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Black Math PhD’s Hold UC Meet To Swell Ranks

Friday June 25, 2004

Kimberly Sellers says that one of her most vivid memories from childhood is of helping her father, every year, track the number of African Americans graduating with doctorates from American universities. She remembers it so well, she says, because the nu mbers were always dismally low, usually in the single digits. 

Ever since, Sellers has wanted to help change those numbers and just recently, she did. In 2001, Sellers graduated from George Washington University in Washington D.C., with her Ph.D. in Statistics. 

Today, she is a visiting professor of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, and this week she was in Berkeley for part of the tenth annual African American Researchers Conference sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Along with almost 80 other African American math professors and Ph.D. students, Sellers spent the week attending and giving lectures as part of the conference originally developed to sustain and increase the number of African Americans working at the highest levels of mathematics. 

As the only African American in her undergraduate department, the only African American in her Masters program, the only African American in her Ph.D. program, and now the only African American facu lty member in the Statistics Department, Sellers said it’s been readily apparent that she’s “very much a minority” in the field of mathematics. That’s where conferences like the one held at MSRI fit in, she said.  

MSRI is housed at UC Berkeley, but is no t officially part of the campus. 

Sellers attended the first conference, held ten years ago in Berkeley. Subsequent conferences were held around the country before returning to Berkeley. She came a decade ago as what she described as a “little graduate st udent,” an experience she said helped give her the boost and support she needed to continue. According to conference organizers, there are 50 other success stories like Sellers where graduate students have attended the conference and gone on to complete their doctorates in mathematics and subsequently secured important research and teaching jobs. 

Besides teaching, Sellers is working on a project that uses statistics to map changes in proteins attacked by diseases like cancer. 

According to Bob Megginson, the deputy director of MSRI, conference organizers started the conference because, like Sellers, they noticed that low numbers of African Americans with doctorates in mathematics was a pervasive problem. Conference organizers said African Americans recei ve about two percent of the doctorates earned in mathematics every year. African Americans make up more than 10 percent of the American population. 

Since the conference started, organizers have seen the numbers increase for African Americans graduating w ith doctorates in mathematics. And while they don’t take all the credit, they do take some, said Megginson. 

“What’s great about this is you take a look at the first group photo of graduate students who are now back as solid professionals who are giving p rofessional talks,” said Megginson. 

On top of generally being discouraged because of low numbers already in the field, socio-economic problems are also pervasive, said organizers. Students who come from low-income areas find that they are behind by the t ime they get to college and are immediately discouraged. Other times, students just don’t have the time or the money to pursue math.  

“They have to look around for a major that they can handle in the time they have money for,” said Megginson.  

Mathemati cs, which often takes more than four years, and at least on the surface doesn’t seem like a major that will produce an immediate job, is not one of the majors these students choose, he said. 

For African Americans, said Bill Massey, the main organizer for the conference and a mathematics professor at Princeton University, math is like the reality show on MTV where a group of kids tried to audition with P. Diddy for a new band. 

“Every kid was black, except for one white kid,” said Massey. “Someone asked h im, ‘What’s it like to be a white rapper?’ He said, ‘It’s like heaven and hell. Because I’m white, I’m the first one everyone notices. It’s bad because I’m white and I’m the last one everyone respects.’ It’s similar but reversed in math.” 

But even with a ll the limitations, say organizers, there are plenty of success stories, even for those that came before the conference. Organizers say that J. Earnest Wilkins, Jr., a conference participant for the past ten years, is by far one of the most important cont ributors to the field of mathematics, even at the age of 80. Wilkins earned the title “the Negro Genius” because he entered the University of Chicago at 13. By 19, he had his Ph.D. He said he regrets not getting it by 18, but explained that he temporarily had a love interest that delayed things till just after his 19th birthday. At the time, he was the first African American to get his Ph.D. in math, and only the eighth African American to get a Ph.D., period. 

Wilkins said he comes to the conference because he feels he has “an obligation to the younger folks to show them they can succeed.”  

Other presentations this year also included a project by Juan E. Gilbert, a newly-appointed professor at Auburn University, which uses a special algorithm to aid in admission departments’ comprehensive review programs. The project, which grew out of the Supreme Court cases concerning diversity at the University of Michigan, groups students into clusters based on their application information. Diversity is then achiev ed by a selection from the various clusters. 

“It doesn’t tell them who gets in, it just helps them make better judgment calls,” said Gilbert.