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Initiative to boost women in math earns ‘Programs That Make a Difference’ award

The GROW program wins acclaim for its support and encouragement of young female mathematicians

The American Mathematical Society has recognized the GROW program, a Weinberg College Department of Mathematics initiative designed to support women mathematicians, with the 2020 Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference Award.  

 GROW — short for Graduate Research Opportunities for Women is an annual series of conferences that nurture, mentor, and expose undergraduate women to the opportunities that await a career in mathematics. Funded by the National Science Foundation and participating universities, the GROW Program is in its fifth year and has served hundreds of participants.

Over this short span, GROW has built a community which, as much as the conference programming itself, has helped to make the mathematics profession a more appealing place for women to live and work. Through feedback, GROW steadily improves and creates best practices for future iterations as well as for replication.

Community-building and confidence

Activities at GROW include research talks where scholars discuss not only their results but also their varied routes through academics, giving a personal touch and dispelling the straight-and-narrow myth around career paths. There are also panel discussions about graduate admissions. Conference-goers come with questions about preparation, the importance (or not) of GRE scores, how to approach letter writers, and so forth. Other meet-and-greet activities aim to connect participants to experts in a potential field of interest. The community-building aspect of the gathering is crucial for female students in a majority-male profession; the feeling that one is not alone can boost confidence.

GROW includes inspirational talks by iconic female speakers that make a big impression on the participants. As one conference attendee who is now in graduate school writes: “I gained confidence, personal and professional connections, and exposure to various careers in mathematics .… I met many women who assuaged my mounting fears about applying and succeeding in graduate school .… Sharing my fears and concerns about graduate school with other women who were either entering or attending graduate school was one of the most helpful aspects of GROW.”

About the GROW program

The GROW workshop series encourages female-identifying undergraduates to consider research in mathematics as a discipline and a career. For each of the past five years, approximately 80 students have gathered over a weekend in October for a mixture of research talks, panel discussions, and opportunities to meet students and scholars from across the country. The participants share meals and have numerous opportunities for networking and mentoring. GROW is designed to encourage women to think and know about mathematics and to feel confident about the options for graduate students, as well as provide them with resources for their future success. 

The first iteration of the GROW series was designed by Weinberg College’s Bryna Kra, the Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Mathematics. Kra, along with more than 40 volunteers, led organization of the conferences at Northwestern from 2015 to 2017. Since then, GROW took place at the University of Michigan in 2018, and then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2019. The next series will convene later this year at the University of Chicago. More than 350 students from across the country representing more than 75 undergraduate institutions have already participated in GROW. 

The panel discussions cover what constitutes research in mathematics, with panelists sharing stories of their trajectories, an introduction to the varied options for careers in academia, and a wealth of information on the nuts and bolts of applying to graduate school in mathematics. A highlight of each meeting has been the Saturday evening dinner, where leading figures, including pathbreaking mathematicians Alexandra Bellow, Dusa McDuff, Ingrid Daubechies, Kristin Lauter and Marisa Eisenberg, giving inspirational talks. 

About the award

The AMS established the Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference award in 2005 to profile programs that are succeeding and that could serve as models for others. Specifically, the committee seeks to honor programs that:

Preference is given to programs with significant participation by underrepresented minorities.

Learn more about the Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference award and previous recipients.




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