Closing the Math Gender Gap

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CATEGORY: Internships, Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science

When math major Amy Janett ’14 (Verona, N.J.) went to the Summer Program for Women in Mathematics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she wanted to learn about career opportunities in math. She came home with that plus a huge dose of confidence.

Only 16 women were chosen for the program, which is designed to help narrow the gender gap in higher level mathematics. Over the five-week program students worked on cutting-edge math problems, were taught by women faculty and teaching assistants, and visited organizations that employ mathematicians.

Among those organizations were the NSA, the Aerospace Corporation, and the Census Bureau, Janett’s favorite. “They use math and statistics to accurately represent the population of the United States, which allows policymakers to understand the growth patterns of different demographic groups. And they all seemed to really enjoy their jobs.”

The summer students took four courses in which they wrestled with tough math problems. At the end of each course, they made a 20- to 30-minute presentation of their results. “The first presentation was scary,” says Janett, “but by the end of the program I was really enjoying it. Everyone gained so much confidence.”

Two of the courses focused on Janett’s favorite area—applied mathematics. In one course, for example, they developed a model for how HPV vaccination rates would impact disease transmission.  Says Janett, “We asked, What would happen if 10 percent of people got the vaccine? What if 60 percent got it? When would HPV be eradicated?”

Janett is no stranger to applied math. The previous summer she conducted research with Professor Chad Topaz in which they used differential equations to model what happens when certain bacteria locate a food source and emit a chemical that notifies other bacteria.

This past summer, as her interest in graduate school grew, Janett emailed Topaz to ask his advice about programs in applied mathematics. Topaz responded the next day with a list of schools that might fit her criteria. Between that encouragement and the great role models at Women in Mathematics, Janett says, she came to “realize that I can succeed in grad school—so I took the leap and signed up to take the GREs.”

Math wasn’t always Janett’s passion, by the way. Although she’d been a good math student in high school, she found formulae and calculations lacking in excitement. It wasn’t until she took calculus as a high school senior that her interest was sparked. That, in turn, led her to  enroll in Discrete Mathematics at Macalester—taught by math professor and chair Tom Halverson—and it was that course that sealed the deal. Now Janett is looking forward to graduate school and a career in mathematics.

PUBLISHED: 12/04/2013