Thursday, January 26, 2012

One Girl's Romp Through MIT's Male Math Maze -- The Play to be Peformed at Mount Holyoke

On my way home from UMass Amherst today, I spoke with a neighbor of mine, Dr. Margaret Minsky (I am sure that you recognize the surname, especially if you have had some computer science), who, appropriately, has a PhD in Computer Science from MIT.

Then, coincidentally, when I arrived home, the headline of an article in the Amherst Bulletin immediately caught my attention (and it came with a photo):

MATH WHIZ: Play recalls tough days at male-dominated MIT.

The article was about a play written by Gioia de Cari. It was the late 1980s when Gioia de Cari was a doctoral student in math at MIT, having earlier received a degree in math from UC Berkeley.

She spent 4 years at MIT, earned her master's degree, wrote part of her dissertation, but did not complete it.

The experience for her at MIT was very different from that at UC Berkeley. She even would change her attire to try to figure out how to best fit in and a male professor expected her to serve cookies at a seminar. It was even suggested to her by professors and students that she'd be happier at home raising children.

Eventually, she realized that theater was her passion and she became a full-time actor but she started writing down her "math stories" in a journal and had started working on plays. She also began to wonder whether the climate had improved for females in math.

Then came the Larry Summers bombshell. de Cari was at the academic conference at Harvard in January 2005, when Dr. Summers, then the President of Harvard, suggested that innate differences between men and women, rather than discrimination, could be one reason that fewer women succeeded at math and science.

Her reaction to the media response and backlash to Professor Nancy Hopkins of MIT walking out of the conference, led her (she said that she felt an obligation) to complete the play: Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through MIT's Math Maze. It took her ten years to write.

The play will be presented Monday, Feb. 6, at Mount Holyoke College's Rooke Theatre at 7:30 p.m.

The Springfield Republican has a terrific article about the play and the playwright:

Gioia De Cari's 1-woman play at Mount Holyoke College to explore the question 'Are women inherently inferior to men in math and science?'

The article also quotes the wife of a colleague of mine, who served for a long time as the chair of the math department at Mount Holyoke, Dr. Margaret Robinson, who said:

“The topic is what graduate school in mathematics is like, in particular for women,” "But those studying science, computer science, physics, chemistry and biology will also relate."

The performance is also “good theater,” she said.

I was a doctoral student in Applied Math at Brown University in the 1980s and can honestly say I consciously chose as my dissertation the only female faculty member in Applied Math, Dr. Stella Dafermos. She also had a faculty appointment in Engineering and, yes, she was also the only female faculty member in Engineering.

In 2005-2006, I was a Science Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University, and you can read some of my reflections on meeting Dr. Summers on this blog (and we even got treated to dinner at his presidential home).

I had spent two years at MIT (one year in Engineering and one year at the Sloan School of Management) in the late 1980s and 1990.The climate has been changing and there are now more female faculty that I can name off the top of my head (several of whom I know quite well). Interestingly, they all received their PhDs from MIT or had a chair of their doctoral dissertation from MIT.