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FAU student joining select subset of black women with math Ph.D.

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by Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post

112108 met GIRL MATH.jpgMary Hopkins doesn’t see herself as smart. She says this even as she finishes a talk on advanced mathematical principles at Florida Atlantic University that includes words such as numerical monoids and finite polynomials.

Hopkins, 36, will graduate this school year with a math doctorate from FAU – one of five math Ph.D.s that are expected to go to the largest class of women in the school’s history.

Hopkins is unusual for another reason.

She also will be the first black woman to earn a doctorate in math from FAU and only the third among all state universities since at least 1990.

When told of her pending place in FAU’s record books, she said she was “kind of aware of it” – a modesty that extends to her assessment of her algebraic ability.

“I just had very encouraging teachers,” said Hopkins, who spent a full hour last week working out a lengthy math question in front of her classmates and professors.

The gathering is a regular occurrence in FAU’s math department, where cookies and coffee come with lessons in cryptography.

“I’ve heard of math teachers not encouraging females, especially minorities, but all of my professors are so great, and they’re all old white men,” Hopkins said.

FAU awarded its first doctorate in math in 1992. Since then it has given out 15 math doctorates – only three of them to women.

“In 2009, it’s going to be five female students to graduate, which is very good news, I think, for the department,” said Bashak Ay, a 29-year-old from Turkey who expects to be one of the graduates.

“Women are getting more involved in math. Times are changing.”

The other women slated to earn math Ph.D.s this school year from FAU are Marcela Chiorescu, Zhihua Liu and Viktoria Villanyi.

FAU math administrators said they didn’t do anything special to recruit more women into their doctoral program and believe there’s a natural increase of women studying math as traditional stereotypes fall away.

Nationally, there are several efforts under way to put women on the math track, said Nathaniel Dean, president of the National Association of Mathematicians.

Dean’s group holds special conferences to encourage undergraduate math majors, especially women, to pursue graduate degrees.

The National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences sponsored a conference at Iowa State University this month that also was geared toward getting more minorities and women interested in pursuing higher-level math degrees.

“There’s a lot more conscious effort to find these students,” said Dean, who is a math professor at Texas State University-San Marcos.

State and national statistics show increases, possibly reflecting the recruitment efforts.

In the past decade, the number of women earning doctorates in math from Florida’s public universities has fluctuated but generally increased.

In 2002, just two women were awarded doctorates in math from a Florida school, while 19 earned the degree in 2007.

Nationally, 273 women earned math Ph.D.s in 1997, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That grew to 382 in 2006 – a 40 percent increase – while men earned 911 math doctorates that year.

“I expect it to continue increasing,” said Bill Kalies, an FAU math professor and graduate student adviser. “There’s been this cultural or social thing with math where it wasn’t something women do, but I think more and more women are getting around that.”

It takes about six years to complete a doctorate.

For FAU student Villanyi, 33, who is from Hungary, math started at age 4 with a Rubik’s Cube.

“My dad couldn’t put it together, and I said, ‘Let me try, let me try,’ ” she said. “I was just always good at math.”

So was Hopkins, but she did not recognize the value of her talent until college.

Growing up in Baltimore, she always thought she would become a doctor.

But she’d end up choosing advanced math classes, even when they were not required, and decided she should consider majoring in math. Her specialty is algebra.

“Math is the right thing. It’s what I’m supposed to be studying,” said Hopkins, who hopes to become a professor. “I just found my niche.”

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Written by Symphony

December 5, 2008 at 8:39 am

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