Math Is Personal

Math Is Personal
Image Credit: Photo by Math is Personal on The Atlantic

The mathematician Federico Ardila-Mantilla grew up in Colombia, an indifferent student but gifted in math. He was failing most of his classes at his high school in Bogotá when someone suggested he apply to MIT. He had not heard of the school. To his surprise, he got in, and he went on scholarship. Mathematically, he did well. One of his professors—an acid-tongued theoretician known to compare his audience to a herd of cows—routinely tucked “open” math problems into homework assignments, without telling the students. These had never been solved by anyone. Ardila solved one. He went on to receive his bachelor’s and Ph.D. in math from MIT.

But his academic experience was also one of isolation. Part of it had to do with his own introversion. (An outgoing mathematician, the joke goes, is someone who looks at your shoes when talking to you instead of their own.) Part of it was cultural. As a Latino, he was very much in the minority in the department, and he did not feel comfortable in American mathematical spaces. No one had tried to explicitly exclude him, yet he felt alone. In math, collaborating with others opens up new kinds of learning and thinking. But in his nine years at MIT, Ardila worked with others only twice.

At the time, he didn’t clearly see the problem. But later, as a professor, he noticed a pattern. Ardila’s Black, Latino, and women students who went on to Ph.D. programs also told stories of isolation and exclusion, of trying to join a study group but finding that no one wanted to work with them. Indeed, research has shown, STEM students from ethnic and racial minorities often feel isolated on university campuses, and women STEM students find themselves routinely denigrated and underestimated, even when outperforming men.

Mathematics as an academic field is notoriously homogenous—mostly White or Asian and male—and though mathematicians are not seen as the epitome of masculinity, the culture is macho and aggressive. “Abusive language,” Ardila told me, “is completely normalized.” Although the elders of the field set this tone, the tradition is carried on by younger professors. Andrés Vindas-Meléndez, one of Ardila’s former grad students, described to me an experience he had as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when he asked an adviser for a signature on the forms needed to declare the mathematics major.  “You’re not going to be a mathematician,” the adviser had told him. As Vindas-Meléndez was walking out the door, the adviser said, “Don’t embarrass yourself. And don’t embarrass the department.”