaap Weinberg, Class of 1941,
of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
was responding to the recent honor awarded to the Smith College
Center for Women in Mathematics. In April, the American Mathematical
Society lauded the center for its success encouraging women
to pursue studies in the mathematical sciences. Weinberg
went on to explain that she was “one
of exactly 12 math majors…considered somewhat of an oddity” when she was at Smith.
After receiving her degree, Weinberg taught high school math and later became
involved in computer programming, which makes her “still somewhat of an oddity,” she
The timing was uncanny. I had
just turned my attention to writing about five Smith alumnae
who will earn doctoral degrees in mathematics this year.
Jim Henle, professor of mathematics and statistics at Smith,
alerted me to the good news. “Is
this a story? It’s sort of a coincidence, but pretty impressive,” said Henle.
The schools in which the alumnae are enrolled, he added, are “spectacular.”
I thought about Henle’s question.
Was it statistically significant that five Smith alumnae
would all collect doctoral degrees in mathematics – a field
in which women are still underrepresented – this year? The
graduate schools that the five will list on their resumés
bear impressive monikers: Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and City University
of New York (CUNY). A sixth Smith alumna, at Dartmouth, originally
planned to defend her thesis this year but decided at the
last minute to wait until next spring. Patricia Cahn ’06
decided to remain in graduate school a bit longer.
the graduate programs they attend, the women are, well, spectacular.
Take, for example, Mariel Finucane ’05, at Harvard. Finucane was the first author listed
on a major public health study published earlier this year in Lancet, Britain’s
most prestigious medical journal. She was one of 100 collaborators who used national
data and surveys from nearly 200 countries and regions to report on global cardiac
risks. The Washington Post published an article about the findings, a study that
the writer described as “an epidemiological mosaic that reveals a big picture
as well as telling details.”
When Finucane’s study came out,
the Smith College Department of Mathematics and Statistics
posted it at the top of its online news page and faculty
members made certain that I knew about it. Three months later,
that honor had been bumped down the page by more recent news
items—including the American Mathematical Association Award
for Smith's record of acheivement.
So how—as the American Mathematical
Smith encourage women to pursue math?
“Majoring in math at Smith was a truly fantastic experience,” said Finucane. “The
first year of grad school was truly tough…the hardest realization
was that the thoughtfulness and energy that Smith professors
put into their teaching is anything but universal.”
Michelle Snider ’04, at Cornell, shared similar feelings. “For
me, the adjustment was more about the change from a small
liberal arts program, in which the teachers really are interested
in helping, to a big research university,” said Snider. “At
Smith, I felt like the professors’ doors were always open,
whether you had problems with math or just wanted to chat.” Snider
went on to recall fond memories of the weekly teas hosted
by the department.
So is it “a story” that five
Smith alumnae will earn doctoral degrees in mathematics this
year? Maybe that question doesn’t need to be answered. Whether
or not it is news, it is notable that Smith goes a long way
toward making women in mathematics less of “an oddity.”
Congratulations Mariel, Michelle,
Evangelia Antonakos ’97,
Nadia Benbernou ’06
and Margaret Kulkarni ’10. And congratulations to the faculty
who encouraged you.