Editor’s note: A colleague of mine recently read the essay of the Undergraduate First Place Winner of the AWM/MfA 2022 Student Essay Contest, which describes the upward trajectory of Tracy Bibelnieks’ mathematical career, but upon further research learned of her resignation in April 2021 and Kristine Snyder’s earlier in 2018, both at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). This story has been reported upon in detail here and here last year, but to our knowledge has barely registered in the mathematical world, even a year later. In giving voice here to the women of UMD, we hope that this serves as a warning and a rebuke to the mathematical community, for our complicity and ignorance. This is Part 2; read Part 1.
I started my undergrad at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2017. I loved learning (still do), and got involved in everything I could during my time at UMD. Music, research, teaching, advocacy work, on-campus jobs…you name it, I did it. In the spring of 2018, I took Calculus II with Dr. Tracy Bibelnieks. She was one of the very few female professors I had, and she was excellent. Her lectures included worksheets/active learning opportunities, and she was always happy to answer my seemingly never-ending questions during office hours. I did well in Calc II and started my junior year at full speed. I was focused on research, classes, and teaching — mostly in the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Meanwhile, UMD’s EOAA was investigating the department of Mathematics and Statistics, largely because of complaints brought forward by women faculty, staff, and students. In 2019, a summary of the findings was released to the math department. In March of 2020, the findings were released publicly. You can read them here. They went mostly unnoticed by the larger university community.
I didn’t know about the findings until Dr. Bibelnieks resigned in March of 2021. I was in her data analytics course at the time. It was my favorite class, and Dr. Bibelnieks designed the curriculum herself. Our teams learned to code and analyze/visualize data by working to generate insights with real data.
I was extremely upset when I learned Dr. Bibelnieks resigned. I was furious when I learned why.
Despite the EOAA’s findings and further reports of harm, sexism, and discrimination from women in the math department, as of spring 2021, Dr. Bibelnieks (and other women in the department) still found the environment was “hostile and offensive to a reasonable woman.” Dr. Bibelnieks and other women continually reported that they were harmed — professionally and personally, by this environment. Like any university, students are UMD’s most important stakeholders. I knew that we would not tolerate the continued harm to women in our math department, so I decided to organize and mobilize students’ voices. I formed an organization titled Students for Equity and Accountability in STEM (SEA STEM). Over 100 UMD students got involved in our movement — during the phase of the COVID-19 pandemic when very few classes were held in person. We hung posters all over UMD and Duluth, held organizing meetings, drafted demands for administration, and had countless meetings with faculty/administration groups. The student association and student body president got involved and passed resolutions echoing our demands. Local media picked up the story almost immediately. Dr. Bibelnieks, Dr. Snyder, and I were interviewed by all of the local media outlets. You can read our demands here.
Founding SEA STEM was an amazing and awful experience. For months, SEA STEM was the last thing I thought of before I fell asleep and the first thing I thought of when I woke up. I poured hundreds of hours into this organization. Students, staff, and faculty members reached out to me asking for help and advice. Many of them asked for advice about how to handle gut-wrenching, truly awful, dangerous situations, many of which stemmed from sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of hatred and discrimination. Many more reached out solely because they knew I would listen and believe their stories. The fact that people so desperately reached out to me — an undergraduate student with no official title or power — was very telling. Untenured female professors were especially hesitant to speak up. Suddenly, everybody knew how UMD handled the situation in the math department. It made them both angry and afraid.
All of the media interviews featuring SEA STEM, Dr. Bibelnieks, and Dr. Snyder happened over the course of one week. By the time the last news outlet called me, I felt completely overwhelmed. I was angry with myself for allowing my emotions to weigh so heavily. I wasn’t naive about the toxic effects of the patriarchy. I’d experienced plenty of sexism myself, at UMD and elsewhere. I knew what I was getting into when I started SEA STEM. I had an incredible support system and experienced seasons of life which were much more personally difficult. Why was I having such a hard time?
Later that week, a postdoc working at UMD — a friend whom I looked up to and often turned to for advice — told me that I “probably had the most power now”, as an undergraduate student leader, than I ever would for the rest of my career.
Students speaking out against their university does not bode well for enrollment dollars. UMD didn’t care about the brilliant, successful, good, and kind women faculty members who were role models for me. They cared about their reputation and bottom line. Of course, I knew this. But I hadn’t considered the implications for my own future. Dr. Bibelnieks and other female faculty members were successful women in STEM — women I hoped to be like one day. Yet I, an undergraduate student (who really didn’t know what she was doing!) was advocating on their behalf. Dr. Bibelnieks and Dr. Snyder are incredibly resilient women, yet their experiences at UMD were so terrible that their lives were profoundly harmed. At that moment, I realized my future was not as bright as I’d previously believed.
UMD’s administration did not meet a single one of SEA STEM’s demands. I graduated and moved back to my hometown. A few months later, the head of the math department stepped down. I had a B.S. in biochemistry and a B.A. in chemistry from UMD and honestly didn’t want them. I knew that I was tremendously privileged to have obtained my degrees, but they felt tainted. My worry deepened about the implications of my activism on my career. I wanted to pursue medicine, but the thought of admissions committees digging into my record of holding UMD’s administration accountable made me tentative to spend the thousands of dollars required to even apply. I was so angered and disappointed by the way UMD handled the situation in the math department. Of course, some universities handle situations such as these even more poorly than UMD. But still, other universities handle them better. My parents were public school teachers, and I’m a believer in public education at all levels. I expected more from a school receiving so much state and federal funding. Thinking of my experience at UMD made me incredibly anxious. I was very unsure about what to do next, so I decided to stick with my original post-grad plan and get my Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certificate.
The summer after graduation, I focused on what made me happy. I reconnected with parts of my life that were put on hold during undergrad. I spent lots of time on the farm I grew up on, and even more time with my friends. I got to live with my little sister again. Being around her helped remind me that I was still only 22 years old, with a full future ahead. Dr. Bibelnieks, despite grappling with the effects of UMD’s toxic culture on her own career and personal life, helped me navigate life post UMD. I feel truly lucky to call her my friend. I was slowly coming around to the idea of using my degrees to re-enter the world of higher education.
Now, I work as an EMT on the Mayo Clinic ambulance service in Duluth. I love caring for my patients and neighbors, so I’m applying to medical school this month. Though my fears and doubts stemming from my undergraduate experience are still present — I’m excited to continue my education. University policies and procedures surrounding discrimination, reporting, and protection of minorities are of utmost importance to me. If I’m admitted to medical school(s), I’ll certainly be searching for any clues I can find about how these issues are really handled. Of course, I don’t expect perfection — but I do expect that EOAA findings aren’t hidden and ignored.
Occasionally, I’m the EMT in charge of responding to a 911 call at UMD’s campus. It feels much easier to be there while wearing my uniform and caring for my patient. When I see UMD’s students and staff, I’m reminded of why I founded SEA STEM: there are so manygood people at UMD. They deserve a place to learn, work, and live that is safe for all. I hope that by sharing my story and elevating Dr. Bibelnieks’ and Dr. Snyder’s stories, we can help prevent others from experiencing harm at UMD.
Editor’s note: A colleague of mine recently read the essay of the Undergraduate First Place Winner of the AWM/MfA 2022 Student Essay Contest, which describes the upward trajectory of Tracy Bibelnieks’ mathematical career, but upon further research learned of her resignation in April 2021 and Kristine Snyder’s earlier in 2018, both at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). This story has been reported upon in detail here and here last year, but to our knowledge has barely registered in the mathematical world, even a year later. In giving voice here to the women of UMD, we hope that this serves as a warning and a rebuke to the mathematical community, for our complicity and ignorance. This is Part 1; read Part 2 and Part 3.
The first time someone causes harm, that can be unintentional, but when an investigation finds that person’s behavior harmful, and they choose not to examine and change that harmful behavior, any further harm that their behavior causes is intentional because they chose not to change. Furthermore, while it might be painful for those who cause harm to face it, telling the truth about an environment that has been shown to be harmful does not harm those who create it, but not warning other people about said harmful environment when it has proven to be one, that inaction itself often leads to further harm.
Part 1: What happened?
“I couldn’t have lived without the science, but I wouldn’t live through this again.” Prof. Nancy Hopkins in Picture a Scientist
My name is Dr. Kristine Falk Snyder. I was a third generation University of Minnesota Duluth professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department from 2015 to 2018, where I held a tenure-track position. In 2018, I left the department, largely due to consistent patterns of sexism and misogyny, ending 70 years of my family educating there. I started cautiously talking about these issues in an exit interview I initiated before I left, but, because the whistleblower policy at the university distinctly did not provide sufficient protection for current employees, after I left, I also sent an email to administrators in August of 2018 outlining the university policies and Title IX and what I had experienced and observed in the department in the way of gender bias and discrimination, stating that I wanted to allow them to fix the situation quietly so as not to risk having more funding pulled by UMN, which I had seen occur during my previous almost 4 decades of having an insider’s view of the funding situation. My goal was always to stop the harm, to stop any woman from continuing to experience what I did, to assure equal access and treatment across gender for students, staff, and faculty, keeping the big funding picture in mind because I had seen how pulling funding had affected students negatively. (Equal treatment across race does not and absolutely should occur in the department, college, and university, but I am white, and, though I certainly saw racism cause harm there, I am far less qualified to talk about the full extent to which it exists and the harm it causes. Other voices should be listened to above mine around those issues.)
Reports from other female faculty triggered an investigation started in February of 2019 that ended in September of 2019 and found the department “hostile and offensive to a reasonable woman,” but, though this environment was created by a subset of individuals and not all men in the department, the report given to the department did not name the names of the men who caused and continue to cause harm. The administration brought in a department head from outside the university to attempt to fix things, but continued reports from female faculty and students have shown that behavior has not changed, and seems to instead have gotten worse. The findings were released inside the department in September of 2019, but the public report on the findings of the investigation was not released outside the department until March 17, 2020, right as quarantine started. This release date was also immediately after the end of the year-long statute of limitations for a hostile work environment in MN relative to when the investigation started and therefore when the last incident that could be included in that investigation would have occurred. While trainings were offered that addressed the behavior outlined in the report, to my knowledge no required additional trainings were offered for the department beyond what was necessary for all university employees, and problematic behavior ranging from apathy, to antipathy and defensiveness, to claiming to identify as female for the day were demonstrated by various members of the department.
When I shared this document with someone trained in mediation and law around these issues for unrelated purposes, they were appalled that the public release had no avenue described for change, no consequences for those who caused the environment, and that intent was described at all.
While some of the behaviors exhibited are outlined in this letter that my older brother wrote on my behalf, I will list some of them here. Women were and are talked over by men in the department, in both department meetings and beyond. Women’s voices are often ignored altogether, or women are told they do not know what they’re talking about. My husband asked me why I’d all but stopped talking some 5-6 months after starting this job; it was because I’d been talked over and ignored and dismissed so often that silence had become my survival strategy. In telling someone who deals with it for a living that story, he responded by saying “That’s what oppression does.” Men’s successes are celebrated, but women’s are often ignored, to the point that one woman’s tenure was not celebrated to protect the feelings of the men who had voted against her for being too “strong-minded” and who had questioned her legitimate publications. Women have been given more administrative tasks. Women are consistently treated as less capable, less smart, less skilled, less worthy, even when the evidence shows otherwise, both female students and faculty, all at an institution with the policy statement: “Making assumptions that men or women are better suited for a particular kind of job is prohibited.” Women were outright told their research leaves were for “a break” rather than research, whereas men’s were assumed to be for exactly what they were intended for. I was actually told by the then-department head when I left that I was “never really there,” when I had been rooted in Duluth for over a decade before he even moved there. Those are a few examples of thousands of microaggressions that I and other women experienced while there. Virtually every day there was something nasty or dismissive or condescending or gaslighting from one of the male professors, and, even on the rare day you might be lucky enough to get through without one, you would have to be on guard because they happened so often. As anyone who understands basic calculus knows, integrating over two dimensions adds up very quickly, and in this case, harm was integrated over time and the number of people who cause harm. Anyone who understands basic neuroscience knows that repeated smaller magnitude harms often cause more damage than one large one.
In March of 2021, over 2.5 years after my email, 2 years after the investigation started and over 1.5 years after the report came out, Prof. Tracy Bibelnieks resigned, citing the same behavior, the same problems of misogyny and sexism, the same harm. Her resignation letter was the first time students, non Math/Stats faculty, and deans outside of Swenson School of Science and Engineering were made fully aware of the investigative findings, and the students stood up for their professors, papering the university and city with posters, asking what was happening in the department that it continued to lose professors, in a way the university could no longer try to shove these problems under the rug. The subsequent interviews given by students, Tracy, and myself outlined the issues, and we did our best to protect the term faculty (what UMD calls adjunct faculty), who on the whole do not actively contribute to this hostile environment but whose jobs are continually most at risk. The university administration stated their response in terms of minimal trainings (those that offered education on what was non-harmful behavior but indicated problematic dynamics and apathy in the department), long overdue actions that affected term vs. tenured faculty but not issues around gender, and overall long-term changes in the school and university policies, not the department, while giving no actual evidence for any change in the department’s environment. Most recently, the department has engaged in what the university has called “restorative justice” that members of the department have found more harmful than helpful, which does not seem to include some of the fundamental tenets of restorative justice, but does allow the worst actors to hold forth with at times downright disturbing beliefs. (An email outlining how restorative justice actually is usually administered in situations like these was sent to the appropriate parties in 2020, but this circle does not include that structure or those elements.)
While the department has been informed that the environment is hostile, has been given the opportunity to change, there has been no data indicating change, with the same men doing the same and sometimes worse harmful things and claiming that the harm does not matter as much or at all because it is unintentional, despite the fact it has been 2.5 years since the original report showing these men’s behavior is harmful came out, despite the fact trainings have been offered about what is and is not harmful, despite the fact that once they were informed what was harmful, these men have knowingly, intentionally harmed women by engaging in the same behaviors. The men who have caused and continue to cause the most harm have also claimed that women publicly talking about the report or posting about it harms them, when it is nothing more than sharing the truth of what happened after years of hiding that truth and no measurable change has led to continued harm.
Part 2: Who is it?
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
One of the fundamental barriers to fixing the problems at UMD and one that runs counter to the ideas behind restorative justice is that people in power at multiple levels have acted in ways that suggest they are more focused on hiding the issue than on working together to fix it, which I find ironic, given that my intent in not speaking up publically right away was to give them the chance to focus all their energy on change, rather than image management. No men have been officially named by the university, and women have been given circuitous, unclear, and inconsistent answers around whether we can name the names of the men who committed the actions in the report. There are reports that describe the behavior of specific people, multiple individuals in the department who did harmful things, and it has never really been discussed by the administration or the department. Instead, this information is an additional burden on the women who experienced and continue to experience harm.
Very little positive change and even less justice starts from a place of secrets, dishonesty, and obfuscation.
This brings up one of the reasons I did not sue. The biggest, as I’ve stated before, is that I didn’t want more funding to get yanked from UMD by UMN because of another lawsuit, which hurts the students, who I am working to center here at all times, most. Do not forget that I had well over three decades of evidence of this pattern of funding reduction and consequent student harm when I left. I was unusually informed as a third-generation UMD professor. However, another reason I did not sue is because I would never sign a behavior-based NDA because they hide people’s damaging patterns rather than fixing them, thus virtually ensuring continued harm. Remember, this was all occurring as Weinstein’s history was coming to light, and I had plenty of evidence to support this conclusion.
If we ever want to make progress, we need to be able to be open and honest about the behaviors exhibited; who exhibited, who allowed, and who intervened with those behaviors; what harm was caused and is still being caused; and what has and has not changed.
I still am not certain I can name who is in the report, but I do know I legally can share my observations and experiences. I will leave you to draw your own evidence-based conclusions about whether it is more likely that there are even more men who cause harm in the department outlined in the report than the ones I describe or that the union and intersection of that group and the one I describe are the same. The men who I saw and continue to see (with the exception of those who are no longer part of the department) cause the most harm are the male full tenured professors, along with their protegés, and the two most recent department chairs who are also Math/Stats profs. The only current male full professor who I have never seen actively cause harm is Marshall Hampton. The department chair hired from outside the university added to this by acting on behalf of and identifying with those who were/are harmful rather than those harmed. It took him 17 months, almost a year and half after his arrival, to even talk to the women harmed about their experiences. His behavior was analogous to someone with reckless driving habits ignoring and forgiving them in others because it means he does not have to see or face or change them in himself. The blame for this chair’s behavior is not entirely on him; it is partially on the administration. It is clear he was not qualified in experience or temperament to make the changes the department required, nor were he and the dean allowed or empowered with the ability by the upper administration to make the changes that actually would have led to reduced harm.
There is plenty of accountability to go around in terms of what has and has not happened for the last 4 years. That doesn’t make any one of the parties mentioned not responsible; it just makes it easier for each of them to pass blame and responsibility for making the necessary changes that would actually eliminate harm and to close ranks and blame the whistleblowers instead.
We all saw how that pattern also led to continued but preventable harm with the opioid epidemic; passing the buck when a group of people all owe a quarter or a dime or a nickel does not pay off a debt.
“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of his vice is the worst kind of man.” – Charles M. Blow
These men I have mentioned do not focus on behavior or harm but continually center themselves and see themselves as victims, an inaccurate assessment that is allowed to exist because they hold power, an attitude they reinforce in each other, one we are not allowed to correct or refute by revealing what is in the report, and this inaccurate belief continues to cost everyone around them. They are not victims, any more than people who continue to drive recklessly in ways that harmed people and a report has been written about it proving that it happened, are victims. They are the people who originally caused harm, and, because the administration has not individually called them in or out or assigned/allowed repercussions or done anything that changed their harmful behavior or moved them to somewhere they can cause less harm, women continue to be harmed. From all I’ve learned since this happened, best practices in cases like these in terms of actually changing the environment are to release a detailed report to the public about what was found and address the harm immediately in a way that does not further harm those who have already experienced it.
These men may not have initially intended this harm, but the fundamental point is that the harm to female faculty, to female students, to the university has not stopped because these men’s behavior has not changed, at least not for the better, since the report came out, has not changed even as they have been informed what is harmful. That’s like committing “involuntary” manslaughter, which is a crime because effect matters more than intent, over and over and over again because you’re unwilling to stop reckless behavior after having been informed of it.
Is a crime really involuntary the second time you commit it after you’ve been found guilty of it once and continued the behaviors that caused it? The third time? The fourth?
They have neither acknowledged nor apologized for the harm they caused, which means there is no guarantee of it not happening again (the evidence actually shows the opposite, that the harm has very much continued.) They’re so dug in to the idea that they did not cause harm, even though that’s what the investigation found, that they are continuing to cause it because they’re focusing on their identities rather than their behavior and its effects. If you want another analogy other than a car accident, it’s like a surgical team that botched a surgery, for whom accumulated perhaps unintentional mistakes led to permanent harm in a patient, continuing to practice, continuing to make those unintentional but absolutely harmful mistakes after they’ve already been identified as harmful, with no repercussions, and then getting angry that the people harmed by their mistakes are talking about it to prevent that harm happening to someone else. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but they still caused harm. And, more importantly, once the evidence showed they had caused harm, their behavior didn’t change, and that harm continued.
The original harm may not have been intentional, but continuing the same behavior after it was shown to be harmful, IS intentional, chosen harm.
I want to acknowledge outright the other harm that is caused by the report’s attribution of harm to the entire department without naming the individuals responsible. There are many good men and women in that department, and some absolutely exceptional term faculty. They don’t deserve to be tainted by this or have their jobs put at risk. This is like a group project where everyone gets assigned the same grade, but the people getting the least credit (the term faculty) are doing most of the heavy lifting, and yet, because the people with the most power (the men mentioned earlier) did a horrible job, whatever they intended, the whole group got a failing grade. Then those with power refused to do the makeup project because they didn’t want to accept their failure, while the teacher (the administration) just does not do anything when nothing gets better, and those doing the work still have to carry that failing grade they never deserved.
And yes, people have different sensitivity levels, or, more accurately here, awareness and analytical skill levels, often because they developed those skills to survive because of the way the world treats them.I know men, including more than one in this department, with the kind of awareness levels where the evidence indicates they may well not have survived were they women. Further, what’s been shown to be effective with ending harm due to discrimination and bias is zero tolerance. That means you want the most sensitive equipment you can find so you can identify every instance and absolutely eliminate it, and that means hiring and keeping people with high levels of awareness and good analytical skills and believing them, not ignoring them and forcing them out to avoid having to face the problems. But the fact is that you do not have to be that sensitive to be aware that the department has problems. Seven tenure-track/recently tenured faculty in this department have chosen to resign since 2018, six of whom are women and/or people of color. This department cannibalizes its young, especially those least privileged, and, like any group that sacrifices its future for the past, it will not survive if it does not change.
Part 3: What is the broader view?
“Something I’ve learned through this process. There is very little gain in speaking your truth to the public, other than the potential for greater change. Going public with my truth was the decision I made when my calls for help were being swept under the rug. It was when I exhausted every possible outlet for change and nothing happened. It takes immense bravery and resiliency to speak your truth to friends, acquaintances and strangers. You lose friends, you receive angry calls and texts, you don’t sleep, you are torn apart by strangers, you see mean comments about you, you are constantly imbued in the trauma, etc. There is quite literally nothing fun or rewarding in the process until you see real change occur – which unfortunately doesn’t happen for everyone.” – Rosie Cruz
I did eventually go public, first in a LinkedIn post in September of 2020, when no change had occurred a year after the report was released, and then with the media when Tracy Bibelnieks resigned in April of 2021, and I did it for the same reason I do everything around issues of discrimination and bias: to tell the truth and to do my best to ensure those after me never have to go through what I did, to therefore minimize harm and increase equality. I did it because I learned the hard way that sunshine really is the best disinfectant. I did it because I am one of the only people who left who still cares about UMD and its students because I grew up there, because I know it can be better than this. The department and administration were given years to change their behavior before I did anything public, years of me painfully watching other women be harmed the same way I was.
As much as it hurt me to experience the harm myself, it was so much worse to watch others continue to be harmed when it could have been prevented.
The administration had ample time and resources to investigate. I also gave individuals the benefit of time to acknowledge and change their behavior. The harm continued unabated even after being found credible by a formal EOAA investigation. It was after those three years, after Tracy was forced out by the continued harmful behavior, that I decided it was time the larger community knew that harm was occurring and no changes had taken place. It was time that others could make informed decisions about whether to involve themselves in an environment such as that, one not only hostile but uninvested in changing that hostility. Despite my history, I never would have gone to UMD had I known how toxic the department is, and I wanted to avoid the harm that happened to me happening to other women because they were kept ignorant. Everyone has the right to make an informed decision, but they cannot do that when the truth is hidden.
And the truth is that the hostility in the department is just as much a part of the male full professors’ legacy as is their research; it is just not a part of their legacy they want anyone to know or talk about.
As for intentional vs. unintentional harm with regard to this situation, if you are not even aware enough to know that you’re causing harm, you’re more likely to cause it. Therefore, if diminishing overall harm is your goal but you’ve been shown to be doing so unintentionally, learning to recognize what causes harm and how to avoid doing that is how you get there. That means listening to the whole truth, and absorbing all the data, not hiding it or hiding from it. You do not find out you have typhoid fever and keep cooking for people, getting more and more and more people sick. This reaction of denial and dismissal has led to continued harm. Now, if diminishing overall harm is not your goal, then that has profound implications for the safety of others in your presence that may suggest the need for you to, until that changes, not live in community.
The female faculty may have spoken up most about this toxic environment, but they are not the only ones who have noticed or been harmed by it. They are just the only ones who have gone public and therefore received backlash. One of my male students called the department a “good ol’ boys’ club.” Female students to this day go out of their way to avoid taking classes from certain male professors, basically a passive way of the department not being Title IX compliant. There have been numerous complaints, some taken to Title IX and some not, from female students who have been treated differently, graded differently, and given different or fewer opportunities due to gender. At least one male professor is no longer allowed to advise female students due to continual evidence of bias. Because this is occurring in a Math/Stats department, which teaches classes required for all STEM and many other degrees, it affects all students in Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE) and many beyond it, not just those in the department, and it also affects other faculty and staff outside the department. Further, because nothing effective has been done in this department, even after it was found hostile, female faculty and staff have been hesitant or outright refused to report problems with gender discrimination and sexual harassment elsewhere in SCSE because the evidence shows nothing will happen but denial, ineffectual trainings, and victim-blaming. Various trainings have found the department’s dynamics particularly problematic and their attitudes apathetic.
The behavior in the department is not merely a reflection of society’s biases; it is an amplification of them due to the personalities, beliefs, and behavior of the combination of people in power. Whether these biases against women are expressed aggressively or benevolently does not matter because both harm women.
What matters is that the behavior causes harm that has effects and implications far beyond just the individual department and that it has to end.
When it comes to what I do around these issues, I am continually doing my best to put the greater good, especially for the next generation, first, even ahead of myself. That’s why my older brother had to tell me I couldn’t help anyone if I was dead for me to leave UMD. That’s why I told my husband the one thing that would make me stay is my students begging me to. And it is heartbreaking to look at the student reviews from my final semester where that happened, too late for anything to change. I have lost my job, a chunk of my family, my hometown, and my health over this situation. But if the next generation of women has a safer place to be in STEM, you had better believe I think what it’s cost me is worth it. I have sunk costs that I can prevent other women having to pay, but not if things at UMD and in the wider mathematical and academic community don’t change. I will continue to act in such a way as to protect students and women and others who may have less power from people who cause harm, even when those people continually deny the harm they cause, even after it’s shown in an investigation, and then look to accuse me of hurting them for telling the truth about what happened and call that justice. An equal opportunity environment, especially one in STEM, does not sacrifice women’s opportunities or health for men’s views of themselves when those views do not match the data. And a true community cannot be built around people who continually put their own disproven images of who they think they are ahead of the greater good, the evidence, and the whole truth.
I also believe things can change for the better, and that if people really want to fix this, they will identify those who actively cause harm, those who have done nothing to stop or prevent it, and those who have spoken up, and pull those who are problematic out individually, not together, for private training. (This is not new advice; the administration received it over a year ago, plenty of time in which to change policies to allow this to occur, rather than changing those policies to not even formally investigate situations like this anymore.) I’m not saying fire them. I’m saying they need to be temporarily moved until they are no longer harmful, kind of like removing pipes that are leaching toxins into the water and lining them to assure they can no longer do so.
I believe in redemption, in people’s ability to change for the better, but I have yet to see it happen without humility, education, and empathy.
If these men can change their behavior enough to stop causing harm, they can come back. I’m guessing someone will argue that UMD will lose too much institutional knowledge if you move everyone problematic, given their positions. I promise, you can remove the hostility with great margins (using the surgery example) without losing much institutional knowledge, the most important of which lies in people like the longtime term faculty and the administrative staff anyway. It would behoove the university to bring in a new graduate director and a truly aware permanent department head. Information around the graduate program and certain types of research will be the only information lost by removing problematic people, but the fact is that the undergraduate and graduate programs badly need an overhaul so that they are individually sustainable, and research opportunities need to be guaranteed to be equal across race and gender. That can only be done by bringing in someone not entrenched in the current hostile environment who has the awareness, guts, and fortitude to do what is right, even when it is not what is easy.
I am going to bring up the other elephant in the room: tenure. I am not anti-tenure. I believe in tenure for academics who put the greater good ahead of themselves, who use the freedom tenure provides to better the world, rather than to better themselves or those like them at the expense of those less privileged. Tenure was created to protect scholars fromadministrators who would abuse their power to remove said scholars if they did research that challenged the powerful. Tenure was not designed for nor should it ever be used to protect academics who use the job security it provides to harm or shut out others, especially those less privileged than themselves, who use it to amass rather than distribute power. Right now, tenure in the Math/Stats department is leading to continued harm because the most problematic, the most harmful, the most privileged people in the department have its protection, and that allows them to continue to harm those who are less powerful. Tenure prevents the administration from imposing repercussions sufficient to change their harmful behavior. If there is one thing my time in academia has taught me, it is that tenure is not inherently bad, but any tool, even one designed to protect, can be used to harm when wielded by those who would choose to use it that way. It has led me to wonder if there should be moral/ethical requirements for granting tenure in addition to academic requirements.
Part 4: What do we do now?
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” – Desmond Tutu
As for me, the only apology I really want at this point consists of accountability and behavioral change, for UMD to be somewhere my nieces could safely go, somewhere they would be treated equally to my nephews, for the university and union policies to change accordingly, not for those policies to change to make certain types of harm non-investigable, as has been the case recently. Nobody can give me back my time, my energy, or my health, but they can make sure nobody else loses theirs. There needs to be true accountability for and apologies from the individuals who are contributing to the hostility. There needs to be concrete evidence of behavioral change in those individuals. Accountability can be painful because it makes us face the parts of ourselves and the things that we do that we’d rather not see or acknowledge, but it is not harmful long-term, as are the actions men continue to take if they’re not held accountable, like the harm that happens when men who have not done anything harmful assume or are treated as if they have. Accountability is just a temporarily painful prerequisite to allow for permanent positive growth. It is necessary for peace and justice and should not be confused with public shaming. It may need to be public to have an effect on behavior, but that doesn’t make it shaming, just acknowledgment that harm occurred rather than hiding it.
It’s not the initial unintentional harm that is the biggest problem; it is the absolutely intentional years-long choice to continue to be harmful and allow harm to occur rather than to change.
This is not what I wanted, not what I wanted to happen and not who I wanted to be. I never wanted to be a whistleblower, a woman who became a poster child for sexism in STEM, a cautionary tale. I wanted to be a multidisciplinary professor (I have 5 degrees in 4 fields, 3 fields if you group pure and applied math together.) I wanted to do the same thing every good Minnesotan does: learn as much as I could and take what I’d learned and give back to my community. I wanted to quietly do good work. I wanted to teach the students who grew up in my home state and city. I wanted to continue the kind of research that earned me an NSF postdoctoral fellowship, that has allowed me to work with some of the best researchers, athletes, and scholars in the world, in my hometown. I wanted to hold my girls’ neuroscience camp every summer so that girls like I used to be would get to see real science before high school or college. I wanted to be the mentor who got and kept women in STEM, the one I had already been for over a decade, to be like the woman who first reached me. I wanted to run the trails at Hartley until my legs were splattered with mud. I wanted to swim in Lake Superior even on days it was so cold it knocked the breath from my lungs. I wanted to ski Lester Park when it was -20˚ F. I wanted to really get to know the cousin who was kept from me as a child. I wanted to watch my lifelong friends’ kids grow up in person, not over social media. I will never have those things. I will probably never go home, and if I do, I will never see my hometown the same way. Those things were stolen from me and, more importantly, the whole next generation of girls by men who create a “hostile and offensive” workplace, something that it is considered illegal to create or allow in the state of Minnesota and unethical by millions of people. And even worse, because these men are choosing to continue these same harmful behaviors, they continue to prevent girls like the one I used to be from getting the equal education the law guarantees and women like the one I am now from having a safe, non-hostile workplace.
No, this is not what I wanted, but it is what happened, and it is who the world needed me to be, and I am not often nowadays one to take the easy way out when I see other people getting hurt. When I did public interviews in April, it was the first time many people knew why I had really left Duluth. I’d stayed really quiet to allow UMD time to change, sometimes at the expense of my own relationships. One of my Duluth connections who is Quaker, sent me this Dorothy Hutchinson quote upon finding out what had happened: “A Quaker social concern arises as a revelation to an individual that there is a painful discrepancy between existing social conditions and what God wills for society and that this discrepancy is not being adequately dealt with. The next step is the determination of the individual to do something about it -not because s/he is particularly well-fitted to tackle the problem, but simply because no one else seems to be doing it.’ We call this integrity.” Despite a consistent presence at Quaker meetings due to shared fundamental values, I’m not a huge believer in God in the way many think of that entity because I have seen too many people use a higher power to justify harmful behaviors not supported by the evidence. But I am absolutely a believer in justice and integrity and that the only way to achieve the former is to have the latter. In the last four years, I have challenged people’s certainties and identities. I have made people angry. I have made people upset. I have made mistakes I regret, things I have done my best to make up for. But I have also tried to be as honest as I possibly can be (except when backed into lies of omission by the university), and I have and will continue to do my utmost to put the greater good, especially for the next generation, especially for people who are afterthoughts rather than centered in society, first. If enough others have the courage to do the same, I have confidence that eventually things will change for the better.
In terms of what I want the wider mathematical and academic community to do with regard to UMD, I want them to take action in whatever way their influence allows to ensure a change in this hostile environment and limit the chances of it occurring elsewhere.
I want them to do the actions outlined in this letter. I want them to share the public report widely. I want them to encourage women, people of color, and supportive allies of all backgrounds not to work with or take classes from any of the full male professors until there is solid proof that this environment has changed. I would ask that no state or federal funding, no taxpayer money, go toward people who contribute to this hostile environment; there are plenty of qualified, equitable faculty in STEM who deserve funding, including those who study these very problems. I would like there to be asterisks next to the names of the men who contribute to this hostile environment anywhere they are listed or honored unless they apologize and there is sufficient evidence the hostility they create has ended before they retire because it is part of their actual legacy unless/until they choose to change that. I would like some sort of guarantee of broader support from the wider mathematical community of the term and other non-harmful faculty at UMD. I would like policies in SIAM, AMS, MAA, and AWM that allow for censure or suspension of men who exhibit this behavior and then do not change. I would like outside pressure on the UMD union to rework their policies to assure it is a union for term faculty, women, and people of color and not just tenured white men, in addition to the inside pressure from women there. I would like there to be discussions about and policies that determine what level of discriminatory and other bias-based harm it would take for tenure to be suspended or revoked, not necessarily by the university, but by a truly diverse group of faculty trained to determine whether/when it is necessary. I want people to be aware that, given the funding/hiring patterns over the last 40-50 years, there are many departments with bimodal age/power distributions where this kind of damaging, misogynist environment can arise. UMD is a single sample of a real subgroup. I would encourage people to read the policies at their own universities to find and fix the loopholes that exist and allow for discrimination there and assure investigations around these issues are designed to protect those harmed, not retraumatize them. I would encourage people to recognize that group dynamics and capacity for empathy matter in hiring, especially when hiring people with the potential to get tenure.
I would encourage people not to have the typical “That could never happen here/I would never do that” response, but rather the “How do these kinds of things happen here/What problematic behaviors do I have?” response about their own institutions and behaviors.
Above all, I would ask people to make their default be to believe women, people of color, and especially women of color, when they point out bias and discrimination and to understand that not changing in a way that perpetuates harm is as bad for the world as changing in a way that creates it. I would like them to understand that, in a society like ours that is traditionally sexist and racist, bias exists until it is countered, and those on the wrong side of it learn to recognize it as a survival strategy, that a Bayesian approach as well as that which minimizes overall harm is to believe the less privileged on issues of bias until they are disproven. I was not listened to or believed by multiple people I tried to talk to about my experiences for the three years I was at UMD, including those I absolutely should have been able to trust to believe me, and my reality of being ignored and disbelieved was one reason why I felt I had to leave to be heard, for anything to change. On the other side, I had a student who went through weeks of racist treatment before they told me because they understandably were not sure a white woman would believe them. So believe the women and people of color who speak up the first time they say something about bias because it costs that individual to speak up, but it benefits everyone from their underrepresented group and society overall when their words are heard and believed and lead to positive change.
Part 5: An Example to Follow
“It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that’s what leadership is.” -Rosabeth Moss Kanter
The narrative from the department and UMD is denial and diminishment of what occurred and to just throw up their hands and say, what else do you want me to do? As it happens, I have an example of both the core values and the practices that need to be followed for things to change. My experience in my Ph.D. program at University of Colorado Applied Math was not like mine at UMD, but it was not pleasant or discrimination-free either, with me outright being told if I got something it was only because I was female within my first week, working largely on my own or with other women because the majority of male students treated female students as less smart or capable than them, and being asked constantly how to make things better for women but not able to speak up about anything due to precarious funding, funding that somehow disappeared after I said something deemed “defensive.” I had officially reported my experiences in 2019 when I told a friend who was on the faculty in a different area something that they felt triggered CU’s new-to-me mandatory reporting policy. Then, when I ran into one of my professors from Applied Math almost a year ago, one who had been consistently honest and attentive, it took me some time to muster up the trust and courage to email him, tell him briefly what had happened at UMD, and also that, I would not go to that Ph.D. program if I could do it over again because of the behavior of male professors and students meant that it had ultimately cost me more than it gave me.
Instead of denial or the “I’m sorry you experienced that” non-apology I have gotten from other people and other places, I got a pleasant surprise. He believed what I experienced and wished it could have been better and is working to make sure that does not ever happen again. He is now department chair and has been focused on changing the faculty and culture to be truly diverse and inclusive. I knew some things were changing, as I had seen more females and people of color hired as professors, including one of the women who had been in the graduate program with me. I will not lie; one of the reasons I trusted him enough to email him, but also why I was concerned was unfairly overloading someone already dealing with oppression by emailing him, is because he is Black. I won’t say I know what it is like to be Black in Boulder because I never will, but I have heard and believed experiences from my friends of color and seen things with my own eyes that show the city’s progressive self-identity is all-too-often not even skin deep. I trusted him to accept and believe subtle sexism because I know he has experienced many types of racism and because he was genuinely good to and honest with me during my time in graduate school. There is nobody actually still in the direct line from the Math/Stats faculty on up at UMD whose behavior has indicated that I can or should trust them the same way.
Here is what triggered his actions and what he has done. He received a document anonymously recording experiences of women in the department back in 2018 from one of the female faculty. Instead of denying it occurred or arguing about what was intentional, he believed the reports, was upset that people in his department were experiencing this, and communicated with his Divisional Dean and the OIEC (Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance) at CU. They already knew about the document and were currently observing the situation. (Note: a problem with all offices like this, whatever they are named, is that they publicly state the importance of DEI, but are also responsible for legally protecting the university. These two are often at odds, and this puts those who work there in a nearly impossible position, and makes it difficult for those reporting to ever really trust their intentions.) Instead of observing, he took action, knowing that the health and future of the department depended on it. He made sure to listen to his young faculty, that the department was somewhere they could feel empowered to speak up and be heard. They are the future of the department, and he is focused on putting that future first. He has made hiring diverse faculty a focus and has not had a hard time with it, saying that they are often the most qualified. These faculty have a focus on diversifying the field, in the kind of research they do, who they do it with, and the manner in which they do it. He has pushed the administration for more hires, coming very close to hiring a senior female professor, but not being able to due to delays above him. He is still trying for a more senior hire from an underrepresented group so that new young diverse faculty can have effective in-house mentoring. He has focused on recruiting more diverse students and working to assure those who are underrepresented the kind of guaranteed funding that does not put them at risk. He has assured funding for programs like the Association for Women in Mathematics and other associations for traditionally underrepresented groups. A far cry from the few in my incoming cohort, of whom I was the only one to stay to get a Ph.D. at CU, or the zero the year before, he has achieved half female students multiple times and not had any struggle retaining them. I am sure it is not perfect, but what matters is acting immediately to end harm, listening to those who speak up about it, and making continued, measurable forward progress.
If a department is really to change discriminatory patterns, the person at the top needs to realize that the future of the department depends on that change, to continually take action to fight for DEI themselves, and, above all, to listen to and empower the faculty, tenured or not, and students to do so without fear of repercussions.
If people from underrepresented groups are punished for speaking up, if nothing changes when they do, if they are shown that they cannot trust those in charge, those who can will leave, and those who cannot will suffer in silence. If not addressed, this leads to a slow death of the community, but if addressed and fixed, it can lead to shared purpose, revitalization, and hope.
This is my story. I present it through my answers to three questions: Where did I come from?, Where am I today?, and Where am I going now?
Where Did I Come From?
I was born and raised in Mexico City, the huge city of twenty million stories and passions. I come from a middle-class Mexican family. My nuclear family was a bit unusual because my parents separated when I was young, so I was mostly raised by my mother Antonia Herrera Tejada and my grandmother Margarita Tejada de Herrera. My sister Judith is just three years younger than me. The four of us, and a bunch of dogs, formed my household.
I grew up on the edge of colonia  Narvarte and went to elementary school at the adjacent, rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Because of this I faced some difficult experiences: my lunch was stolen, I was beaten on a couple of occasions by gangs, and the police harassed young people like me. These experiences made me aware of poverty, violence, and social injustice. Maybe because of the harsh reality I was living, books were my true friends: I could read and read all day long, or at least until my mother ordered me to go outside.
My father Jesús De Loera López was a remarkable man. He was a poor farmer with no more than a junior high education, who went from being a bracero  during the 1940s to becoming a congressman and a gubernatorial candidate in Mexico. Sadly, my relationship with my father was broken. I was proud of his accomplishments, how he pulled himself up from nothing, and I wanted to emulate him, but we spent such little time together that he gave me nothing to hold onto.
My mother is an even more remarkable person to me! With little more than a secretarial degree and divorced from my father, she raised two children. She supported us, believed in all of our dreams, no matter how stupid or insane they were, and she sacrificed everything for us. She and my grandmother gave me lots of love, guidance, and a calm environment to grow.
I went to public schools in Mexico City. From very early on, I was always a diligent student, because I loved school, I was excited to learn, especially history. The principal of my elementary school had been a historian and he took a liking to me. He gave me books and encouragement. My mom really promoted learning as a way to improve oneself. At great expense and effort, my mom would take my sister and me to the pyramids and excellent museums around the country, which I loved.
When you work in math, people often treat you as gifted, but I do not think of myself in that way. I am actually quite slow to understand things, but I firmly believe that anyone that really loves something enough to try to be good at it, will become good at it. The very first time I remember loving mathematics was in middle school. My teacher asked us to carry a daily mathematics diary where we would complete our homework. When grading these, she gave prizes to clear, well-organized answers with explicit reasoning. I remember spending so much time making sure my answers were neat. I loved the introduction to basic axiomatic geometry proofs, using similar triangles and parallel lines. It was so much fun to give a solid argument! To know the truth!
After a successful national exam I was admitted to a high school associated to the National University of Mexico (UNAM). Preparatoria 6 is in the bohemian neighborhood of Coyoacán, very close to the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Trotsky’s last home. Me and my friends took advantage of the intellectual and artistic atmosphere of the area. I fell in love with astronomy and I helped to build telescopes at the Sociedad Astronómica de México, I wrote poetry and read the work of philosophers from Plato to Nietszche, and I learned to speak proficient French. I was blessed with a very rich intellectual atmosphere among my classmates too, who were also “coming of age’’ as thinkers and creators. Many of my classmates are now academics.
In high school my fascination with mathematics grew and I first became aware that I was fairly competent when I won third place in a high school mathematics competition. I loved scholarly and theoretical pursuits, but labs were not as exciting to me, so when it came time to decide for a college major I decided to study mathematics. Admission in UNAM was done by scores and grades: since I had the highest scores, I could have chosen medicine or law as my major, but I chose math because I loved it. Many people told me I was crazy not to choose a more conventional career.
In retrospect, it was indeed an impulsive decision, purely based on a feeling. I had no idea what a mathematician did, no idea of what professional math really was about when I chose that career. Today, I can say with certainty that mathematics as a career is an excellent choice, with plenty of job choices and financial rewards too, but back then I did not stop to think about money and what I wanted in a job. All I knew was nothing gave me so much pleasure as mathematics did. Fortunately my teachers gave me reassurances and my mother never once doubted my choice.
In 1984, I went to college at the Facultad de Ciencias of UNAM. This is a huge university, with more than 100,000 students in one campus. It offered me unlimited opportunities, but you had to push hard to be noticed. It was very hard. As a freshman, for the first time in my life, I felt really academically under-prepared. All of my classmates were so much smarter than me. Being the first to go to college from my father’s side of the family, I certainly felt like an impostor. But I persisted. How did I become resilient? It is hard to say, I feel it is mostly an inner fight. The Aztecs said, “un gran guerrero no es quien logra dominar a sus enemigos, sino aquel que puede dominarse a si mismo.’’ 
During my university studies, I found that math was even more beautiful than I ever imagined! I truly loved the subject, and I could work until late hours of the night thinking about and enjoying the challenges from class, even when it was hard work. I quickly learned that mathematics is not a spectator sport! You learn math by doing math. Just like in music or sports, practice makes perfect.
I was lucky to have brilliant classmates that made creating mathematics even more fun and exciting, like playing a soccer match! We would argue about theorems and proofs or about life and politics, until late into the night. In yet another lucky life event, I connected to four mathematicians who trained me and believed in me: In analytic geometry class I met Javier Bracho, an elegant geometer topologist who promoted imagination and colorful results. Later Francisco Larrión, an algebraist who took me under his mentorship and taught me to write mathematics and be rigorous. Victor Neumann, one of the founding fathers and elders of discrete mathematics in Mexico took me under his wing. I was his teaching assistant for graph theory and combinatorics and I discovered I enjoy teaching. Victor introduced me to Gilberto Calvillo, the first real applied mathematician I ever met, who at the time worked at the Bank of Mexico. He taught me about operations research and mathematical economics and I discovered that math is crucial to solving real concrete problems. Math became a power tool for analysis and decision-making, not just a beautiful creation. The artistic side of mathematics mingles really well with its applicable power.
The reality is, I am the mathematician I am today because these men were true mentors: they gave me a lot of their time, constructive criticism, and encouragement. I recognize today the value of being a mentor and a supporter of young talent. My 1989 senior thesis was in combinatorial topology and group theory. I gave a modern proof of the classification of planar Cayley graphs of finite groups, first presented by Matschke in 1899. That was the first time I heard about polyhedra, my favorite mathematical objects. In two dimensions, these are high school polygons. Cubes, crystals, and pyramids are examples in three dimensions.
In perhaps the luckiest event in my entire life, I met a truly brilliant and lovely physics student Ingrid Brust-Mascher, who was not only the top student in her class, but was to become my best friend and later my wife. Taking a risk, Ingrid and I left Mexico together in Fall 1989. In 1990 we got married, and attended graduate school at Cornell University in New York together. Ingrid was an applied physics PhD student, while I worked on my PhD in applied mathematics with a minor in operations research. Ithaca was a drastic change from Mexico City, but a welcome change for us as newlyweds. The life in the outdoors and true winters was a lovely new experience after the hectic life of the big city.
I did not know it at the time, but the late 1980s brought a remarkable group of mathematicians to Cornell. The Center for Applied Mathematics (CAM) was comprised of a diverse collection of researchers and graduate students whose work covered all areas of research. The director, John Guckenheimer, promoted new ideas and creativity. Lou Billera, who had made great contributions to mathematical optimization, game theory, and algebraic combinatorics gave me wise guidance. Mike Stillman, co-inventor of the computer algebra system Macaulay and one of the pioneers in making algebraic geometry computational, also influenced my way of thinking about mathematics. At the time of my arrival to Cornell several prominent Russian mathematicians, including Andrei Zelevinsky, Misha Kapranov, Sasha Barvinok, had visiting positions in Ithaca. The atmosphere was stimulating and engaging. In my first year I found the best PhD advisor I could dream of, Bernd Sturmfels, then a young rising star in the field of computational and applied algebraic geometry. Since then he has created a whole movement around computation in algebraic geometry (computing with systems of polynomials equations and inequalities). Bernd was my most important teacher. He believed in me and became a good friend. Once more a key mentor helped me improve and grow.
In those days I saw polyhedra appear everywhere, in applied mathematics, e.g., optimization and probability, and even in the context of pure math (algebraic geometry and topology). Polyhedra became the emphasis of my PhD dissertation and in fact my entire career. In my PhD work, I solved an open question of Gelfand, Kapranov, and Zelevinsky by finding an example of a non-regular triangulation of the Cartesian product of two simplices. I proudly used a computer-based proof. I also wrote a couple of papers on algebraic algorithms for manipulating systems of polynomials. To this day, this topic continues to fascinate me. I received my PhD April 25th, 1995. That same year in June, our first son Antonio was born. By the end of August, we drove across the country to take jobs at the University of Minnesota, two fresh PhDs with a young baby.
My job was at the Geometry Center. There, with the emphasis on computers and geometry, my research style matured. While at Minnesota, Victor Reiner helped me to explore our common interest on geometric combinatorics. Our second son Andrés was born in Minneapolis, at a hospital by the Mississippi river.
After Minnesota, my second job was at the Computer Science Department in ETH-Zürich Switzerland. I was hosted by the research group of Emo Welzl and Juergen Richter-Gebert, both great friends who had a deep influence on me. The research atmosphere was creative and joyful. Those were happy times for me and my small new family. It was exciting to work on various problems in convex and discrete geometry and computational geometry while, on the weekends, I could escape with my children to the Swiss Alps.
While in Zürich I worked on the problem of finding optimal triangulations and subdivisions of polyhedra. I developed practical algorithms to find triangulations with the fewest number of simplices. For example, I discovered that the minimum triangulation of the regular dodecahedron has 23 tetrahedra. In 1999, I moved to the University of California, Davis to take on a tenure-track faculty position.
Where Am I Today?
As I write this recollection of my life I have already completed 20 years in the faculty! It has been a long personal and intellectual journey.
My work in combinatorics and discrete geometry, started as a PhD student, continues. My first book, written with my great friends Joerg Rambau and Francisco Santos, Triangulations: Structures for Algorithms and Applications, was published in 2010. It is a thorough reference on triangulations of polyhedra. By now, my scholarly work touches on several other topics.
I have made noteworthy contributions to the problems of computing volumes and integrals over polyhedral regions, and counting lattice points. These three computational problems have many applications, from pure math (algebraic geometry and representation theory) to applied combinatorics, probability and statistics (one is the analysis of contingency tables, see Figure 8.1). The software project LattE was started under my direction and initiative, with the purpose of carrying out those computations. LattE is used by many mathematicians and it helped to introduce dozens of students to research.
In the past ten years, my desire to work on more applications and computations has led me to apply algebra and geometry in the area of combinatorial optimization. This is the part of applied mathematics related to making optimal choices. A famous example of such problems is the traveling salesman problem: Given n cities that must be visited only once, and the costs cij of flying from city i to city j, the goal is to find the best order to visit all of the given cities in order to minimize the total cost of the trip. I am proud to have been one of the leaders of a new approach to the theory of combinatorial optimization. In this new point of view, we use tools from algebra, topology, and geometry, that were previously considered too pure and unrelated to applications, to prove unexpected computational or structural results. For instance, a long-standing geometric question I care about asks to bound the diameter in the graph of a polyhedron, that is, the maximum length of a shortest path between a pair of vertices in its graph (see Figure 8.1). This is relevant to understanding the performance of the simplex algorithm, one of the most influential computer algorithms in history. My second book, coauthored with Raymond Hemmecke and Matthias Köppe, is titled Algebraic and Geometric Ideas in the Theory of Discrete Optimization. This book is the first compilation of results from this geometric perspective.
I have also written many papers on convexity, such as my papers about variations of Carathéodory, Helly and Tverberg type theorems. I like theorems with colors! Tverberg’s theorem is one of my favorites: Suppose a1,…,an are points in Rd. If the number of points, is sufficiently large, namely n>(d+1)(m–1), then they can always be colored into m color classes A1,…,Am in such a way that the m convex hulls convA1,…,convAm have a point in common.
All of these years of work I have been blessed with appreciation and recognition. For my contributions to discrete geometry, optimization, algebraic algorithms, and mathematical software, I was elected a fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2014 and as a fellow of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2019. Through mathematics I had unique experiences, including traveling all over the world to conferences, discussing my work with some of the brightest minds, and being invited by the Obama White House to speak at the State Department.
Still, the most lasting reward is all of the students I have mentored. I have now worked with over 60 undergraduates on projects. It is rewarding to see them grow. Some of them are now professors themselves. My 14 former PhD students have gone on to make me very proud. I even had the pleasure of meeting some of my “academic grandchildren.’’ Of course, seeing my own biological children grow and prosper is also a great source of my life’s joy!
Where Am I Going Now?
I still have hope that I can create more mathematics in my remaining years and I am keeping up with new advances. Today, computers are essential to the discovery of results, even in pure mathematics, but I see new opportunities as we enter a new era of computational mathematics. First, new methods, that rely on formal logic, make mathematical assertions automatically verifiable with higher certainty. It is not only the computer carrying on calculations, but also the logical components of the proof itself, including all the background theories. A second major shift is how data science and artificial intelligence are driving new mathematical questions. Finally computers and technology (e.g., online courses, Zoom) continue to change mathematics education and collaboration. I will focus my energy to think about such research.
If you have read this far you now know my story and it should be fairly obvious that my journey was only possible because I found people willing to support me. I did not arrive here all by myself. I would like to dedicate time to make mathematics accessible to everyone, especially young Latinx people who can later take my place in the circle of mathematical creation. The most important contribution I will ever make is the people I helped along their journey.
The rising Latinx population indicates it is in everyone’s best economic interest to make sure Latinxs can have access to mathematics and science. As I write this testimonio, the world is engulfed in a pandemic, that has uncovered the deficiencies and the inequality that exists in our society. Thus, fighting for equity and inclusion in STEM is one of my most important duties.
Dear young reader, if you have fallen in love with math, I urge you never to give up in your passion. Let that love guide your education to become the mathematician you dream to be. Do not give up in the hard moments of disappointment. Rest, but do not desist, persist! Always remember that an expert is someone who has failed enough times to understand how to avoid pitfalls. There are teachers and other students who are willing to help. There is nothing wrong with asking for help and guidance. Seek the mentorship and company of people that will support you and care for your dreams. Then, one day, you will become the expert, the teacher, the mentor. Take that place proudly and be generous and humble. Remember where you came from. Your journey was only possible because of others that came before you.
I wish you a healthy, balanced, and wise life. One where you have the time to think deeply about the world and others.
 A colonia is a residential quarter within a city.  A bracero is a migrant farm worker.  This quote translates to: “a great warrior is not the one who manages to dominate his enemies, but the one who can dominate himself.”
The Association for Women in Mathematics recently launched their new flagship research journal, La Matematica (LaMa), published by Springer. The journal’s title is inspired by the fact that the word for “mathematics” is feminine in many romance languages, including Italian (in case you wondered about the lack of a diacritic).
La Matematica is a peer-reviewed research journal set apart by its commitment to inclusivity and to a positive review experience. LaMa features high-quality research from all areas of the mathematical sciences: theoretical, applied, and computational, as well as mathematics history, education, and philosophy. As Editors-in-Chief of LaMa, we want to support the flourishing of all mathematicians by adopting best practices towards equity in STEM publishing as we currently understand them. For now, that means doubly-anonymous reviewing, a diverse editorial board, an equally diverse set of reviewers, a streamlined submission-to-publication timeline, clear expectations for authors, and constructive reviews.
This blog post describes some of the decisions we made and resources we used when developing our review processes and editorial board, along with some of the struggles we’ve had in living up to our lofty goals.
Doubly-anonymous refereeing means, simply, that the referee receives an anonymized manuscript to review, with authors’ names and identifying information (grant funding, acknowledgements, and potentially some references) redacted. Some publications ask authors to refrain from posting their work publicly (for example on arXiv) prior to review, but La Matematica does not take that approach. We understand that there are good reasons for authors to post their work to arXiv, especially in very active research areas. So we leave it up to the authors to decide: posting on arXiv may compromise our ability to carry out truly anonymous refereeing, but we respect the authors’ choice. Similarly, we recognize that an author may feel their identity is important to the research presented. Authors determine the extent to which they anonymize the text of the submission.
We recognize that most mathematicians are not able to keep up with every article posted to the arXiv, so it is very likely that we can find reviewers who are not immediately aware of authorship when they receive the manuscript. Even reviewers who think they can identify authors based on writing style or the topic of the paper are at best guessing, and these guesses are quite often incorrect. We simply ask the referees to respect the review process and not seek out information about (or confirmation of) authorship until the review is complete. We trust in the referees’ ability to act professionally and to respect the equity-based goals of doubly-anonymous refereeing.
If editors are unable to find referees who are uncertain of authorship, we will contact the authors before proceeding with a singly-anonymous review process. It’s important to note that in the worst case scenario, when doubly-anonymous refereeing completely fails, the result is the singly-anonymous system, the more typical process for most mathematics research journals. There is nothing to lose and potentially a great deal in terms of equity to be gained by instituting this system.
Other review considerations
We all know the frustration of submitting an article, waiting 6 months (or more!), and receiving a rejection with minimal feedback, saying simply the article is not a good fit for the journal or not the right level. In an attempt to mitigate this frustration and streamline the review process, we have instituted a preliminary quick assessment (either by the editor’s decision, or after a quick expert opinion is received). Submissions that are judged unsuitable for publication in LaMa even if the mathematics is correct will be declined in a timely fashion, ideally within 2-4 weeks. This declination may be based on the article being incremental rather than a substantial contribution, the exposition not meeting the standards of a LaMa article (see below), the content being too specialized to be of interest even in broad strokes to a wide audience, or clear flaws with the approach or the results. A justification of the rejection will be given to the author, with suggestions of alternate journals when appropriate.
If the quick assessment indicates that the paper may be suitable for LaMa, editors will seek two referee reports. Editors will respect the author’s wishes of excluded referees, if this information is provided. Referees are asked to respond to the invitation within 7 days. If no response is received within 7 days, editors will seek another referee, and each referee who agrees to review a manuscript will be asked to send their report within 60 days. Editors will request and enforce that the referee’s reports provide sufficient basis for the decision, with reports designed to improve the submission rather than to criticize it.
On the author side of the relationship, we view research journals like LaMa that cover a broad range of research areas to be an opportunity for cross-fertilization between fields. We therefore ask authors to write papers whose introductions, conclusions, and significance are understandable to mathematicians who are not experts in the sub-discipline, while also providing the technical results and exposition desired by researchers in the area. Continuing on the theme of transparency as a key element in equity, we also encourage our authors to engage in transparency in their research communication. This might entail providing ample resources so that a reader can reconstruct all elements of a proof. For applied mathematicians and statisticians, this means sharing code and data used to generate their results, including all figures and tables in the paper. We realize that this is not always possible (for example, when data is subject to privacy protections) but we request that authors adhere as closely as possible to the tenets of reproducible research.
La Matematica is the first journal in the mathematical sciences helmed by women. But this is the year 2022; diversity, equity, and inclusion has to mean more than seeing more white women in positions of authority.
Research points to a homophilic interaction of identity (specifically gender and national origin) of editors and reviewers and acceptance rates. This means that less diverse editorial boards and reviewer pools lead to less equitable outcomes in acceptance rates. So we worked hard to build a diverse editorial board along multiple dimensions.
In addition to using our existing contacts through the AWM and our various Research Networks, we searched through valuable online resources including Mathematically Gifted and Black, Lathisms, and the Spectra Outlist. We read all of the biographies to identify candidates for the editorial board. After compiling a giant spreadsheet of potential Associate Editors with expertise in all areas covered by La Matematica, we invited a highly-qualified group of Associate Editors to join us on this adventure. The rest of our enormous spreadsheet of incredible researchers became a resource for quick assessments and refereeing.
We are deeply grateful to everyone who agreed to join the board of a startup journal and who has dedicated their time and energy to help us launch the journal this year.
In order to measure our success, as well as to understand and address the under-representation of great swaths of our community in research publications, we will be collecting data from LaMa editors, authors and reviewers periodically. This data will be shared with the community on the AWM website. We see this as an ongoing learning process that will help us — and perhaps others — develop practices that encourage communication and visibility of the work of all mathematical scientists.
What is written above is a set of goals, and we have not yet fully achieved them. For some goals, such as accountability and reporting, we haven’t been around long enough to collect meaningful data. For others, such as a timely and constructive review process, we are still working out some kinks in our system. We are working within the system of a major publisher. And we — all of us, including the Editors-in-Chief, the Associate Editors, the referees, and the authors — are still doing our best to muddle through the lingering pandemic and the havoc it has wrought on our lives and our ability to work. We know that we have often fallen short of our goals, especially with regard to clear communication and timely reviews.
The process of starting this journal has been a lesson in humility, and we are committed to working toward these ideals and to continue to learn and grow in our understanding of best practices in equitable publishing. We are grateful for those who have provided resources to make our job easier, in particular those who have published about equitable review processes and who have gathered information about mathematicians from specific demographic groups (Lathisms and Mathematically Gifted and Black most notably). What we do know is that the journal only exists because of the creativity and hard work of the authors who submit to us, and the insight and hard work of those who review and edit for us. For that, we thank you.
We invite you to become a part of the LaMa community, as an author, reviewer, editor, or reader. You can submit articles on Springer’s LaMa Editorial Manager, and you can contact the Editors-in-Chief to be considered for future openings on the editorial board or as a referee.
We settled on the processes outlined above after extensive research into equitable review processes and helpful conversations.
A. Meadows, Eight ways to tackle diversity in peer review, This article provides a list of concrete steps to take to address bias in peer review, including anonymous (or open) reviews, training and mentorship, data gathering, and diversity in editorial board,
D. Murray, K. Siler, V. Lariviére, W. M. Chan, A. Collings, J. Raymond, C. Sugimoto, Author-reviewer homophily in peer review, Demographics of reviewers/editorsand submitting authors affect acceptance outcomes, with similarities (homophily) leading to higher rates of acceptance.
G. Smith, Labels Matter: Methodology and and Visualization. In this recorded webinar hosted by the QSIDE Institute, Gaelen Smith discusses best practices in collecting data on identity, and things to consider when visualizing the data. The main takeaways are: free-answer questions are much better than multiple-choice questions when inquiring about identity because they allow everybody to be seen, make space in data visualizations for the unseens (i.e. the “none of the above” or “prefer not to answer” category), always question your assumptions and be willing to make changes: continue to do research, context matters: who is asking and who is answering?.
S. Thornton et al. Best Practices in Collecting Gender and Sex Data. A research paper written by a group of statisticians giving advice on how to construct a set of questions for collecting data about gender. They emphasize the importance of articulating the context of the questions before writing the questions.
Members of some professional organizations can access this e-book for free through their respective member libraries (MAA | other). The entire collection of 27 testimonios is available for purchase. We reproduce one chapter per month on inclusion/exclusion to better understand and celebrate the diversity of our mathematical community with folks who are not members of these organizations.
My story is about family, education, and service. My parents, Beatriz and Jaime, grew up in the same neighborhood in El Salvador. They were both from relatively small and low-income families. They knew each other from an early age and began dating as teenagers. When my mother finished high school, she pursued a job opportunity as an executive secretary at the United Nations and moved to New York City at the age of 19. My father, who is infinitely resourceful, found a way to follow and moved to New York shortly thereafter without knowing how to speak English and without knowing how he might support himself there. That was the beginning of a decade in New York full of momentous occasions including their wedding, the birth of their first son, my brother Jaime and two years later the birth of their second son, me. The family was complete six years later when my sister, Beatriz, was born back in El Salvador. My brother has been a musician all of his life and is now a nationally recognized liturgical musician based in Arizona. My sister is an award-winning artist and a scholar of Central American literature at Cal State Northridge. My parents have been married for 58 years now. You will hear more about them later in the chapter.
In New York, we lived in a multicultural neighborhood in Astoria, where the next-door neighbors were Greek and others were Italian. I only lived there for four and a half years and did not attend any school. My brother attended public school for a year, which he enjoyed, but not everything was reassuring to my parents. There were rumors of candy laced with drugs being given to children and other problems that, combined with the reality that my parents could not afford any private school, led them to relocate the family back to El Salvador. There, as a two-income family and substantial sacrifice, my parents could afford to send the kids to a Jesuit school, Externado de San José, where I did all 13 years of primary and secondary school.
The Jesuit School was rigorous academically and focused on social justice. There was a “social hours’’ requirement every year that could be fulfilled by volunteering at any one of a list of places kept by the school. I remember participating in food and clothing drives after storm-induced landslides devastated entire neighborhoods.
I was generally a good student, but I was not interested in every subject and I didn’t make my best effort when I was not interested. So, my grades were good in some subjects and acceptable in others. I was in seventh grade when I first discovered that I was good at mathematics. It wasn’t from positive reinforcement, but from a day in which the teacher did not agree with my conduct in class. On that day, two classmates and I were tossing a ball around the room every time the teacher had his back turned. When we were caught, he singled me out for being disruptive and said sarcastically that I shouldn’t worry because he didn’t give low grades based on conduct. A few minutes later he retaliated by writing a problem on the board and pointing at me to come up and do it in front of the class. I don’t remember the problem, but I did it right and, more importantly, I knew I had done it right before the teacher validated it.
In high school, I had very good math teachers who encouraged my interest in mathematics and made me feel important. One of my memories from that time is about a day I went to ask my algebra teacher questions about a procedure we learned in class. I distinctly remember his answer starting with “I am going to tell you something because I know you will understand.’’ This made me feel like I was being entrusted with information that the teacher considered beyond the scope of the class, but he knew I was capable of understanding. It was a simple statement but it had a huge impact on me. I think of that statement and choose words carefully when I talk to students now because I don’t know which statements will resonate with them.
My high school cohort was organized as a community. We arranged for one or two of us to lead tutoring sessions in different subjects for the benefit of the other students. I was selected to lead the mathematics sessions and attended sections in chemistry as a student. Outside academics, I was interested in soccer and classical guitar. I was good at soccer and played with the school team for most of my years there. Classical guitar was a different story because it was clear right away that my brother was much better at it and I wasn’t going to be in the same category as him. So I took it slowly and played only as a hobby.
Discrimination exists everywhere, even in places with little racial diversity, where the victims are those with darker skin tones and the poor. We were taught to care for the less fortunate and advocate for those who don’t have a voice or are not heard. How to do this in practice was not clear. Food drives were important and necessary at critical times, but their effect was momentary and didn’t produce long-term benefits. The political environment in El Salvador reached a boiling point after decades of oppression of the poor (which was the majority of the country) by a series of military governments. A war broke out when I was a teenager and life became difficult. I knew people who were killed or physically disabled from bullets. Childhood friends left the country on a moment’s notice. I knew the smell of teargas and the anxiety of having to get home before curfew. All of us did.
A family decision was made that when my older brother and I finished high school we would move to the United States to go to college. We were lucky because we were U.S. citizens and could travel freely. Still, the reality was that my family could not afford to send two kids to college. Nevertheless, I was one school year behind my brother, so he went first.
Nobody in my immediate family had a university degree except one of my uncles who was an architect. Certainly, no one in my family knew a scientist or artists who made a living as artists, so when my brother mentioned that he liked music and I mentioned I liked mathematics, the advice was that we study something that my parents viewed as a career, like engineering, rather than a science or an art, which they only knew as a subject matter without a realistic option of a career. My parents’ position was that we could study anything we wanted as long as we had engineering to fall back on.
My older brother left El Salvador and moved to the United States as a freshman majoring in engineering at Arizona State University (ASU). A few years earlier Jaime spent nine weeks in Arizona as an exchange student and he maintained close contact with the host family, the Langstons, who became an extension to our family and remain so to this day. Having them nearby was a great relief to my parents and the number one reason for choosing ASU. A year later, when it was my turn to move out, I also went to ASU and began my studies in mechanical engineering. Moving to Arizona was a cultural shock in every way. I had just turned 18 and went from living with my parents in San Salvador to the dorms in Tempe. I did not know how the educational system worked, how the social system worked, and, while I thought I spoke English, I didn’t understand half of what people said to me. When I did understand, it took time for me to find the words to answer. My personality was different without the vocabulary to tell jokes or say something clever. I also felt some pressure to contribute financially to my education before depleting my parents’ savings.
I do not remember anyone who spoke Spanish in the dorms where I lived with my brother. The only exception was a father and son team from Mexico, who worked at the dorm cafeteria cleaning and washing dishes. After speaking with them a few times I found out that I could work at the cafeteria for minimum wage, which was not a lot, but if I worked the breakfast and dinner shifts I could get my food for free. So that’s what I did to earn some money during my first semester in college. On weekends, I had a second job as a referee for young kid’s soccer games. I had a bicycle that got me to the different locations and I had a lot of fun refereeing. After a few months, my English was getting better and my studies were going well. I knew there was University-sponsored tutoring in mathematics and I thought perhaps I could do that so I applied for the job. I started tutoring calculus while I was still a freshman and I kept adding more tutoring courses to my repertoire every semester. I worked as a tutor with that University program until I graduated.
I earned enough at my jobs to pay for my living expenses excluding tuition. I had inherited some of my father’s resourcefulness, and I found out that there were many scholarships and grants opportunities that I qualified for. Some of them provided a couple of hundred dollars, others were a little larger. Every year I would apply for a handful of scholarships in hopes I would be awarded some. This system worked well for the rest of my time at ASU without having to take on any loans.
My engineering advisor, Dr. Davidson, was helpful. He always took the time to talk with me and to work with my ideas. The school of engineering offered its own mathematics courses “for engineers.’’ When I told him that I preferred to take the equivalent courses from the mathematics department, he approved every one. A conversation with him that changed my academic path without my realizing it took place when I had run out of mathematics courses in the engineering program. I told him that I liked mathematics and that I wanted to continue taking one math class every semester even if they were not required. He said that if I was serious about it, that I should add mathematics as a second major. I didn’t know that one could do that, but I thought it was a great idea. I became a double major that day.
Family and Education
I did not finish my bachelor’s degrees simultaneously. I finished my mathematics degree first and had a few courses left to take in mechanical engineering. My brother Jaime switched majors from engineering to music, which was his passion in the first place, and graduated a year after I did. A few years later, my younger sister, who was born and raised in El Salvador was unable to make steady progress in her studies due to the political instability in the country. In a moment’s notice, she moved to Arizona, where my brother lived, and continued her education at ASU. She earned a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies. A few years later, as a professor at Cal State Northridge, she found the time to attend CalArts and complete a master’s in Fine Arts. Now she has two concurrent careers: art, which is her passion, and the faculty position where she inspires students in the Department of Central American and Transborder Studies.
When my brother and his wife Kari started a family, my parents didn’t want to miss the chance to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren and decided to also make a move from El Salvador to Arizona. They were in their early fifties and did not know what type of jobs might be available to them, but family was most important. As it turns out they were able to find jobs and had time to enjoy the grandchildren. My mother worked as an interpreter in the courts of the city of Mesa, where she was able to take classes to earn a particular certification.
More importantly, taking college courses revived her desire to earn a university degree, which had been on hold for years. She started taking courses at the local college and sometimes at ASU. My father, who didn’t want to feel left out, decided to take some courses as well. They were motivated to finish and declared majors in justice studies (Mom) and studio art (Dad). Their three kids had degrees from ASU and now it was their turn. My parents graduated from ASU together in 2004.
Many people have similar stories about how they ended up in graduate school. For me, the path was not straight, mostly because I did not know what people did in graduate school or what the future held for somebody with a graduate degree. But some of my ASU math friends were better informed and applied to graduate programs. Among them was Stella, who is from Los Alamos where her father was a scientist. She went to the University of California (UC) Berkeley for graduate school in mathematics. During her first semester there, when I stayed behind finishing engineering, I communicated with her and she encouraged me to apply to Berkeley. She said a lot of great things about it; I trusted her. So I decided to apply to the mathematics graduate program at Berkeley; in case that didn’t work, I started interviewing for engineering jobs. That was the master plan. Besides the graduate application to Berkeley, I sent one to Arizona State University because my advisor suggested I do that.
I didn’t know much about graduate programs or if a master’s degree was a prerequisite for a PhD degree. I knew Berkeley was a top-tier institution. I was worried about my academic preparation. I decided to apply to the master’s program with the intention of switching to the PhD program after a year. I don’t know if I discussed this issue with anyone or if I did it on my own. To this day, I believe that decision made it possible for me to get a PhD. I wasn’t ready for a rigorous program. It was absolutely necessary for me to spend my first year of graduate school taking upper-division undergraduate courses.
There is a story about the way I found out I was admitted. During spring break, I still had not heard back from Berkeley. So, I decided to take a 13-hour road trip and visit the campus. I walked around the hallways, listened to conversations, and tried to get an idea of the environment. I went to the math office, and they sent me to the graduate coordinator. He asked the secretary for my application, but she couldn’t find it so, he looked on his desk and found it among a bunch of other applications. He picked it up, opened it, and said: “you are admitted.’’
When I walked out of the graduate coordinator’s office, I crossed paths with a Latino student, but we did not exchange words. By an unbelievable coincidence, he was a PhD student from El Salvador, whose father had been a teacher at the Jesuit school that I attended. Herbert Medina found out that I was an incoming student and he sent me copies of past preliminary exams for me to study in advance. Since then, Herbert has been a source of support over the years to me and hundreds of other students. He is now Acting President at the University of Portland.
In Berkeley, I became more aware of the problems faced by underrepresented minorities, especially as they relate to access to education. It was around this time that I learned about SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and I attended their conference for the first time. It was a relatively small meeting held in January, and I really liked the idea of providing opportunities for undergraduate students to learn about graduate school and careers in scientific research.
I became involved in SACNAS by attending the annual meetings and eventually becoming a student board member. I did not miss many SACNAS conferences for the next 25 years and worked along with many others to increase and enhance the mathematics component of the conference. Over the years, we organized mathematics sessions at the conference and created a task force that wrote proposals to fund the participation of mathematics students. Later, we were able to connect the mathematical sciences research institutes to SACNAS so that more members of underrepresented minorities could learn about the institutes and perhaps participate in their programs in the future.
As a graduate student I was already interested in education and had the opportunity to work for programs that tried to make a difference in the education of students who were marginalized and didn’t have advocates. I got connected to these programs through friends who were in graduate programs in mathematics education. At the time, I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to determine the likelihood of success of these intervention programs or if they were designed based on best practices or research. Looking back I can see that some of those programs had little chance of success when, for example, they hired early graduate students like me to teach a course at the local high school (with no training) in order to correct a systemic problem like tracking, where students of color are often placed in remedial mathematics courses, which eventually limits their opportunities in college. At the time I didn’t have the maturity to understand that I was spending a large portion of my time on activities that were noble but had little chance of effecting lasting change. Today, I would strongly advise students to dedicate the academic year to their PhD studies and get involved in equity work only during part of the summer. Otherwise, the risk of falling behind in their studies is too great.
My time in the PhD program was full of nerve-racking moments when I needed supporters to make it through. My entire first year was an example of one. This was because, at the time, the UC Berkeley mathematics department admitted many more students than they expected to complete the program. The justification was that by doing so, they gave opportunities to students who wouldn’t usually have them. However, specific support systems for all of us to succeed were difficult to find. As a result, most of the students in my cohort dropped out of the program in the first year. The transition from undergraduate to graduate student required redesigning my study habits, learning to read textbooks, and knowing when to keep trying to solve a problem and when to ask for guidance. I took the first-year exams twice without success. There was a process to petition for a third try, which I did and passed the exams. I had made the transition.
Another nerve-racking moment was asking a professor to be my dissertation advisor. I had taken two courses with Alexandre Chorin, and I decided that I would like to work under his supervision. I didn’t know exactly how to ask or if he would accept, so it took me a few days to finally go to his office to ask him if he would be my advisor. His reply was “I was hoping that would be the case.’’ I immediately knew I was in good hands. He was a great source of support, especially when I felt discouraged or questioned my ability to finish. When I graduated, I received an award for an outstanding dissertation in applied mathematics.
The Summer Math Institute
One program that had a huge impact on me was the Summer Math Institute at Berkeley. It was created by Uri Treisman and mathematics professor Leon Henkin specifically to address the underrepresentation of people of color in mathematics. Black, Latinx, and Native American undergraduates spent six to eight weeks at UC Berkeley taking a fast-paced course in an area of advanced mathematics for a couple of weeks before transitioning to group research projects. I was a graduate student at the time and worked as a Teaching Assistant in this program for two summers. The mathematics, as well as the engagement in research, were new to the students. The program had an administrator making sure that students and instructors had everything they needed to do their work and also organizing social events.
The students were divided into two groups of 12 where each group worked on a different mathematical topic. The program also included outside speakers and professional development seminars on how to give technical presentations, how to write technical papers, what graduate school is like, and how to apply. This format, with some modifications, became the model for the design of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP), a research program for undergraduates that I co-created in 2007, and that is still going strong.
Postdoctoral and Faculty Years
Near the end of my graduate program, I applied for a National Science Foundation grant to go to NYU for three years as a postdoctoral researcher. I also applied for jobs in other places, including the National Security Agency which hires the largest number of mathematicians in the country. During a phone interview, they said that due to security risks, their employees had to sever ties with people from a list of countries that included El Salvador. I pointed out that it was impossible for me and others with family in Latin America to comply, and therefore, their policy was discriminatory toward Latinxs. I was not invited to the next interview. A decade later, I found out that the policy was still in place when a graduate student at Tulane University was forced to give up an NSA fellowship because his girlfriend was from a Latin American country on the list.
I got the National Science Foundation fellowship, which brought me back to New York, closing a circular path in my life. Besides being a time of professional growth, it was in New York where I met Kathy, who was in charge of grants administration at the Courant Institute at NYU. Kathy and I moved to New Orleans to work at Tulane University and have been together ever since. She has been a selfless supporter throughout the years and brightens every day of my life.
Working toward systemic changes involving deeply rooted practices requires actions from many angles and a substantial investment of energy and time. Even when institutions are willing to change, they call on the few people of color to do much of the groundwork. This disproportionate request to do equity work has led some to decline such invitations. While change happens at a frustratingly slow pace, there are two things that I try to remember. One is that this is a lifelong endeavor most likely to be characterized by incremental changes before major breakthroughs can happen. The second one is that to be effective in this work one has to be successful by the current measures of the system. For this reason it is important to recognize key moments when one must focus on professional advancement and self-promotion in order to reach positions of influence where one’s efforts can be more effective in the long term.
I came to understand this during my postdoctoral years, which I dedicated to establishing a research program that would lead to a good academic job and extend through the transition to faculty member. As a professor, I made the decision to dedicate time to work toward increasing the participation of people of color in mathematics at the cost of a reduction in research publications and other professional output. This was my personal decision and it is not a recommendation. It required constant assessment to make sure that I advanced professionally. As an Assistant Professor I declined invitations to lead undergraduate research programs until after tenure. Instead, I involved small groups of undergraduate students of color in projects connected to my own research that would produce publishable results. I was lucky to have the mentorship of members of the SACNAS community, and especially of my colleague, long-time collaborator and friend, Lisa Fauci. Their support was critical to overcome setbacks and any obstacles placed in front of me.