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Northwestern University

GROWing Women Mathematicians

Conference inspires young women from across the country to pursue graduate work in math

An air of anticipation filled Lunt Hall on Oct. 23 as undergraduate women interested in pursuing graduate work in mathematics began arriving for an intensive weekend conference.

More than 50 undergraduates from across the country traveled to Northwestern to take part in the first-ever Graduate Research Opportunities for Women conference.  The GROW conference, organized by mathematics professors Laura DeMarco, Ezra Getzler and Bryna Kra, featured panel discussions on topics such as “What Is (Mathematical) Research?” and “An Academic Career in Mathematics,” lectures on cutting-edge research in algebraic topology and arithmetic dynamics, and numerous opportunities to talk one-on-one with Northwestern faculty and current graduate students.   

See the full schedule of events  

“This was not the usual room of undergraduates distracted by texts, emails or social media,” said Kra, the chief organizer of the event. “The students were fascinated by the mathematical presentations, asked deep and thoughtful questions during the panel discussions, and sought out mentors to glean particular information.  By the end of the weekend, students had created strong bonds both with the other participants and with the local organizers, saying good-bye only after numerous promises to stay in touch.”

As one male panelist observed, “I never thought I would face a mostly female audience at a mathematics conference, and I certainly didn’t think this would be any different.  But this was a completely different experience, and it made an incredible impression on me.”

The event reinforced the desire of many participants to pursue advanced work in mathematics. “I left the conference more convinced than ever that I can and will make it to graduate school, and will find fulfillment through the opportunities that follow,” one participant wrote in a follow-up note to Kra. “In particular, I’ve completely abandoned my subconsciously-harbored conception that mathematics is a ‘gentlemen's club.’  I resolutely envision myself pursuing a doctorate and eventual career in pure mathematics and research, and thanks to GROW, I now feel equipped to make this goal a reality.”

She added that she was grateful for the opportunity to speak to numerous professors and graduate students at the event. “In particular, the advice to audit/attend/perhaps even enroll in a graduate level class … next semester is something I intend to heed,” she said. The conference, she said, “exceeded my expectations.”

A highlight of the conference was the keynote address by Professor Emeritus Alexandra Bellow, the first woman tenured in mathematics at Northwestern University. Weaving together stories about her career, family and personal trials, Bellow recounted her deep love of mathematics and the doors that her research opened to her, starting with her childhood in Romania to her arrival at Northwestern’s Department of Mathematics, which at the time was chaired by legendary professor Ralph P. Boas.  

Read an interview with Alexandra Bellow

This event was made possible by the Edith Kreeger-Wolf Endowment, The Graduate School, the National Science Foundation, and members of the Department of Mathematics.

Plans are already under way for a larger and more ambitious GROW II to take place in October 2016, along with a summit meeting on the broader issues facing women in mathematics.

“This is a first step in changing the demographics of the current graduate population in mathematics here at Northwestern and also at our peer institutions,” Kra said. “It is an opportunity for Northwestern to take a leading role in what we hope will be a concerted effort among mathematicians to change our demographics.”

Here's what participants in the 2015 GROW conference had to say about the event:

“I was inspired by Alexandra Bellow's life and her love for mathematics.”

“It was very awesome to hear about Alexandra's life. It’s very exciting to see what I could become someday.”

“I absolutely loved the dinner talk by Alexandra Bellow. It was so powerful and inspiring.”

“I really appreciated this opportunity. It helped me envision what I might be like in five, 10, or even 30 years. I had a lot of doubt about myself, and GROW made me feel more confident about a career in mathematics.”

“I was inspired to strive to get a Ph.D. It was surprising to hear that so many professors have doubted themselves through their careers, and yet they have gone so far in their education. I felt more motivated and relieved to hear that. I hope this program continues in the years to come, because it was enriching.”

“An aspect that I really enjoyed was that the emphasis wasn't on the fact that we were girls, but rather on giving us information about mathematics and graduate studies. This was great.”

“I loved it! I'm not exaggerating when I say that GROW completely changed my perspective on my major and my future as a math major. I will treasure the memories I made at GROW for the rest of my undergraduate career.”

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