mathcenter2“Congratulations!” announced the email from alumna Marian Schaap Weinberg, Class of 1941, of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

Weinberg 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 wrote.

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.

Beyond 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 Association noted—does 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.