Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Female Academic Who Did It in Reverse Order and a Painful Anniversary

The recent AAUW report, which I blogged about, has certainly stirred up the waters, and I thank Dana Chivvis of AOLNews for further disseminating the important news about this study on how sterotypes and bias hurt women in math and science.

Now for some background on my personal history. In a sense, I was lucky, since I chose, while I was a doctoral student in Applied Mathematics at Brown University, a female as my dissertation advisor. Her name was Dr. Stella Dafermos, and she was the ONLY female who had an appointment in either the Division of Applied Mathematics or in Engineering (let's say that she was "double-counted," something I have experienced as well). She was also a mother with two children and her husband, Dr. Constantine Dafermos, was a very well-known applied mathematician, who was a Professor at Brown. I was Stella's first doctoral student and the impact that she had on me was tremendous. She was only the second female to receive a PhD in Operations Research in the world and she died at age 49 of cancer. I wrote her obituary in the top journal "Operations Research," and she was one of only a handful honored in that way.

On April 5, 2010, we mark the 20th anniversary of the death of this great female scholar, whose numerous research contributions in transportation, networks, spatial economics, game theory, algorithms, and variational inequalities have made and continue to make a great impact. Oh, the adventures that we had with Stella during conferences in Canada, Holland, Greece, Japan, the USA, among other places.

Now I am conducting research on paradoxes and the work that Stella and I did together and published I am now using years after (and many others have, in the meantime, as well). She had an uncanny intuition and great attention to detail and exceptional creativity.

As for "doing it in reverse order," female academics do not have it easy. First, I got tenure (after 4 years, which is unusually quick). Then I became a Full Professor (8 years after my PhD) -- the first one in the history (or should I say "herstory") in the Isenberg School (and the number of letters that were solicited for my Full is probably a record but one has to make sure that a female is "good enough," I guess). Then I had a child and after a month of "sick leave," granted to me less than willingly, I was back to teaching. That major event followed with my getting my driver's license (and that is quite the story in itself) but I had felt that I could be quite objective researching transportation, networks, and logistics, w/o a driver's license. Besides, while growing up in Yonkers we almost always took public transportation and spent a great deal of time in NYC and, as an academic, most of the interesting invitations that I was receiving required air travel. Robert Moses never got his license and neither did Barbara Walters, so I always thought that I was in rather "good company."

We need female faculty in technical fields to show new generations of students what is possible. Remember, once you solve that research problem that you have been struggling with, and all the pieces of the puzzle fall beautifully in place, that feeling is close to ecstasy. Noone can take that feeling away from you but also, remember, you had better publish that result, as well.