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Growing the Ranks of Women in Math

Women in advanced math classes are often a distinct minority.

Their numbers dwindle even further in graduate programs, and by the time they reach the faculty level, female mathematicians are few and far between.

Northwestern faculty are determined to change that trend through GROW, an upstart effort driven by Professor Bryna Kra to inspire undergraduate women to pursue graduate work in math. Now in its second year, GROW —short for “Graduate Research Opportunities for Women”—  brought nearly 80 undergraduate women from across the United States to Northwestern in October to meet other women who are passionate about math, along with graduate students, faculty and researchers committed to increasing gender diversity in the discipline.

“It was a reminder that there are many other women in math who share my experiences,” said Araminta Gwynne ’17.

That, Kra confirmed, is among the foremost objectives of GROW: to deliver encouragement and role models that counter the notion that mathematics is a male domain.

“We want undergraduate women to feel this is something they can do, not some lofty, abstract thing,” Kra said, adding that a more diverse and inclusive base of talent leads to more innovative research.

This year’s turnout was nearly twice the attendance at the inaugural GROW conference last year. The Oct. 14–16 event featured panel discussions on research, academic careers and getting into graduate school, along with talks on applied math, probability and algebraic topology. Celebrated mathematician Dusa McDuff delivered a spirited keynote presentation during which she shared her journey into the math world’s cognoscenti.

Just before the GROW conference, Northwestern also hosted a two-day meeting on gender imbalances in mathematics. Attended by more than 20 faculty from U.S.-based universities, the event analyzed existing programs aimed at boosting female involvement in math.

The GROW event represents an important first step in the longer-term effort to bring more women into the field’s graduate ranks, said Kra, who was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“You do not create new mathematicians overnight, but if we can inspire young women to pursue graduate work in mathematics, then change will come,” Kra said.

Those ranks will soon include Gwynne, who is now applying to graduate programs in math.

“It’s nice to know that this support network is there,” Gwynne said.

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