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Summer Mathematics Program Supports Female Undergraduates

June 22, 2005

On Sunday, June 19, the Summer Mathematics Program for Women launched its month-long session on the campus of Carleton College. The selective National Science Foundation-funded program offers 19 female undergraduates from across the country the opportunity to receive advanced mathematical training in a supportive and friendly environment, while also picking up tips on careers and graduate study.

“This is the 10th year of the program,” says Deanna Haunsperger, associate professor of mathematics, who heads the program. “The point is to take these really talented women across the country and show them that they can go on for Ph.D.s in mathematics. We want to empower them.”

By the time students are ready to participate in the Summer Mathematics Program, they have transcended the grade school-level stigma that can discourage young women from following paths in mathematics. Still, the National Science Foundation reports that only 27.4 percent of doctorates in science and engineering go to women, even as women take 57 percent of all doctorates awarded. While these numbers have drastically improved from even a few years ago, Haunsperger still calls them dismal. By working exclusively with young female mathematicians, Haunsperger hopes the program will boost these numbers through a combination of rigorous mathematics and strong community.

The program’s intimate learning environment encourages camaraderie and enthusiasm, something not always found at the students’ home institutions. Elizabeth Gillaspy, a rising junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, sees obvious benefits to a program such as this one. “Last fall there were four women out of twelve in one of my classes,” she says, “and that’s the highest proportion of women I’ve had in a math class. It’s nice to not be in the minority, and it’s great to get to know all of these women from all across the country.”

Jasmine Ng, a rising sophomore at UCLA, is impressed by the small classes that she doesn’t see at her large university. “The average class size at UCLA is actually a little over 100 people…right now [in the program], we only have 19 students. I get more attention this way.”

Such attention is necessary, considering the caliber of mathematics the students are studying. Participants take two courses on concepts not usually taught at the undergraduate level. This year, one course is a cross between topology and chemistry, and the other pertains to Morse theory, which Haunsperger casually explains as “an area related to dynamical systems.” But the program isn’t only math. In fact, some of the most important parts of program happen outside the classroom.
Students live and work together, participating in colloquia and panel discussions designed to help them effectively negotiate graduate school and careers in math. One colloquium speaker is Amy Czizmar-Dalal, an associate professor of computer science at Carleton. “The value of the summer math program is for the participants to see the opportunities in math especially as they move on to the Ph.D. level – I’d like to see the same model applied to other fields.”

Haunsperger is most proud of the graduate school rates from program alums. In fact, several former participants now pursuing graduate studies are on hand to mentor and advise the current students. Of the 153 former participants with an undergraduate degree, 125 are either in graduate school, in math-based careers, or hold advanced degrees in math. “That’s huge,” says Haunsperger. “Those are great numbers.”

The Carleton Summer Mathematics Program for Women runs from June 19 through July 16. For more information, call Deanna Haunsperger, the head of the program, at (507) 646-4362, or visit http://www.mathcs.carleton.edu/smp/.

Written by Paul Caine '08