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MIT conference celebrates women in math

MIT Professor of Mathematics Gigliola Staffilani, one of the organizers of the Women in Math conference taking place April 12-13 at MIT, teaches a course on multivariable calculus.
MIT Professor of Mathematics Gigliola Staffilani, one of the organizers of the Women in Math conference taking place April 12-13 at MIT, teaches a course on multivariable calculus.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Women have traditionally been scarce in university math departments, but a conference at MIT this weekend will celebrate those who have succeeded in math and encourage more to pursue careers in the field.

More than 100 women, mostly grad students and other young mathematicians, are planning to attend MIT's first "Women in Mathematics: A Celebration" conference, which is being partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

"All these young people should come away with the idea that all these great women have made their way (in math), and it's perfectly normal," said MIT Assistant Professor Katrin Wehrheim, one of the conference organizers.

The idea for the MIT conference came from MIT alumna Susan Landau, who asked Department Head Michael Sipser to organize something to celebrate the large number of women who have earned degrees in math at MIT. He asked Professor Gigliola Staffilani and Wehrheim to take charge of the event.

The conference will feature two panel discussions plus seven academic talks by women who earned degrees in pure or applied mathematics from MIT.

One panel will present a historical perspective from women who earned math degrees from MIT during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. In the second panel, more recent graduates will offer advice for women currently trying to get into the field, including topics such as navigating grad school and finding a job.

The number of women who pursue academic careers in math is slowly growing, said Staffilani. MIT's math department has four women faculty members (the other two are Bonnie Berger and Ju-Lee Kim), and 22 percent of the graduate students are women.

Staffilani wants to increase those numbers by encouraging strong women math students to stay in academia. One way to encourage women in math is to show them that other women have achieved success in the field, which organizers hope this conference will do.

Wehrheim knows firsthand that having role models can be inspiring. As an undergraduate in Switzerland, she went to a talk by a well-known mathematician named McDuff, whom she had always assumed was a man. Wehrheim was blown away when an energetic woman (Dusa McDuff, who studies symplectic topology) walked in and started giving the lecture.

"That made it seem so much more acceptable for me to think I'm actually going to do a PhD," Wehrheim said.

Wehrheim and Staffilani both encountered doubters as they pursued their math careers, especially as graduate students, but they brushed off the discouragement because they believed in themselves.

Their success has already had an effect on a younger generation: Staffilani's 5-year-old daughter thinks it is not at all unusual for women to be mathematicians. She knows that her mother and several of her mother's female friends are mathematicians, so she asked Staffilani why women in math need to be celebrated, if there are so many of them.

"It really matters. If you see a lot of them--at that age, even--she had no conception of the fact that there are differences (in numbers) between men and women in this field," said Staffilani.

For more information about the conference, visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 2008 (download PDF).

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