Return to the AWM Home Page

Return to the AWM Forums page

Supporting the Diverse Personal Lives of Mathematicians

This online forum continues the discussion begun at the 2004 AWM Annual Meeting in Phoenix panel on "Supporting the diverse personal lives of mathematicians". The discussion addressed challenges faced by mathematicians in the context of their personal lives: solving gay/lesbian two-body problems, special-needs and single parenting, coping with loss or isolation, and preserving one's culture. The organizers of the panel were Helen Moore, Carolyn Gordon, Christina Sormani and Marianne Korten. The panelists were Elizabeth Bradley, Robert Bryant, Jerome Dancis, Dawn Lott, Cleopatria Martinez and Elizabeth Stanhope. Here we expand this panel to include more mathematicians. We are mentioned on an AAUP webpage.

A new relevant website on Family Leave.

Anyone who would like to contribute should send Christina Sormani ( an email with their posting in text not as an attachment, so that it can easily turned into html. We do not have secretarial assistance for the project. Please click here to review legal issues before reading or submitting contributions to this forum. All contributions are the property of the contributors and the contributors should be consulted before quoting them.

We hope that the contributors will address the following two basic questions after providing a brief description of their personal life as related to their mathematics career.

  • In what ways has this aspect of your personal life affected your career as a mathematician and how did you choose to deal with it?
  • In what ways could/did your department/institution provide support? In what ways could the mathematics community provide support?

For the sake of organization, we've broken the discussion into several categories. Of course, one may contribute to more than one category.

Categories: (click on a category to view contributions)

  • On race, religion and ethnicity: including the desire to preserve one's culture, expectations both from within one's ethnicity and from outside, misunderstanding, discrimination, alienation...
  • On sexuality: including solving lesbian/gay 2-body problems, transsexuality, dealing with discrimiation in the workplace...
  • On being a single parent: including widows, divorcees, those who have a child out of wedlock,
    and parents with unsolved 2-body problems
  • On being single: including issues of isolation and workloads...
  • On extended families: including maintaining relationships with parents, building relationships with step children, and dealing with other relations via divorce...
  • On caring for family members: including parenting children with special needs and caring for a spouse with multiple schlerosis
  • On illness: including cancer, difficult pregnancies, depression...
  • On loss: including mourning, depression and recovery...
  • On background: including building a career from a poor background...

Since information about dealing with two body problems and parenting in general have been addressed in previous forums we do not address these issues here at this time. Feel free to suggest new categories at any time.

In response to the January panel, the AWM president, Carolyn Gordon, has asked that all departments supply a contact list to job candidates before they interview for a job. We ask that people contribute to this list.

Check out Maintenance for the Woman Mathematician's soul, a website with recommended reading and movies.

New York University has an accreditted Faculty and Staff Assistance Program which helps its full time employees deal with a wide range of personal problems.

Back to Categories

On race, religion and ethnicity:

Back to Categories

On sexuality:

Back to Categories

On being a single parent:

Back to Categories

On being single:

Back to Categories

On extended families:

Back to Categories

On caring for family members:

Back to Categories

On illness:

Back to Categories

On loss:

Back to Categories

On background:

From here on we've included the actual contributions. This is being done in one file because it makes it easier to make copies of this forum and distribute it. Please use the links above to navigate the remainder of this page.


"An out job search"

In anticipation of my finishing graduate school in the spring of 2002, my partner and I embarked on a job search in the fall of 2001. We decided to move to where I was hired, and then she would conduct a more local search. In this posting, I'll describe my experience in the various phases of the job search: applications, interviews and final negotiations.

Together we narrowed in on about fifty positions to which I applied. Many factors went into choosing these fifty including: a good match between my goals and those of the institution hiring, proximity to family (my own or my in-laws) and local potential for my partner's career plans. We also tried to gauge how friendly an area might be to lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans [LGBT] individuals. Failure of any one condition wouldn't cut a school from the list but combinations such as isolated schools (hard for my partner to find work) in regions with loosely organized LGBT communities (hard for two women to raise kids together) would bump a job.

Before going further it is important to point out that I conducted an out job search. LGBT people can be out to varying degrees; I like to be fairly open about my sexual orientation. Others may choose to be more closeted and it is important to respect that choice. I was not concerned about remaining closeted about my sexual orientation during the job search. Instead, I feared landing a tenure-track job in a department (or town) that was unprepared for a queer colleague (or neighbor).

Because of this fear I wrote two versions of my application package. In applying to tenure-track jobs I included a reference in my C.V. to an LGBT speaker series that I had co-organized as a graduate student. I did not include this in applications to short term positions. Although this type of work doesn't necessarily imply anything about my identity, including it in my C.V. opened the door for allies to come forward. Perhaps it also filtered out schools that view LGBT activism negatively, but there is no way to confirm this.

During campus interviews one question I was hoping to answer was, How difficult will it be for two queer women to live together openly in this community? I never felt comfortable overtly asking this question however.

Language and protocol for addressing issues such as this didnt seem to exist for both myself and interview committees. During several interviews situations arose that indirectly informed me about the local LGBT environment. In one case, I had dinner with an LGBT department member and his partner, in other cases interview committees made casual statements that signaled LGBT friendliness. While I was receptive to these indirectmessages (planned or unplanned I cant say) raising my questions directly still felt too risky. Initiating a conversation about sexual orientation with any unfamiliar group is very challenging let alone doing this with people who are evaluating you as a job candidate.

Each university or college I have worked at has had a faculty or staff member who serves as a contact person for the LGBT community. It would have been great to have met with contact people during campus interviews. As system to arrange such meetings, without jeopardizing confidentiality, would be very useful. Perhaps interview committees could compile a list of campus organizations, including names of contact people, and mail them to candidates before on-campus interviews. Candidates could then arrange a private meeting during an open block of time in the interview schedule.

The final stage of the job search was negotiating job offers. This was a stressful (and wonderful) time when my partner and I were making important joint decisions. We received crucial support from professional mentors during this process. I cant imagine discussing offers with my mathematical mentors while attempting to hide my partners existence. Efforts from mentors to be affirming of my entire identity were very important to my graduate experience and job hunt.

Once clear way for an institution to support its lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community members is to build an environment in which it is safe to be out. Schools in my graduate university contributed financially to establish and maintain an LGBT graduate student organization. The university included the organization in new student orientation events and publications. My graduate department placed a high value on providing a welcoming and supportive environment for all of its members. This included openness toward everyones family situation, as well as commitment to maintain gender balance in the graduate program.

For more information on being an ally to the LGBT community check out the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) webpage. There is also an email listserv for LGBT mathematicians and their allies.

posted on January 12, 2004
by Liz Stanhope

Illness and Injury

Heart Valve Surgery and Recovery

On May 2, 2001, while at University of Michigan, I underwent heart valve replacement surgery at Univ. of Michigan hospitals. The faulty valve complete surprise. Looking back, I will make the following observations:

Departmental level:

When one knows that major surgery is going to take place, it is best to plan for longer time that expected for recovery. I anticipated being able to return to normal that fall, and physically, it seems as if I had. However, I was so mentally exhausted from both surgery and physical therapy, that I was unable to do any math until about February. I think, personally, many people didn't appreciate the extent of what I went through, because I was able to show up and teach my classes. There was no official medical leave since I had the surgery a few days after classes ended and was teaching by the next fall. I talked to Associate Chair about getting an easy assignment in case recovery was not complete, but never we never discussed other options, like medical leave, shifting to spring semester, etc. Best advice: Talk to the dept or college and learn what your options are and always plan on recovery lasting longer than expected.

Personal level:

I had read that heart lung machines have an adverse effect on the mental abilities of heart patients, but was told by doctors repeatedly that such a thing was not going to happen to me, due to age (31). The truth was somewhere in between, for I spent the summer not mentally up for research. I recall reading an article and thinking it was so deep and confusing. I was mentally not myself for a few months and didn't get back to attempting serious research until the following February. Added to the distractions of pre-surgery, I had not done math for about a year. I reread the article and realized how much easier it was this time. I resumed a research program, but felt far behind. Still do to this day. My medication makes me feel rundown at the end of the day, something that never happened before. I try to plan around this, and make adjustments to teaching schedule with that in mind. In addition, I try to stay at home when I can so that I can work without the hassle of commuting to the office, etc., allowing for extra research time.

Math community level:

When my postdoc at Umich was ending and I was applying for jobs, I put a note on my C.V. that this had happened. I wondered if that was the right thing to do. I am curious if people saw it and what effect it had. Was it considered an excuse? Was it not even read? Did they just look at publications list and skip it? Did they think I was much older? I honestly don't know and may never find out. This is interesting to me, because it appears that the note went unnoticed here at USF. Or maybe it was forgotten.

posted January 7, 2004
by Prof. Thomas Bieske
Dept. of Mathematics
University of South Florida

Being Single

A Single Postdoc

I was single during my postdoc years. Actually I had an out-of-state boyfriend, but that added to the lonliness. To deal with it, I had roomates who were graduate students in math. This had the added benefit of allowing me to save dollars for flights.

There is no question that I worked more hours at that time than I do now that I'm a mother. I work about 45 hours a week now. Then I worked 9am-10pm 4 days a week and 9-3 Fridays (hmm only 50 hours). I've always eaten lunch in my office although I did go to teas as a postdoc.

I didn't resent the extra hours. They were for my career, my chance to solve the conjecture I was working on. My service was probably only 6 hours a week. I was often told I spent too much time on teaching. Sadly I didn't solve the conjecture, but no one else has either :).

Safety has always been a concern of mine because I work late hours (even now that I'm married). I try to walk to my car with a colleague, a student or call the campus police. Sometimes I don't have the time. I'm most nervous when I've recently failed a student. I've never worked on a campus with a high crime rate. I've never been stalked but know two women mathematicians that were.

I was sexually harassed once. I invited a colleague to lunch since I was bored eating alone and wanted to get to know him. He was old enough to be my father. He made a few comments about my figure, asked if I minded, when I said I did, he laughed. So he was trying to make me feel uncomfortable. not trying to seduce me. I was pretty pissed and walked out. When I unofficially complained to the appropriate office I was told that the fact that I had asked him out vetoed any chance I had for filing a serious complaint. Is this true? I wonder, is a married woman allowed to ask her colleagues to lunch?

I told the story to a senior woman who told a senior guy in the dept. He told off the jerk and gave him dire warnings. The jerk only made loosely interpretable comments after that. It would have bothered me more if I was tenure track and the jerk had any control over me.

Travelwise, I mostly funded my own trips to conferences and so I roomed with women from other universities or stayed with friends. I did once room with a man I knew well who had a girlfriend That caused the rumor that he was my boyfriend but it didn't affect our ability to collaborate on research.

Annoyingly, both with regards to this rumored boyfriend and my actual boyfriend, mathematicians felt the need to complain that I was dating guys who weren't smart enough for me. I never could see why I would want to only date "superior" guys and why they should care. Its not like I was ruining my career for his. To me intelligent conversation has always been more attractive than being a math wiz.

I guess I'm supposed to address what depts can do for single women. I think they do what they can. I liked the informal assistance with the sexual harassment. I've always found campus police helpful with their "walk buddy" programs. I appreciated the help I had from the department secretary: group-emailing the graduate students when I was looking forroommates.

To senior guy mathematicians: invites to lunch/dinner "to discuss such and such a math problem" are very welcome. It can be lonely eating alone and making it a business dinner eases any concerns about harassment. Group invites to dinner/lunch are also great. Also, if you witness a harassing remark or overhear a dirty joke it would be nice to simply say "that was really crude" or "can't you keep your mind out of the gutter?". Its so much simpler than dealing with the whole sexual harassment thing. And it eases the tension. The hours that can be wasted trying to decide what to say or do when confronted with such remarks are hours that never come back. And such concerns can really distract women when they are doing their research.

PS The book "Lifting a Ton of Feathers" has great advise. One tidbit is never to laugh at a sexual joke. You've got to pretend to be uptight and boring to avoid awkward situations later when you are offended.

Anonymously posted December 19, 2003

Race, Religion and Ethnicity

Perspective of a Chinese mathematician

An interview with a Chinese mathematician who has asked to remain anonymous.

Do you have any recommendations to Graduate Programs to help their Chinese students feel comfortable in the United States?

Since English is not the native language of any foreign students they usually worry about being a TA. New students can be tutors. Meanwhile assign a lecturer to teach them how to improve their teaching of math in English. After a couple of years, assign an exercise class to those (almost) qualified students. This would be very helpful.

What can a department do to help keep a Chinese mathematician in the department?

I think some Chinese mathematicians are more sensitive than others.

The Chairman should find an opportunity to chat with a newly hired Chinese faculty member, asking her/him about any disconcerning events. Every Chinese faculty member wishes to be treated equally and fairly.

For example, everytime when I talk to our computer manager when I need help, I always feels that she does not pay enough respect to me. Usually she keeps doing her thing and maintains almost no eye contact during the conversation. For a while, I was trying to figure out whether she treats other faculty members in the same way. But I do not want to discuss this with our Chairman unless he asks me about my feelings in the department.

I know of a Chinese mathematician who was insulted by an aggressive dean who was in fact trying to attract the candidate to her university. I once inadvertantly insulted a British neighbor of mine by clapping to get her attention. I also know a woman who was insulted when an orthodox Jew wouldn't shake her hand because she didn't know it was against his religion to touch a woman. Are there particular remarks or comments that are especially insulting to Chinese people that may easily be avoided?

Do not ask a Chinese mathematician why he/she does not go back to China. But you one can always ask a Chinese his/her age.

In Chinese culture, one is expected to care for one's parents in their old age. Is there anything universities could do to help? Provide health insurance? Provide cultural activities for the elderly?

Some rich cities/counties provide certain governmental supported insurance for elderly people. For example, in our county, my mother (with SS number) can apply for a governmental insurance although my mother's age is under 65 and she is not a US citizen. This is certainly a great help if the department can provide such information to candidates when they interview them.

Can you give some advise to Chinese students? Do you have recomendations of how to improve one's English while in graduate school?

Watch TV (news, not movies). Share an apartment with American students or non-Chinese students. Do not speak Chinese among Chinese students in school.

Sadly I've heard some appointments committees assume that Asians cannot teach well unless it explicitly mentions good teaching in their letters of recommendations. Can you make any recommendations to other Chinese mathematicians as to how to convince people that they can teach well?

For new Ph.D. who is looking for a job, she/he should provide teaching experience with student's comments. I have a good idea. Record a short (about one minute) voice sample from teaching in a classroom and post it on the webpage.

Do you think teaching oriented webpages might help?


Do you have any advise for job interviews?

Do not talk about politics, religion. For example, some people do not support the war, some do. I believe that majority of Chinese people educated in USA still do not support Bush's war against Iraq, although this war is probably for the best interest of the US. But the candidate should avoid discussing this issue during interview.

Can you outline key differences between the image/role of a professor in China vs the US? Are there ways that the US's academic community could grow to incorporate more of the Chinese academic culture?

I cannot say which community is healthier.

In general speaking, ordinary Chinese people pay more respect to professors (including retired professors) than ordinary Americans.

I notice a key difference between universities in China and US. Not every professor with in China is allowed to accept Ph.D. candidates. Among full professors, there is another special ranking, only those professors at that ranking are qualified to have Ph.D. students. My understanding is that the education department of the central government realizes that not every full professor is qualified to be a professor. Thus, in order to maintain the quality of Ph. D. graduate students, they set another ranking for professors. I do not think this policy will last forever. Some active assistant professors should be allowed to have Ph.D. students before they are promoted to higher ranking. I think there are several areas in which both academic communities can incorporate more, such as hiring procedure, promotion procedure, faculty evaluation procedure, reviewing research grant applications etc.

What about the role of an advisor in Chinese culture?

I will close with a true story about a retired mathematician in China. He is not my advisor but I am close to him and his student. This mathematician was a great Chinese mathematician with recognition from the French government. He wanted to send his student to France to study with a great mathematician there. But it was very late for this student to receive a visa and the worst thing is that the French Embassy was closed due to the student's demonstration in Tian An Men Square. The advisor traveled to Beijing and knocked on the door of the French Embassy, telling them that a member of French Academy would like to see the Ambassador. You know that French people pay more respect to scientists/mathematicians than American people and he was admitted to speak with the secretary of culture and science exchange. He spent at least one hour to convince the secretary that his student's application had nothing to do with politics and he went to France only to study mathematics. Thus on the same day, the student got the visa to France.

Several years later, his student returned to China having completed his studies abroad. But he got a very low salary in the first year. After his advisor learned this, he immediately took action and worked very hard to help the student to get a descent income in China. Such support is very crucial and important for a promising young scholar to stay in China.

This student later became one of the top mathematicians in his field receiving international acclaim.

anonymously posted on December 30, 2003

Race, Religion and Ethnicity

Extended Families

My Family

This is an interview with Hortensia Soto conducted by Christina Sormani whose comments and questions appear in italics:

Many of my students are hispanics with responsibilities both for their own children and helping their parents. Their parents help them as well of course. I'm trying to find mathematicians who have managed to achieve a PhD and find academic jobs without breaking their larger family bonds.

Have you been able to keep close ties with your parents and inlaws? Do you have children of your own?

I have one son (Miguel) who is five. He was born August 6th and I started back to work on August 16th. I only taught 3 days a week (but still a full load) so that I could stay with Miguel two days out of the week. I did this for two years - then I went back to teaching every day. I have never felt that Miguel doesn 't get enough attention from either me or my husband.

As far as extended family goes I see my family often as well as my in-laws. In the summer I go see my folks each month and during the school year I try to go once or twice during the semester. My family also visit us frequently. We try to go on vacation with my father-in-law once a year as well as visit him.

It is great that you are able to see your parents often without living too nearby. Do you have any recommendations to students about how far one can live from ones parents and siblings without becoming too lonely? I myself never lived more than a 3 hour drive away and visitted my family twice a month. Its not too hard to find jobs in the northeast this way because of the density of colleges. One of my black students will be going to a math PhD program soon and is very concerned about lonliness.

It takes me 5 hrs to get to my parents and takes 5 hrs to get to my in-laws. We live right in the middle. I think close means you can always do a weekend trip at the spur of the moment. I can easily leave on Friday night at 5:00, and return on Sunday after a great lunch.

2) Did you have any help from your parents or inlaws when your son was little? Many of my students have their parents watching their children while they attend night courses. On the other hand, their parents often live with them and may not even have working visas.

No, no-one was around to help me with my son. I found a great day-care person who watched my son and her grand-daughter. My daycare person lived 2-minutes away and I am 2 minutes from work.

3) Did you have any difficulty convincing your husband/parents to wait until you finished your PhD to have children? Both my parents and my husband encouraged me to wait. I actually would have liked to have kids sooner. Many of my students are being pressured to have children if they don't already. Many are older than I was as an undergrad, so their biological clock is ticking as well.

I had a difficult time conceiving and was told that I most likely would not get pregnant, thus I did not get any pressure from anyone else.

4) Did you meet your husband later, after being single for some time as a mathematician? Some of my students are concerned that going for a PhD will make them less accessable to guys. Some female mathematicians I know have had trouble meeting men once they were tenure track in a small town. I really know nothing about it because I met my husband in high school.

I met my husband prior to Ph.D. Couldn't have done it without him.

5) If you did meet your husband earlier, like I did, was he supportive of your pursuit of a math career? In what ways? I'm sure the answer is yes!

He was and continues to be my biggest supporter. He is a statistician so he knows how important this was to me.

6) Is there anything you can think of that has made your life as a mathematician easier or harder because you are an hispanic or a woman?

I am a stubborn hispanic woman so very little gets in my way. My biggest barrier was my mother who did not believe a woman needed an education. I was forced to go to a junior college and then fought to go on to get a Bachelors. After that - nothing was going to get in my way.

posted June 5, 2003,
by Hortensia Soto

Single Parenting

"How to teach your child to sit quietly through a lecture," by Marianne Korten

I have taken my daughter to talks and meetings since she was three (plus epsilon). I got my first insight into the issue when getting ready to take intercontinental (12 hours or more, then a train...) flights with a three year old. My friend Andrea Solotar (a mathematician too) travelled with her son since he was a baby, and had quite some experience. I'm starting with her hints, then I'll move to older kids:

Take plenty of toys with you. The toys must be unknown to the kid, and you get them out when he/she gets restless. Try to hold them back!!! The toys must be attactive (colourful and interesting) (and silent!), and such that it takes time to explore them (puzzles that are not too hard, Legos and such). Paper and markers or pencils, colouring books. B was given a box with several not to hard puzzles by a french mathematician at a meeting. Here grandchildren had outgrown it... We still have it and hold it in honors. Paper, scissors and scotch tape (to construct all sorts of short lived furniture, etc...) Plasticin, beeswax, or something colourful to model with. Stencils. It is good to get your kid involved in handcrafts, they will keep them busy quite a while (yarn, beads). My daughter presented her favorite speakers with her production of bracelets :). Little animals or so that can "play a story" (I heard this is a favorite of little girls). Playing cards, little cars. Stuffed animals were B's favorite.

While they are young, sit near an exit or in the back (in case you need an emergency retreat). Of course, you have to tell them (in advance, and again) that they absolutely need to be quiet. (They will still whisper to you...)

Starting age 7 or so, a gameboy will keep them busy and quiet forever (there are games for quite young kids). You have to tell them to turn the sound off!!! As they get good at reading, they will even enjoy having one or several days to completely bury themselves in a sequence of favorite books. Make sure you take enough along!!! (I have seen myself quickly buying more books!!!) Books and gameboys are also great for long drives.

When the kid is small he/she may want to sleep. A thick jacket on a carpet floor in a quiet corner will do fine. If the floor isn't carpeted, you'll have to make do with what's available. If it's summer... just do your best! Maybe it may want to sleep in your lap. You can listen and take notes with a sleeping kid in your lap!

Mostly they will like to dig into conference snacks or nearby vending mashines... since they will become insistent, you will end up letting them ingest quite some junk... (have some dollars and quarters available!) hope they don't get sick on it... It is important to teach your kid not to go places without checking with you. She/he will need to go to the restroom. You should show her/him the restroom before the talks start.

Most kids I met at meetings socialize naturally and easily with adults, and have great fun during the breaks, and even more fun if there are more kids. But them they may get in trouble... (been there...).

If black/white board and chalk/markers are available in a nearby room and not in use, they may end up producing a mural...

When she became too unhappy and need it to be over, I explained B that conferences are part of my job, and my job payed the car, the mortgage, the cat food, the toys, the music lessons, etc In short, she better let me focus on the conference!!! She understood that very well.

I may add as an end note that all the way, rather than separating B form "danger" (slides, swings, scissors, etc) I systematically taught her how to use them safely. So she became skilled and reliable, and able to gauge her skills and abilities. She went down the tall slide in the park when barely able to walk... and because I got tired of swinging her, she learned to swing standing (it's easier to push yourself). I guess in each of these things I showed her the first steps. Same with tree-climbing... She rollerskated well (on cute Fisher-Price skates) at age 3 (I got her the skates when she was 2).

These big artsy books with a little story are another thing I took to meetings. I love them!!!

Maybe this is read by people who attended meetings with us and remember the situations :). B is now 10 and helped produce this list.

posted December 19, 2003
by Marianne Korten

Race, Religion and Ethnicity

A Chinese mathematician's perspective

This is an interview of a Chinese woman full professor at a research university in California.

What was your position in China before you came to the United States?

I was a graduating senior at Zhejiang university.

Tell me a little bit about how you decided to come to the United States for graduate school. Did you have any concerns?

The main influence was one of the teachers. He had an idea of building a strong math department at Zhejiang university.

Did he expect you to return after getting the doctoral degree here?

Yes, at the time when we just came to the US. He realized it's not going to happen after a year or two, since students sent out before me weren't going back. But some people regularly go back to give lectures during the summer now.

Did you feel any sense of alienation in graduate school? What did your professors and fellow students do to help?

The Chinese students there were helpful to the new comers. I got rides for grocery shopping every week for the first year. Also we had five Chinese students that went to my department at that year, we were very close to each other.

Did you have difficulty with English, listening to professors, teaching? I know that today your English is quite good. How did you help yourself develop your English skills and how did your department help you?

I had difficulty listening to the professors, so I took notes very carefully and went through them afterwards. Sometimes I wrote down the wrong word and had a lot of difficulty figuring out the meaning. I mostly did tutoring in the Math lab for teaching which is not possible now. In the first year we had six Chinese female studente share a three bedroom apartment in the dorm, so I wasn't feeling lonely but was not learning English. I had a host family, she was very nice and taught me some English. I also took some English courses which helped a little. My English really improved after I started lecturing, and now also by reading to the kids.

What exactly is a host family?

It was a program run by the foreign students office, matching students with a local American family who would like to learn more about foreign culture and help foreign students, usually get together every other month. Some get very close.

When did you first feel comfortable with your English? Your presentations are quite good.

Making presentations became easier after I realized that's part of my routine job, not a big thing. I was very shy and never had a chance to make a presentation before coming to US. People who come here now usually have very good English.

Do you have any recommendations to Graduate Programs to help their Chinese students feel comfortable in the United States?

Have on campus housing available for the first two years. Have a Math lab option for the first year.

When you searched for jobs you had a two body problem to solve. Did you also restrict your search to places you felt might be more welcoming to Chinese people? Places where you could preserve your culture easily?

When we searched for jobs we didn't make restrictions. Once we had a choice we did prefer places where one would more welcoming to Chinese people at a certain level.

How have you preserved your cultural identity through the years?

The kids are in Chinese school once a week for three hours and we visit China. Chinese books, movies.

You have two children and successful career as a mathematician. Many Chinese have help from their parents raising their children. In what ways did your parents and inlaws help you with your children through the years?

My mom (my dad passed away a long time ago) and inlaws have helped a lot with my kids. They took turns helping us when my two kids were born by coming all the way from China and living with us. My mom stayed two years each time and inlaws one year each time, the kids didn't start preschool until they were 2 years old. They babysitted the kids every weekday and whenever I came to office, also helped with cooking and chores. This gave me the flexibility of coming to the office whenever I needed (I like to work at the office). I couldn't imagine how I could handle it without their help, especially when the first one was small, my husband was working at a different place and was doing weekly commuting. I am very grateful to my Mom and inlaws' help.

I assume you also help your parents and inlaws as well in many ways. Can you describe your obligations to them?

We are responsible for supporting my mom and in laws in every way, including their health expense.

Do you feel your department is understanding when you need to miss work to care for them when they are ill?

That hasn't happened yet.

Is there anyway your university could be more helpful regarding your responsibilities towards your mother and inlaws? Do they provide health insurance? Are there other benefits that might be helpful?

My university can insure one adult dependent which is very helpful to us since my husband can insure himself.

How do you feel about your career as a mathematician?

I like being a mathematician after tenure.

How do your inlaws and mother feel about your career as a mathematician?

They feel proud that we are college professors.

Your husband has also played a major role in the upbringing of your children. I've seen you at conferences taking turns watching the children. Do you feel that the math community understands the level of responsibility a father has towards his children in Chinese culture?

In old Chinese culture, the wife should play the supporting role for her husband's career. We equally support each other and I like that very much. I feel a supporting husband is very important but I also don't want him to make sacrifices. I look after the kids more but he is available whenever he can be. I still do not feel very comfortable bringing kids to math conferences.

Would you feel more comfortable bringing them to conferences if daycare was available?


I mentioned earlier the possible alienation you may have felt for being Chinese. Do you feel that you have ever suffered discrimination in your teaching evaluations? If so, how did you address this concern?

They will complain about my English for the rest of my life, but I do have strong accent.

People have often said things to me like "why don't you invite the Chinese guy from - University to speak" or "that Chinese speaker from last year was good." Do you have any recommended responses to this sort of inability to learn people's names? Is there a way for Chinese mathematicians to help other mathematicians learn their names?

To have an American middle name, which I still haven't done.

You have an excellent job and solved a two body problem. How did you approach your interviews?

Several people helped, to whom we remain very grateful. The fact that the department here accepts couples also helped. Maybe luck also played a role.

You mentioned that you like your career after tenure. Was there something particularly stressful about the tenure process that made you unhappy?

I was stressed in general, even though the departemnt is friendly and several people very encouraging. At the time I was the only one untenured, moreover I had a small kid. I didn't know what to expect, didn't feel like I could share with anyone.

I've heard some appointments committees may assume that Asians cannot teach well unless it explicitly mentions good teaching in their letters of recommendations. Can you make any recommendations to other Chinese mathematicians as to how to convince such committees that they can teach well?

Provide all the supporting material, prepare a good lecture for interview.

What can a department do to help keep a Chinese mathematician in the department?

She could be made to feel welcome by including her in departmental committees, casual conversation, lunches, invitations to dinner, and encouraging annual reports. My department has done all this for me.

posted on December 17, 2003

On being single

"A single woman mathematician's perspective"

Even though I have dated and also had some significant romantic relationships (including one right now), I have been single my entire career.

I've found that single people are sometimes expected to spend a disproportionate amount of time on department service than people with families. I've heard people with families say that they cannot help out with certain activities (such as a being a math club advisor) because they must spend time with their families instead. The implicit assumption here is that a single person has more free time to devote to these activities. Hence, at times I've found that I have to protect my free time after hours and on weekends. I've said no to certain departmental service activities that fall on these days or times to ensure that I do not spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy on these kinds of activities just because my time commitments outside of work might be more flexible.

Some of my colleagues have spouses that run errands for them, do laundry for them, and cook for them (for example, for department potlucks). Of course, since I do not have the salary to support a personal assistant (wouldn't that be nice), these are things I must do myself. I buy things for department potlucks instead of making them myself to save on time and energy.

Of course finding time to meet new people to date and start new relationships takes a significant amount of time and energy also.

I have had only one incident of an unwanted advance from a colleague (who was actually in another department). We were meeting to discuss research and see whether research collaboration was possible. The person became interested in pursuing a romantic relationship. I was very surprised by this advance as I am very careful about setting professional boundaries and making sure that I do not give mixed signals. Things became awkward after I refused his advances and our possible research collaboration fell by the wayside.

Thankfully, I have been spared from the departmental matchmaking attempts I've heard single women at other intitutions complain about. Yet, in my department, I have heard a lot of jokes about the need to bring in a new single woman hire to match up with a male colleague who is single. I find these jokes unprofessional and inappropriate.

Let me also comment about travel. During one conference, it was significantly cheaper to leave from a far away airport, but I had to explain that since I was driving alone (other faculty were attending with spouses and flying early) I was not prepared to drive a significant distance to the airport because of safety. Also, there is a small per diem for hotels, but it is nowhere near enough to cover hotel costs unless one shares, and even then it is often not quite enough. I am often the only woman from the department attending a conference. I usually find women from other universities to share hotel rooms, but at times I have instead shared my room with women students who I have taken with me to conferences. It would be better if NSF travel rules were used because they provide for a larger per diem.

In summary, there are many issues that can affect single women such as workload issues, unwanted advances, and safety issues, and both departments and the mathematical community should be aware and supportive of these issues.

posted December 14, 2003

Race, Religion and Ethnicity

"Views of a Jewish Mathematician"

I am a Jew in a public state university. The rest of my department is mostly Christian, and I am the only person who is openly known as non-Christian, although there are other faculty members who are not Christian.

At times I have felt isolated and misunderstood. While a departmental Christmas tree in common areas may appear to be seasonal and festive, it may serve to alienate people like myself. Also, simple things like using the name "Holiday party" instead of "Christmas party" can mean a lot and go a long way towards including people like myself in official department events. Looking at the calendar and being careful not to plan department events on major holidays of other religions can also help.

I've felt that my department has been very responsive to my concerns or suggestions for improvement, but that they often forget about these issues and could be a lot more supportive by paying attention to the diversity of religions within the department. What I am saying is that there is a difference between being responsive to concerns and being proactive in recognizing diversity - the latter is infinitely more inclusive and desirable.

posted December 15, 2003

On Sexuality

"A Transsexual Mathematician's Story"

I'm writing in this forum to contribute my voice as a mathematician, a gay man, a transman, and as someone who was raised as a female in the United States. In particular, my goals here are to let transgendered people know that there other transgendered people out there and to attempt to destigmatize transsexuality and transgenderism by bringing it out in the open.

Let me skip my childhood but give some background about my personal life leading up to graduate school. I went to the North Carolina School of Science & Math for my junior and senior years of high school. I met some wonderful friends there but I felt increasingly isolated with being required to live in the girls' dormitory. I spent a lot of time discussing this uncomfortable arrangement with the school counselor. There were other issues during that time but the end result was depression. I left there March of my senior year and moved in with a boy friend. With the pressure of school and of trying to conform off of me, some of the depression lifted. I won't go into too many details about the next few years but it suffices to say that I continued to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about society's rules and how I fit into society. After a few years of regular income and relative stability I started to think about my future. I knew that I wanted not just a bachelor's degree but a higher degree as well. I decided I wanted a career that gave me some flexibility over my daily schedule and a job that allowed me to wear clothing that was comfortable for me, which for me meant no female dress clothes. Combining that with my own personal conviction that I was intelligent and capable, I decided I wanted to become a college professor.

So, I went to college. My first two years I attended a community college. Then I transferred to a local four-year private college for women, Meredith College. I liked the small size and the seriousness of the students. I also thought that perhaps I just needed to develop some close friendships with women and many of the confusing thoughts I had would go away. I did well at Meredith but being around so many women only increased my feelings of being different. I began to think that perhaps I was a lesbian. After visiting many graduate schools, I chose University of Kentucky. The department was one of the friendliest I had contacted and after only a weekend visit I had already learned the location of a local gay bar. There seemed to be an open and thriving gay culture there which was important for my plans to "explore my sexuality".

I started graduate school in 1996. In the spring semester I went to a few meetings of the student GLBT group, but my confusion was still there. I didn't meet any women I was attracted to, and by talking to the lesbians at the meetings it seemed I still had not found others with feelings like mine. My attraction to men, however, was still strong, and I was confused by this because if I was a lesbian, how could I still be attracted to men? I realized that feeling masculine is not the same thing as being a lesbian, but this realization did not explain my feelings. I didn't feel attracted to straight men, but gay men were not interested in me. Bisexual men saw me simply as a butch women and I had not met any women who seemed right for me. Then one day a local transwoman came to speak to the GLBT group about transgenderism. I was dumb-founded. Here was a woman sitting across from me who was saying many of the things I had always felt but that no one else had ever seemed to understand. I realized my feelings were not about sexual orientation but gender identification.

I learned there was a small conference about transgenderism taking place within driving distance. I went and instantly felt like I had found people who could finally understand me. The feelings inside of me suddenly were starting to make sense and I finally had a name for them. The realization that my feelings had a name was somewhat a dual-edge sword. On one hand, I felt elated that I had finally found "my people". On the other hand, I was overwhelmed with the idea of the changes that seemed necessary. I was unable to stop my fall into another depression.

At this point, I had passed the preliminary exams, passed the language exam, and chosen an advisor. With these intense exams and coursework completed, I had fewer ways to suppress my explorations of my emotions through studying. Then my advisor wanted me to wait another year before taking the qualifying exam. So, I felt adrift in my studies and I could sense that my ability for deep thought was not functioning properly. I started to withdraw from friends and family, sometimes had panic attacks on campus, and upset my office mates with fits of anger. My advisor was supporting me with a research assistantship so I was blessed with not having to teach a course during this time.

I began to see a therapist. I initially presented to the therapist complaining about anger, depression, and told her that I thought perhaps I had a body image problem. After a few sessions the words "transgendered" and "transsexual" began to formally surface. Explaining that she felt unqualified to help me further, she suggested another therapist. At this point, there was a glitch, so to speak, in the progression of things. My advisor had arranged for me to work with a researcher in Idaho so I went away for three months to live in Idaho, during which time I basically held on day-to-day with the promise that my new therapist would be able to help me when I returned. Without that lifeline, I might not have survived those three months.

When I returned to Kentucky, the new therapist and I worked very hard. In the meantime I slogged through my qualifying exam. After about a year I felt confident enough in my decisions and feelings to tell not only my close friends and my family, but also my department chair, director of graduate studies, and advisor that I was going to change my outward gender from female to male.

The chair, DGS, and my advisor were all extremely helpful. I had been very worried that all the time I had spent in graduate school would come to a crashing end, but I was happy to learn that they would be accepting of the situation. In fact, I was told that I was not the first transsexual mathematician they had known -- a pleasant surprise for me for I really felt quite alone. (I have no idea who this other trans* mathematician is, so if you're reading this, I'd enjoy meeting you.)

After all the hard work with my therapist much of my depression had lifted and I began to feel my ability to concentrate was returning. There were some complications, of course. The registrar didn't want to alter my records to reflect me as male. The DGS made a few phone calls and helped me out. Also, because of discriminatory Social Security rules, my SS information and my employment information now did not match. (This was never resolved and I have suspect it will cause problems in the future for me as well.)

Being able to finally express my full personality allowed me to be able to continue my life. My brain and body were more fully integrated and slowly my ability to think clearly and deeply was being restored. My advisor stood beside me the entire time and has always done his best to support me financially in terms of conferences, fellowships, etc.

If my department had been unable to accept my transition, it would have effectively ended my pursuit for a PhD in mathematics. This was one possibility I had explored in therapy but I am very happy that I was not forced to choose between my personal happiness and my interest in mathematics. However, there was a period of about two years when I was absorbed with the personal conflict between my outward and inward genders which is "lost time" towards my doctoral degree. I wish that I had been able to resolve these personal issues before starting a graduate program, but we cannot go back and change time. There are still transition related issues involving expensive surgeries and governmental bureaucracies ill-equipped to deal fairly with trans* people. My immediate career will definitely be affected by these two items. I expect my future employment to be affected by health insurance usability concerns, security clearances issues, and potential confusion about my identity or past. I truly believe that the decision to be "out" about being a transman will simplify my life. I have no shame in who I am or my history and I believe that my unique background of being raised as a female is a benefit.

My department provided support in many ways. Besides what I mentioned earlier, the DGS assisted by being sure that the department was appropriately notified about my change and assured me that the "bathroom issue" would not be an issue for our department. The chair graciously offered to help me as necessary. My advisor simply stuck by me which was especially important to me. All departmental members have made the transition to using male pronouns when speaking about me and I've never been questioned in the restroom.

I believe the mathematics community can be more supportive by allowing trans* people a way to distinguish themselves on standard forms. It was always difficult for me to choose a category for sex or gender. I think that including a way to indicate that someone identifies as both male and female, neither male nor female, or another classification altogether on forms where sex or gender is used for statistics or classification could help transgendered people become more visible and feel more accepted.

posted October 2, 2003 (for updates click here)
by Leigh Noble

Extended Families

"Parents, Inlaws, and Navigating a Career"

When I first decided to pursue a doctorate in mathematics it never crossed my mind that I would ever leave New York City. This was where my parents and three sisters lived and where my boyfriend's family lived as well. I had lived at home commuting to college, and so had my older sister, and I thought my younger sister was fairly adventurous for having gone all the way to nearby Stony Brook for college. My father was a math professor at CUNY (Staten Island) and had completed his doctorate at Courant Institute. I was accepted to MIT with a fellowship, but chose to take a fellowship at Courant without even visiting Boston.

I don't regret my decision. My family and friends helped me survive the qualifying exams and I'm not sure I would have obtained the PhD without their support.

It was only at the beginning of my final year of graduate school that I realised how hard it was to get a local job. I was expected to graduate in May of 1996 and many of the graduates from May 1995 hadn't found an academic job. I also learned that, unlike my father who had found a tenure track job at CUNY without a postdoc, it was now expected that one complete a postdoc or two before taking a tenure track position at a four year college in the CUNY system.

I was determined to stay near my family and my boyfriend, whom I had been dating for 7 years at that point. So I got a college guide and found the addresses of every four year college within a 2 hour distance from New York City. I applied to all these colleges using form letter applications and applied to postdocs in nearby cities (Harvard, MIT, U Penn, Yale, Stony Brook, Rutgers...). I focused a bit more on the postdocs, trying to establish contacts at Stony Brook and Rutgers. I received a very promising letter that I had been on the short list for a Benjamen Pierce postdoc at Harvard as well as an invitation to speak at MIT, but did not get job offers. I wonder sometimes if it would have been better not to have mentioned to Stony Brook that I wanted to be near New York City; despite a very close fit researchwise, I've never been offered a position there.

Finally, in April, I was given a very promising preliminary telephone interview at Trenton State College in New Jersey. They seemed sincerely interested in the fact that I wanted to be near New York City but they had a very high teaching load. My research career was saved by Professor Shing Tung Yau, who came to my talk at MIT. He was surprised when I told him I hadn't had a job offer yet. A week later I was offered a one year position at Harvard and I took it.

The year I was in Boston I commuted back to New York City every weekend to see my boyfriend and my family. Monday through Thursday I worked in the office until 10 pm. I wish I had spent a bit more time on my research, but I was going through the job search again and this time applying a little further afield: 3-4 hours from New York City. I learned more that year from Professor Yau's seminars than I'd learned in a typical year at graduate school.

Again, after applying to 120 places this time, I only had two interviews. Luckily both places offered me a job: Wellesley and Johns Hopkins. Wellesley offered me a tenure track job just outside Boston with a high salary, paid maternity leaves and excellent students. Hopkins offered me a three year postdoc in Baltimore with a few colleagues close to my area of research and also top students. I still wanted to get back to New York City for a final tenure track position and thought applying from a postdoc would look better than applying from a tenure track job. I thought it would be easier to get letters from colleagues on my behalf and easier to convince a school like CUNY that I was really interested in a position if I wasn't coming from a top liberal arts college. While I would have earned 100K more than I have the past 5 years had I taken the Wellesley position, I don't regret my choice. I do dream occasionally of those paid maternity leaves :).

My boyfriend came to Baltimore with me and we got married a year later. We visitted our parents almost every weekend. I spent a year catching up on research and started the search for a New York City job a year later. This time I only applied to six jobs since I could remain at Hopkins for another year. All six were tenure track positions within an hour of New York City. I personalized every application, contacted faculty in the departments whose fields were close to mine, and described my teaching in ways that refered to the exact courses offered at each school. Out of 6 jobs applied for, I had 2 interviews and I took the first offer. It was a job at CUNY's Lehman College, a 4 year college in the Bronx with excellent researchers in my own field. There was an opportunity for promotion to the graduate faculty (which I have since been awarded) and released time from teaching offered for grants/research.

Since taking the job at Lehman College, I've been invited to apply for tenure track positions at two excellent departments but have politely turned down the invitations. Neither of them have came from anywhere remotely near New York City. Perhaps when I am older I may be more open to positions further afield, but as a mother with young children being near my parents and inlaws is unbeatable. My daughters see all four of their grandparents at least once a week. Their grandparents have helped me raise them: caring for them when they were too young for daycare, assisting me when I was on bedrest during my second pregnancy, cooking dinners and picking them up after preschool. My children are also close to three of their greatgrandparents, their cousins and their aunts and uncles. Since my husband is an only child, we expect that his parents will move in with us when they are too old to live on their own. If we stay near New York City, they won't lose their friends when that time comes.

What could the departments/mathematicians do to support mathematicians with extended families?

Since having a close extended family has more advantages than disadvantages there is little support that mathematicians with extended families need from their own department. However, I do think something can be done to help mathematicians solve the problem of finding jobs near their families.

I think departments should give serious attention to candidates whose cover letters mention a sincere desire to be near their location. My department does this partly because it is easier to keep faculty who have a desire to live in NYC despite the high cost of living. I think this is fairly common in departments trying to fill tenure track and tenured positions that might otherwise have some difficulty retaining faculty. Faculty who grew up near a university can also provide better role models for students, especially if the student body is largely in state.

It is harder to argue why departments should consider such candidates more seriously for postdoctoral positions. Clearly, it is of top priority to hire postdocs whose research will match the department. Postdocs whose fields are far from the fields of other members of the department will miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge and develop their skills. However, it would certainly help mathematicians with extended families build research careers if departments would give them a bit of an edge. I do believe that postdocs who are near their extended families will have more help with their children and less difficulty adjusting socially.

Finally, I do wish that top departments would look to nearby universities and colleges when considering hiring tenured full professors. They could consider mathematicians who have moved up within one department since they were young even if their research is not quite as active as the research of candidates from higher ranked universities. It is possible that their current positions have high teaching and service requirements which have not allowed them to fully develop their research careers. I believe there are quite a number of women who are of the caliber to be a member of a top department but have not accepted any offers from more distant universities possibly because they have extended family responsibilities related to their children, step children, aging parents and grandchildren.

Perhaps the simplest thing departments can do for mathematicians with extended families is to offer paid visiting memberships to local mathematicians that have been attending their seminars. Such an offer can often be negotiated into an unpaid leave of absense from their own institutions. A perusal of the IAS visiting membership list quickly reveals how many local mathematicians take advantage of these positions.

posted July 30, 2003

Illness and Injury

"Some ways the mathematics community can support ill and injured mathematicians"

I think the fact that vitas do not reflect illnesses can really hurt people who end up with significant gaps in their research records. I myself was lucky to have been ill during pregnancy and to have stopped the tenure clock by taking a maternity leave. It would be nice if people could stop the tenure clock purely for an illness or an injury. Even when tenure isn't on the line, job opportunities and grants could be lost due to unexplained gaps in a research record. I think people who have been ill or injured should feel comfortable adding this to their vita or cover letter.

I think that mathematicians should go out of their way to look up people who've disappeared from the research/conference world and encourage them to return. Such encouragement could be as simple as suggesting new problems to work on and important papers to read. Or an invitation to speak about past work at a conference. It can be difficult for people who've been ill to restart a research program if their field moves quickly. I myself am lucky to be in a slow moving field where top people publish single papers per year. If you have a colleague who you'd like to help but is in a different field, you could encourage them to contact people for advise and invite speakers to your colloquium that your colleague would like to speak with.

I think mathscinet, the Arxiv and JSTOR provide an excellent opportunity for mathematicians who are forced to work from home due to an illness or injury. Universities should provide means for their faculty to access these from home (as mine does). Mathematicians should make a point of posting all their papers on the arxiv or their webpages and mathscinet reviewers should make a point of explicitly stating theorems in their reviews. By making as much mathematics freely available on the web as possible, we not only succeed in reaching mathematicians who are stuck at home but also mathematicians at small colleges and in third world countries.

Lastly, if a colleague is ill, don't pressure them to do work even if they supposedly can work from home. It can be very depressing to try to do research when your mind is focussed on pain or confused by medication and exhaustion. The kindest thing would be to help them to take extra time off, after they've recovered, to rebuild their work. If your colleague is not surrounded by an extended family, as I was, then you may also wish to help a bit with day to day needs.

posted July 30, 2003
by Christina Sormani

Loss and Single Parenting

"The loss of my daughter's father"

The following is an interview of Marianne by Christina Sormani.

1) Please give me a brief description of where in your career you were when your daughter was born and when you lost support for her upbringing and a summary of where you are now.

I defended my dissertation in April 93. My daughter was born in July 93. I got pregnant when I knew I had the results to start writing down my thesis, my pregnancy was planned. By then I had a few minor papers and one that contained the first part of my thesis, this was a good paper (the paper in beroamericana).

In September 93 my partner was diagnosed with metastasized melanoma. He died in September 94. Between my daughter's birth and his death I was mostly busy caring for both of them, and didn't do research. I believe though that the second paper from my thesis was written and submitted during that time, but I don't remember well (the paper in Nonlinear Analysis), this was another good one. After he died, I had a very hard time to get back on my feet. I came back to life and research after a conference in Zakopane (Poland) in June 95. I believe it was about a year later that I was able to complete another paper (the one in Proceedings AMS). I spent the years 97-99 on several visiting and postdoc type positions, in Spain, Poland, Argentina, US, Argentina, France and US. The length of those stays was between 3 and 10 months each. Wherever I went, I took my daughter with me. This was a huge effort, my daughter was between 3 and 6 years old, and had to learn many languages and adjust to new preschools. I believe I made very good use of that time, I had chosen the places where I stayed longer in order to learn new techniques, and I am still profiting from that. My work went slowly, partly because of constantly relocating with a small child, but also because I was making my first steps in new techniques.

2) What aspect of your career was most affected when you first became a single mother?

The heaviest thing was that I was two years completely out of research right after my PhD: one with my daughter and her dad's illness, the other one recovering from his death. During this time I had my hands full and was getting very little sleep, and my daughter's father had been all the cheer in my bones. I had no relatives in town, but that was probably good, I needed to be left alone to recover. My close friends were basically busy keeping me going. I had started off being competitive in my career, but these years ate up all the head start I had. I never thought my partner could die, I was not prepared for it at all. Concerning the professional aspect, I will address this question farther when answering 4).

Another difficult issue resulted from my need to have affordable day care for my daughter very near my workplace. In order to have such a day care I had to work full time at the School of Sciences, which was then undergoing a lot of inner-political conflict. I don't thrive in a conflictive medium, and I was offered to work at the Argentinian Institute of Mathematics (which belongs to the Argentinian Research Council), but then I would have needed a private day care, and a lot of commuting between home and work. A the Institue, professional mail and photocopies were payed for us, and there was a clerical person who would TeX our papers. At the School of Sciences we had none of this. During my work toward my dissertation I had worked at the Institute, so I had to wean myself form the "pampered" life mathemticians had there. I was longing for a quiet place to focus on my work, with easier commuting logistics, more support, and where I could learn new things.

3) How did your department at the time help/offer to help?

I was given a low teaching load and some time to recover. It was a very vulnerable time professionally for me, and positions extremely scarce in Argentina then. I also lost support from one grant, as a consequence of people pushing to pave the way for their own Ph.D. students, but I was picked up by another grant. While some people took advantage of my vulnerability, one senior researcher (Carlos Segovia) literally gave my research plan a blank check, that is, signed to be responsible as supervisor while the problem was completely out of the reach of the techniques he used. He was the one that picked me up with his grant. Being part of a grant was needed to pay for books to keep working (libraries are poorest in Argentina), for photocopies and printer paper and ink, and for travel money to local conferences. In spite of being very busy, he took time to listen to my struggles with my new math problem, which I managed to eventually solve. On this paper I worked in 95 and 96. My parents helped me buy a notebook computer (they were expensive then in Argentina), so I could work as well from home or in my office.

4) How could they have provided further support?

Well, I think I was in the crossfire of everybody protecting their own recent PhD students seeking positions as assistant professors. Besides, I had always been given complete freedom to choose my research problems, which were in the area between classic free boundary problems and harmonic analysis. There was the additional challenge to seek harmonic analytic or potential theoretic results in a context in which the tools then known wouldn't work (due to nonlinearity). It was a huge gamble. If I needed my supervisors to bail me out they wouldn't have known how to do it. One of them wouldn't stop squirming, since how their supervised ones do is one of the things the research council evaluates them on. It played to my advantage that in Argentina it is usual to keep working as a TA until you find a position as an assistant professor, so I kept earning my living. I should say here that research mathematicians work either for the research council (CONICET) which has some analogues in the wealthier provinces, or for some university. You can do both and keep the higher of the two salaries, but not both salaries. The people I had professional contact with all worked for both the research council and a university, most of them for the University of Buenos Aires.

I can say I owe infinite gratitude to Prof. Segovia, and to Prof. Mario Primicerio, from the University of Florence (he invited me to the meeting in Zakopane I mentioned in 1). I literally came back to math after those two years after having been invited to a Free Boundary Problems, Theory and Applications conference, in Poland. Prof. Primicerio was in the organizing committee. Without both of them I would never have come back to math. I don't know if I ever thanked them enough. I knew Prof. Primicerio since some time ago. In particular, in 91 I spent 3 months working in his group. He made me give a talk, which I ended with the open problem I was working on. He had me work on that problem with just the right person in the group, who was just back from a postdoc under DiBenedetto (Daniele Andreucci). We managed to solve the problem (against all odds), and it became the paper in Iberoamericana (my first good paper). My thesis problem resulted from a blend of my advisor's interest in very degenerate diffusions and Carlos Kenig's and Bjorn Dahlberg's work on the porous media equation. Carlos Kenig had visited Argentina and taught a short course on his work on PM with Bjorn Dahlberg, and I managed to adapt his techniques, combined with work by Benilan, Crandall, and Pierre, to a much more degenerate situation. When I show my work I am often asked if I was a student of Kenig's. He knows my work, including the problems I now work on, and has written references for me. I owe him a lot too. Actually, it was very good for me to show the results in my thesis in an international free boundary meeting Buenos Aires when my daughter was a baby and my partner already ill. People in my research field who attended that meeting wrote me references later, when I looked for a job in the US and in Europe.

5) Were there any decisions you made that helped you careerwise?

I don't now how I made my decisions. I steer my life from the gut level, I have always done that, and then hope to have the nerves to survive it, and the energy and endurance to work hard enough for a long enough time to make it work.

I never believed in making choices, and thought that the willingness to work extremely hard should allow you to have both and not to have to trade in things you really want. This position has since been thoroughly tested and I touched the boundaries of what I can handle many times, but I'm still here and still holding a job... I wouldn't have the nerves to recommend this approach to others though :)... but neither would I have the heart to tell anybody to give away half of their life for the sake of the other half...

I had at some point the option to choose between a visiting posision in the US, a position in a province university in Portugal, and a fellowship for habilitation in Germany. While any of the three would have worked, I choose the US. I consulted this choice with a female mathematician (Cora Sadosky). I think the choice to come to the US was right, and that was her advice too. I have the advantage to speak several languages, and am very good at picking up new ones.

5') How did you deal with childcare?

As I said before, I had a head start with my thesis. So I didn't have much trouble switching from depending purely on the research council to a full time TA position at the University. The School of Sciences runs a day care for the kids of full time personnel. I signed up early, to make sure my baby-to-come would have a place.

5") Any help from your parents/friends?

My mother watched my daughter when I had to travel abroad for meetings. This happened several times. In addition, I had 2 cats and one dog to watch, and was living in a house, not as is more usual in Buenos Aires, in an apartment. You see, I always wanted it all... My mother also came during Julio's last days and took B to day care and back, so I could stay with him.

My friend Andrea Solotar (and algebraist) has always been around, keeping an eye on me (I was pretty worn out after my daughters' birth, and had very heavy bleeding when I had my first period after her birth). Lo and behold, Andrea rode the bus for an hour because I was almost unable to get up from a chair without getting completely dizzy, and my house was being a mess...

She has also kept little B for two days or so when her dad died. At this point I have trouble having precise recollections. It was very intense, and still now I can't reconstruct it all. My friend Sofia Rosemberg (herself a lawyer and psychotherapist) has accompanied my partner and me through his illness, we wouldn't have made it without her. She does not do the job of accompanying the dying for anybody who needs it, but has done it several times in the past for friends.

Once Gene Fabes (my advisor's advisor) came to Santa Fe (another town in Argentina) to teach a mini course. I attended, and a graduate student of Andrea's let B join her little son who had a babysitter. Another colleague form Santa Fe housed B and me. I got an invitation for postdoc with Gene Fabes, but when I was ready to go he had just passed away.

6) Were any members of the math community encouraging to you? What could the community have done to help further at that time.

Yes, and I named them above. I think it functioned more on an individual basis. Also, most of the people who supported me are sort of "mathematical relatives" (basically "descendants" of Antoni Zygmund and Alberto Calderon). When I came to the US I met many more of them at conferences, and was overwhelmed finding that our work still shows the connection, and by their generosity acknowledging this. I never knew I was a member of a bigger family :). When I came to the US on a visiting position, I was given many opportunities to show my work in colloquia and seminars at different schools. I am grateful to all the people who invited me, and to those that housed B and me(B went everywhere but to one meeting with me), so we wouldn't have hotel expenses. When I went to a week-long meeting at Courant Institute Beth Bradley watched B, and Christina Sormani :) housed me. Now that B is 10, when I travel while her school is in session, she mostly stays with my Friend and neighbor Sara Fisher. I have to say, almost everywhere I went I had nice neighbors, and made friends with many of them.

Education wise, I owe to Hugo Aimar (who proposed the problem I worked on in 95, the paper in Poceedings AMS that I showed Gene Fabes in Santa Fe when I had just finished it). I owe a whole lot to Pawel Strzelecki and Piotr Hajlasz (both former students of Bogdan Bojarski) from the University of Warsaw. I got motivated to work there after the meeting in Zakopane, Poland, after which I restarted my research. I spent seven months with them, on another impossible problem. Somehow they felt that geometric measure theory was the right way to look at it, and got the right books in my hands. While we never worked together, I owe to them my current work tools, just like I owe the earlier ones to Carlos Kenig. I keep working on that research line. The results from what I started under their guidance are currently submitted, and further ones exist in the form of preprint and partially typed and notes. I later spent half a year at Hopkins, with Joel Spruck. During that time I worked on picking up as much as possible of his intuition of movement of level surfaces, and the combined use of differential geometry and PDEs. My current work combines the level set approach with geometric measure theory.

Going back to your question above about the choices I made, I think that I chose people to teach me tools that combine well. I choose by my taste, and again it was a bet, but somehow the correct choice, made by instinct. Since ever, and still now, I get to hear that I'm biting off more than I can chew. Now, and then, I can still drop out tomorrow, I don't need to do it today :), and that way I got some math done. I'm not good at living with the awareness that I'm going for less because it's safer :). While this way I work slowly, and get criticism for it, somehow all the mentors I ever had encouraged me to follow my instinct. My dying partner kept telling me that it's better to try and fail than to be at the end of your life and know that you didn't dare trying. I think I gambled hard, and it's not over yet. I had help. Somehow my taste was good. Somehow I managed to survive, so far, the path I put myself on.

Currently, I owe a lot to my boyfriend. There is also a number of colleagues that I feel appreciate me. This cheers me up a lot! Of course we want to live up to the highest standards, even having a huge work burden being a single parent...

7) Did you ever consider leaving mathematics at that time?

Then, and still now, a gazillion times. I know many female mathematicians having young kids do. They told me so. It's one of the darkest hours, professionally, but also personally.

8) At what point would you say that you recovered your ability to concentrate on your work to your satisfaction and how did you enable yourself to restart (if you did in fact have a break in being able to concentrate)?

It probably was a question of having the energy and cheer, rather then the ability to concentrate. It happened about two years after my daughter was born, one year after my partner's death.

How did I enable myself... you will laugh, but I fell in love... and that literally brought me back to life. Still, I have been completely alone for almost seven years after my partner died. I'm not good at being alone, and I hated it. I sometimes have barely been able to survive the stress. In addition, during those years I spent time in Spain, France, Poland, Argentina, three different schools in the US, while my daughter was between 3 and 7 years old. My daughter went to preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school in 4 different languages. She picks up languages fast, but unfortunately she later forgets them. In all her schools she was a good student :).

I'm only now somewhat getting a grip on my research again, I hope it is not too late. Concerning working to my satisfaction, I never got there, I'm still not there. I feel somewhat more solid now, but that is all. I am very uncomfortable a certain style frequent in our profession, by which some people seem to assert their smartness by challenging others.

8') Did being a single mother influence your decision to move to the US? What did? Has it influenced your choices locationwise since?

Well, it is good that the US has non discrimination policies (in my case age, since all the things above slowed me down). Also salaries in the US are better, and being a single mom is quite costly (from hiring people to do handyman work, to house cleaning and day care). I like to live and work in a tiniest town, because logistics are lighter, and there are only that many hours in one day, and that much energy in my bones. Basically, being a single mom made me look for jobs abroad, when I got too frustrated with Argentina... I had no love to stay for... Also, the job market in Europe is much tighter than in the US.

9) In the long term, what have been some of the most difficult aspects of being a single mother careerwise since you came to the United States? (travel?, conferences?, cost of living? Daycare?)

Money is an issue. Since I mostly take my daughter with me wherever I go, I try to drive. I like to drive, and it is much cheaper. I found a very nice after-school day care here, it is a children's museum, very educational, with emphasis on diversity, run by a very special African American man. Interestingly, it is crowded with faculty's children. It is exactly what I would have dreamed of for my daughter. One hard thing is that not all teachers allow her to do her work when we leave town ahead of time and she has gotten lower grades this way on occasions. I only now dare to have her play soccer, and I still have to see how I can handle the evenings, with her homework, violin and soccer practice, dinner, my own work... and we got a puppy this summer in addition...

Most people in my research area know my daughter by now, she is completely unnoticeable during talks, and it's a long long time since anybody has made a face for me showing up with her. It has happened in the past. In particular the math conference center at Luminy (France) does not admit children, on insurance reasons they say. Lo and behold, I had to miss a conference this way. Years ago, at another conference I got that e-mail asking if you have any dietary restrictions, disability, etc. I said well we are all right but I have a little daughter... well it was not easy for them to take that. Eventually we managed, they helped to locate a babysitter (very expensive, but some talks I just wouldn't miss...). B was 3 I think, then. I haven't had any difficulties in the US.

10) What are some ideas you would recommend to other single mother mathematicians?

What so far has worked for me was always doing what I want. I don't know if I'll make tenure, and I don't know how I survived it physically and emotionally. I'm not sure I dare to recommend this modus operandi. I just couldn't do anything else... On the practical side, these are my suggestions: You need a notebook computer. You need dial up or other way to work from home (dump the computer in your backpack, go home, plug it in, keep working on your files). You need a cell phone (your land line will be busy with dial-up...). It helps to be in a small place: I live five minutes from campus. If I'm working at home, they know where I am and can have me at school in no time if they need me.

You need a good day care. In general, I think day care is a good thing, it's a whole social life and a whole variety of people to relate to for your kids. Having only their close family to interact with is very confining and puts a lot of pressure on kids. In the old times, kids were community-raised in large families...

Raise your children social and nice to have around. This way they won't irritate colleagues when you take them to meetings. Make a poker face when showing up at meetings and talks with your child and a sack of toys. Now that my daughter is 10 it comes easy to me, I guess I got a grip on it :). Remember there's nothing wrong with being a woman, a mother, and a mathematician. Childen and theorems are a normal part of your life, there's nothing weird to it. It is also normal to have to be creative at juggling both. As more women work in sciences, more kids will be around at meetings, and that's OK.

11) What have been some of the more helpful things your departments and the mathematics community at large have done to assist you?

More than departments I would say individual colleagues. I am still here because of the people that believed in me, that backed research plans that where very risky, that were and are patient with my slow timing and output and unusual learning choices (who would go to Warsaw to learn Geometric Measure Theory in 95-6?). And because of those that housed me, watched my daughter, and carpooled me in Louisville and Baltimore before I re-learned to drive and had a car. To Jacky Cresson (a mathematician), who helped us switch subways to get to Charles De Gaulle coming from Besancon with all the luggage (rolling staircases, stairs, etc, with a kid and all the luggage). To Thomas, whose last name I forgot, and English teacher, who picked us up at the Greyhound station in Louisville and took us to the appartement we rented. To the management of that appartement, who in view of the complications of sending a deposit from France reserved the appartment just on my word by e-mail... Here, I borrowed the money for the downpayment of my house :), it's of course payed back now.

12) In what ways could departments/universities and the math community provide more support for single parents?

Ah, this is my question!
Several things we need:

Time!!! Handling all this is very time consuming, and exhausting, and we aren't as fast at putting out theorems. Getting a grip on a new job also doesn't come from one day to the next, it takes a while until you learned to handle it all and have more of your brain free for math. Single parents don't have a "wife" to run the household for them...

Emotional support!!! Letting us be without questioning the speed of our output. Nothing is as damaging as colleagues who think you can't possibly make it. Lots of emotional support!!! A competitive atmosphere is just a killer. Unless they are perfectly fine letting you work at home... but does it have to come to this?

It is highly nontrivial to be the only woman in a department, and a single parent on top of it.

Don't let us do service!!!! Being well seasoned in human roller coaster boundary conditions, most of us are good at working with people and have a huge sense of solidarity. In addition, service makes you feel good right away (immediate payoff!!!). But it eats up your scarce time, and some colleagues will never value it, even when being good at it takes skills that are unfortunately infrequent in our profession (I guess that's why even responsible chairs tend to burden with service those that do a good job at it, and make the department look good).

Fairness should include the awareness that a middle aged single childless person has more time for math than a single parent of young kids.

Keep it flexible. Sometimes rules make things harder. It helps to just negotiate one's needs and the department's needs in good faith, mostly it's easy to match them up. One has to help in not being rigid, and it helps to be lucky to have a chair that appreciates one's being cooperative and isn't rigid either. And there's the old wisdom that if you aren't a pain a lot of people won't be a pain to you either...

Keep a sense of humour if the logistics becomes complicated and something goes out of line. If you take it in a stride, people around you likely will too.

13) Any other comments?

Probably other behind-the-scenes ingredients to how things went were my (very hispanic) notion that children are a natural part of one's life and it's perfectly fine to sometimes take them along to work, and to work at home while they are around, and to take them with you everywhere you go, and to teach them to be nice and social and keep quiet during talks or review sessions or when you give an exam. I have accordingly also had students take finals with their little kids in the room, and helped keep the kid busy while the mother was writing. Another vital ingredient is to do what you want (rather than limit your life because it's safer). Without some joy you wouldn't be able to cope and take on all the work and the stress. (That's how I bought a house and have a cat and a dog and apple trees without having tenure...). I believe in the value of having a rich live. If we are to die tomorrow... wouldn't it be a sorry thing to check out having only a few theorems to account for our time on this earth, and missing out on all the rest??

posted December 14, 2003
Marianne Korten

PS: As of the beginning of 2006, I have just been tenured, and I have my first NSF grant. I had an 18 months EPSCoR-NSF grant somewhat earlier. I have just been invited to speak at the Spring 2007 Midwest PDE Seminar. To all who are dealing with very difficult situations, I'd like to say, stick to your daily work, eventually you see it accumulate and harvest time comes. I am also very pleased to see that I got away following my taste in mathematics in spite of the riskiness of the problems. My daughter just turned 13, and is doing very well, in spite of teenagerhood. Keep the good work up, believe in yourselves, and in your right to both have a life and do research. Don't be afraid of very hard work.

Illness and Injury

"Brain Surgery and Recovery"

Michael is currently tenure track at a very good university and publishing in top journals both with and without coauthors. Here's his story:

I was diagnosed with a brain tumor (craniopharyngioma) at the mid point of my Benjamin Pierce position at Harvard. The tumor, though, benign, had grown very large as it was misdiagnosed initially and by the time it was identified surgery was so critical that it was done on Christmas eve of 1996. The main symptoms were a growing fatigue and decreased vision in my right eye which was not correctible with glasses. The operation went extremely well and I was out of the hospital before New Year's eve.

The most difficult period in the recovery was the first six months as I was not adequately informed about the side effects of the various medications I was taking. In particular, the anti-seizure medication, dilantin, produced tremendous fatigue and an inability to conentrate. I assumed, incorrectly, that these symptoms were due to decreased mental capacity caused by the surgery (indeed, the prognosis going into the operation was quite grim). I also recieved no advice, at the hospital, about what to do with work and consequently I was up teaching a Galois theory class less than a month after the operation. Needless to say this was not particularly easy, although in retrospect there is definitely something to be said for simply getting on with one's life as soon as possible rather than worrying about whether or not this will be possible. Certainly one thing I would recommend to anyone facing a difficult health problem like this is to make sure that they get as much information as possible from the health professionals treating them.

I did not seriously attempt to do mathematics until leaving Harvard and coming to the University of ---. This was partly because full mental and physical recovery genuinely took this long and partly also because it was a very scary proposition to try to get back into research since my mind was certainly not what it once was.

Since moving here, the beautiful sunshine and friendly people encouraged me to give research a try again and it has been quite successful. I am certainly not as quick, mentally, as I once was but then too I am also getting older. The important thing, indeed the ONLY thing that really matters, is that I still enjoy doing mathematics.

On a more negative note, I was definitely not pleased at all with the reaction that other mathematicians seemed to have to my difficulties. There was little encouragement offered from any source and in general I had the distinct feeling of being dismissed henceforth as a serious mathematician. A lot of this could have been in my mind and not actually correspond to reality but certainly I did not feel any sense of support. Perhaps part of the reason why this did not discourage me into leaving research altogether was the fact that when I was little I also had little source of support from my teachers and so this was not a new situation. On the other hand, this has certainly alienated me to some extent from the mathematical community and may eventually lead to my leaving mathematical research altogether (when the day comes when I no longer find it sufficiently rewarding in and of itself to be pursued).

If there is more information which I can provide or any other issues that you would like to see addressed in more detail, please don't hesitate to ask as I would be happy to supply more if needed!

I would think someone in your situation would have had difficulty finding a job. Were you able to travel? Did you ask your letter writers specifically not to mention the illness? Did it come up in interviews?

I had no particular problem travelling and did so although it was difficult. In fact, I had a job interview at --- less than three months after the surgery. This was very difficult because I was still suffering from mental and physical fatigue but in the end it was unimportant because I was not real pleased with what I saw and had already decided that I would not take the position even were it to have been offered to me. I definitely never suggested that my letter writers address my illness, or suppress it, and so I cannot really say what was in those letters. The topic did not, fortunately, come up in my job interviews but if it had I would have been completely honest about what I expect for my future as a mathematician.

When you weren't doing research, were you able to keep up to date on research in your area, reading papers or mathscinet reviews and proceedings? Were you able to attend conferences and speak on past work?

For most of the time that I was inactive, I was principally absorbed by my teaching duties and so did not invest a lot of time doing mathematics. I stopped attending the algebraic geometry seminar and really did not do much for a solid two years after the operation. I occasionally looked at journals to see what was going on but basically I was not involved in research in any way as there was still a lot of uncertainty about whether or not I would ever be able to be successful at research again.

Was there a particular math problem that inspired you to start research again? Did you tackle a relatively easy problem in your old field or switch fields?

I think that switching fields might have been a good idea just to get the feeling of starting afresh but this was a very daunting task because the main lasting side effect of the surgery is a greatly impaired short term memory which makes learning new things a real challenge. I still hope to branch out as I'll hopefully be getting tenure this year but as of the moment I am still working in the same field. In fact, a couple of years ago I thought that I had solved a problem which in many ways was the very first major problem I had ever worked on (and this would have been truly wonderful especially after the operation) but unfortunately it fell through. Still, it was exhilarating for sure.

Did it help to work with coauthors?

I did some work when I first moved out here with some coauthors and that too helped but not in a sustaining way because it was a one-project collaboration rather than something more lasting.

There is one last thing I should maybe add about all of this: just before I left Harvard in 1999 I went through six weeks of radiation therapy as the tumor had started to come back. This was not nearly as trying an traumatic as the surgery, though, and did not really set me back.

posted Decmeber 3, 2004 by Michael

Illness and Injury

"Bedrest: A difficult pregnancy"

This posting is regarding my second pregnancy during which I was placed on bedrest, but I will also comment on my first and third pregnancies. I've already commented on how the mathematics community could provide additional support in my above posting.

I don't believe that my pregnancy for my second child was exceptionally difficult. Many women I know have been put on bedrest either for preterm labor, as I was, or for other risk factors, like their age. Let me also say that although my pregnancy for my first daughter was worry-free, it also affected my career. This was especially true during the first trimester when I had 24 hour morning sickness and was hiding the fact that I was pregnant from my colleagues. I was also relieved to have finished teaching a month before my first daughter was born because the last month was a bit of a physical strain.

During my second pregnancy I was a tenure track assistant professor at the City University of New York as I am today. I am happy to say that my union guarantees up to 18 months unpaid leave for the birth of a child with the stipulation that the leave be started at the beginning of a semester. So I was lucky to already be on a leave of absense when bedrest was required during the last three months of the pregnancy.

In what ways did the difficult pregnancy affect your career and how did you choose to deal with it?

First, let me say that each pregnancy destroyed my ability to do research for the first trimester since I felt nausious all the time and couldn't concentrate. During the first pregnancy, this really depressed me until I solicited and received encouragement by email from another woman mathematician who'd mentioned the same difficulty in a Notices article: Susan Landau (

Three months without doing research isn't too bad if one can manage to teach and get ahead on service as I did. I was also quite able to tex up old math results I hadn't gotten around to typing up. Teachingwise I prepared lots of in class projects for my students so they would be busy when I had to make a quick bathroom run. Servicewise I did conference organizing and refereeing which can be done at home. I have to say that during my most recent pregnancy I had two pregnant students who also appreciated the opportunity to be able to run out of the room at a moments notice.

During the bedrest things were more serious. I was lucky to be told by my OB, who respected me, that I could avoid taking medication to stop preterm labor if I could stop it by laying on my side. The medication I was prescribed completely destroyed any ability to think whatsoever and many of my OBs patients had complained about this. Initially I thought I could use a laptop to work while lieing down but I soon discovered that anything that excited me mathematically or annoyed me caused serious contractions. This elliminated reading new articles in my field and refereeing. I was able to do a bit of conference/seminar organizing although I wasn't able to attend. However, the easiest thing for me to do was read and I took the time to learn Lorentzian geometry and some cosmology from first year graduate texts (not a big stretch for a Riemannian Geometer).

By taking another years worth of unpaid leave of absense after the birth of my second child and asking my parents and inlaws to help watch the two girls about 15 hours per week, I caught up on research. I was very glad that my husband and I had chosen a house we could afford on his salary alone and that he has been very supportive of my choice to take such a long unpaid leave.

In what ways could/did your department/institution provide support?

The best support I had was my union-guaranteed 18 month unpaid leave of absense. I must say that it was essential that this leave was guaranteed in my contract because I did not have to negotiate with my chairman about the matter.

Another positive thing is that I get 20 days paid sick leave per year which accumulates over the years. I got this sick pay during my unpaid leave however I had only accumulated 20 days because I'd only worked one year before taking the leave. It would be nice if one could borrow from future sick leaves somehow, since I don't envision using much if any of my sick leave once I'm past my childbearing years. An older colleague of mine missed an entire semester due to a very serious illness and I am happy to say he'd accumulated enough sick leave to earn money the whole time. I do not know what would have happened to me had I not been on unpaid leave when I was put on bedrest for 2 months. However, I'm sure my department would have covered for me somehow.

In what ways could the mathematics community provide additional support?

In my above posting I gave a number of suggestions which are helpful both for women with difficult pregnancies and other mathematicans with illnesses or injuries. However, I would like to add one more point here.

I was only 31 when I had my difficult pregnancy. Women who have their first pregnancy over 35 are more likely to have complications, not to mention higher risks of birth defects. However, there is a general feeling among women in the math community that having children before completing a PhD or getting tenure, would jeoperdize their mathematics careers. Thus I believe the mathematics community should be much more supportive of women having children early in their careers: during graduate school, postdocs and while pursuing tenure. These issues have been addressed many times in the past. I'll add links when I find them.

posted July 30, 2003
by Christina Sormani

Parenting Children with Special Needs

"A Daughter with Down Syndrome"

The following is an e-interview of Mary Elizabeth Bradley conducted by Christina Sormani in September 2003.

Mary Elizabeth Bradley is an Associate Professor at the University of Louisville. She specializes in partial differential equations and mathematical modelling and has 19 published papers. She received her doctorate in 1991 at the University of Virginia, She obtained her tenure-track position at UofL directly out of graduate school and, except for a leave of absence 1994-1997, has remained there. During the years 1994-1997, she visited at MIT and Brown University.

1) Can you give a brief description of your career/research/family life before your child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome?

Before R's birth, I had one child (a typical child) that is 2.5 yrs older than R. Basically, I found maternity and nursing a huge drain on me and on my career (well worth it, I might add!) and as such, I did very little research during my pregnancy with N. and the year following. I had just started getting back into the swing of research when I found out that I was pregnant with R. (This wasn't a planned pregnancy, but it wasn't an unwanted pregnancy either). So, the state of my career was a bit of a roller coaster, but with a little up-hill momentum. An important factor was my having already and recently obtained tenure. I had just begun learning a new field, which was quite a jump from my thesis/tenure work. It was not a good time for me to take on a new baby, especially one with special needs, if career is the criterion for such choices. I still had no papers in the new field and had just submitted my last paper in my former research area during my pregnancy with R. (Research has always been the toughest part of my job, so having a major interruption at a crucial time such as it was in getting my footing in a substantially new area has played a critical role in my current state of research.)

2) Did you take off time from work to help you deal with the news? Did you focus on certain aspects of work rather than other aspects to help keep yourself on track or distract yourself? Was your department supportive of your choices?

I got a hint that R. might have D.S. from a blood test at about 16 weeks gestation. Follow-up (without amnio) indicated a perfectly formed baby with a perfectly formed 4-chamber heart. So, I put D.S. out of my mind at that point.

R. was diagnosed on the table. In fact, I never held her before the news arrived. R. came in December, so I had already planned my maternity leave. This was hard (let me stress HARD) to get the University to arrange. There was no real policy in place. So, I relied on the family leave act to get 12 consecutive weeks off (6 without pay). The University then decided that they would not start the clock at R's birth, but at the beginning of the spring term.

(Everyone gets the holiday week off, so this was really the only fair way. But legally they could have started the clock on my 12 weeks the day R. was born.) Because of this set-up, I already had the spring term off from teaching. I was supposed to return to work in full research mode on April 1, 2001. In fact, I did only a small amount of work throughout the entire spring term. I helped with hiring (that started at about 4 weeks postpartum) and also went into the office about once a week to work with my graduate student. Other than this, I did not do much work until I returned to classes in the fall.

The department was really fine with everything. Our chair was wonderful and helpful.

No one on faculty expected me to come in. They all knew I had my hands full with R.

Something that needs to be understood is that R. was a very needy baby. There was no "distracting" myself, except that her heart condition distracted me from the D.S. For 10 months I strove toward R's survival. I cannot tell you how many doctors visits I took her to during those early months. Her heart condition was sufficiently severe that she failed to thrive. For 2 months we watched her weight, every calorie expended -- even how much energy it took to nurse vs. bottle feed -- before she even regained her birth weight. On top of everything else, she had reflux, so that she threw up about 1/2 to 1 ounce per feeding. It was a nightmare, counting all the calories that went in, how many were thrown up, how many were expended on the "non-essentials" like baths. She was only bathed about once per week just to conserve calories. We purchased expensive additives (not covered by insurance) to boost her caloric intake per ounce of feed. I pumped and "breast-fed" via bottle to conserve calories used during feeding. Her heart condition caused her literally to break a sweat while nursing. She had to work her heart so hard just to do existence things. We did all kinds of things to keep her from crying so that she would use as few calories as possible. I remember at one point, just before she started gaining weight that I literally thought I was losing my mind over the whole thing. I reacted as if it was a personal insult when she vomited. It was a very crazy time, one that even as I recall it now is a painful blur.

3) What helped you through this difficult time? Religion? Your husband? Was anyone in the math community especially helpful? Did your university provide counseling services?

Probably the most helpful part of dealing with the diagnosis of the D.S. was the diagnosis of the heart condition. Many of the symptoms of D.S. in an infant could also have been symptoms of her heart problem. For 10 months, I acted and practically believed that all of her problems were her heart, and if only we got her to survive through the surgery, she would be okay. This denial was an important part of getting over the hump with D.S. By the time I had discovered what part of Rs problems were D.S. vs. heart defects, I had already been living with the reality of D.S. for over a year. Gradually, as R. recovered from her heart surgery, I began to realize what D.S. was going to mean to us as a family. Consequently, I did not have a one-time cruel blow to recover from. The pain and grieving of D.S. was spread out over a longer time period than that.

I have a strong faith, too, and this helped. However, going through this time I was very lonely. We were just beginning to attend a new church, so we as a family were not yet well established there. Consequently, there was limited support there. They were great about rallying with food & stuff during the surgery, though, which was an awesome help!

My husband and I differed greatly in the way we dealt with the grief over her diagnosis. This put a strain on our marriage. We both hurt, and yet felt misunderstood by each other, so that we were not the mutual comfort to each other than one might expect. In fact, going through birth, failing to thrive, countless doctor's visits, etc., I began to see why so many marriages involving the birth of special needs children end in divorce. I'm only guessing here, but from what I've seen of special needs families, the divorce rate is about double what it is in normal society. Our marriage was (and is) strong very strong yet I still felt so isolated during that first year in R.'s life. We were grieving and dealing with things on separate tracks. This was a huge shock to me. I always had believed that if we had to go through something like this we would be "in it together": sharing each others burdens, being tender and kind. I never expected that his means of dealing with his grief would be in conflict with my way of grieving.

In spite of the difficulties we had communicating our grief to each other, my husband has always been enormous help in getting the daily tasks of feeding, bathing and clothing our two girls accomplished. This was especially true of our older child, N. The guilt can really get you. I was so exhausted and so overrun with doctors appointments and feeding issues and medications that I had nothing left for N. in those pre-surgery days. It was awful...I wouldn't wish it on my enemies.

As concerns aid from the math community, I first have to say that my department in general rallied 'round and were very supportive. No one even blinked when I didn't come back to work on April 1. When it came time for R's surgery, the department chair went out of his way to assure me that I had as long as I needed out of the classroom to take care of my daughter. His priorities for me were to care for R. and just ignore work until she was safely out of the woods. It was never spoken, but everyone knew of the possibility for failure, or death, from the surgery. It was a life or death thing and my first priority had to be my family. Several people offered to help cover my classes during Rs hospitalization. I was so grateful for that.

One moment in particular really touched my heart. A male colleague of mine met me in the hall on one of those short visits to the department (which grew longer through the summer as R's health stabilized). He had tears in his eyes as he asked me, "How do you do it, coming here and working? If it were my son, I don't think I could do it." The tenderness of concern really touched me. It went beyond professional courtesy and felt my pain. I cannot say how much that one moment has meant to me as I have gone through the trials since R's birth.

I think that our university does have some counseling services, but I never even thought about going there. I'm not sure why but there was never even a thought in my mind to pursue that route.

4) Is there anything you think the mathematics and university communities could do to help others deal with the difficult news/choices you had to make?

There are at least a few things, some from an emotional support type of reference frame and also some from the viewpoint of career help. I'll address first the emotional support.

Everyone that I know who has kids likes to brag about them, how smart they are, the cute things they do, etc. And most of us in the academic community are fairly intelligent ourselves, so the expectation is that we will have intelligent kids. When my first child was born, there was no end to the congratulations and comments about her and the expectations of beauty and intelligence. But when R. was born, there was no question about having either a brilliant or beautiful child. She was marked with Down Syndrome and thus she was mentally retarded and would have a certain "look" to her that does not speak beauty to most people. The academic community (in fact, the world at large) does not know what to say or do when someone they care for has a child like this. Most, being afraid of saying the wrong thing, simply say nothing at all. One of the most painful things during those early days was when I came into the office for the first time after R. was born. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of having borne an incompetent child. Many of my colleagues simply ignored the fact that I had a second child. Now, if I had not had a child already and had not also seen others of my colleagues go through the births of their children, I would perhaps have thought that this was just "being professional" and leaving home at home. But the contrast in welcome between N's birth and R's birth broke my heart. I don't recall having many ask to see pictures of R. and there were only a few words of congratulations. It was as if R. simply did not exist. After being the departmental "mascot" for a year during pregnancy, this was really tough. For a year, everyone showed interest about when the baby was due and how the pregnancy was going. Then suddenly, there was silence.

If there is any message I can send home, it is this. A child was born. Regardless of the pain of her diagnosis, I had again become a mother and that in itself is worth speaking to. When you have a child with a syndrome, you desperately want people to say, "Congratulations!" and too look deeply at your child with a big smile on their faces. You want to hear that it's a pretty baby, no clause about her being pretty "for being a Down's baby." Saying nothing and failing to inquire about a child is in some way saying, "I can't acknowledge a defective child." Nothing could hurt more. Even now, I have colleagues that are just finding out that I have a second child and that she has D.S. (I've been pretty well off the conference circuit since her birth.) I'm seeing colleagues for the first time since her birth that have been informed about her condition. The awkwardness hurts so badly. Please, inquire. Show me you care. Please, don't avoid my eyes when I speak of her...don't rush when looking at her picture. Please, do ask to see a picture of her. She is not a monster. She's a baby. Don't suddenly hush the conversation about your child's achievements when I walk into the room. I, too, have children and want to praise their accomplishments. Listen to my praise for my late-blooming one, who walked at age 2.5 and at age 2.75 still does not say "Mommy." When it does happen, it will be worth great rejoicing!

Concerning the career aspects, I have a couple major suggestions.

1. Offer to collaborate on a research project, and make it clear that you don't expect quick delivery, don't mind providing extra guidance and background, and don't mind publishing partial results rather than a seminal paper. It is miserably difficult to get back up on the research horse after having 2 or 3 years of being totally focused on survival. I'm attempting to do that now and the jury is still out as to whether my research career will make it or not. I haven't had a paper submitted since I was pregnant with R. My departmental colleagues have been wonderfully patient, not expecting much during these difficult years and not giving me poor marks on my annual reviews. I am humbled by this and want to express my intense appreciation for that.

2. When your colleague is in crisis, offer to grade papers for them. I got terrible teaching evaluations the semester that R. had her surgery. A major complaint was that I didn't get homework and tests graded quickly enough. It was true! Some homework came back to the students after their final exam! The fact was, I could not muster the additional energy and time to grade. Our department does not have graders for any class, so there is no way anyone would think I had one. (Those of you in departments with funds for graders, just thank your lucky stars!) It just never occurred to anyone to ask...and I was too embarrassed to suggest such an imposition on someone else's time. Even a small amount of help in the grading arena would have been a great = blessing.

5) Briefly describe your child's heart condition/operation or give a weblink.

R. had 4 heart defects: an Atrial Septum Defect (ASD), a Ventricle Septum Defect (VSD), an unclosed PDA. (these are the a., b. and c. of the classification - Acynotic and a leafed mitral valve (#2 under Mitral valve diseases ~ 3/4 of the way down) on the web page:

6) How much time did you give yourself to spend with your child at the time of the operation and recovery?

I spent one week in the hospital with her. (This is literal. I slept on a daybed sort of thing in her room.) She came home on Friday, Oct. 5 and I went back to work on Monday, Oct. 8.

7) In what ways were your department/university supportive? What additional support would have been helpful at that time?

I think I have already answered this one above...

8) What aspects of work were the easiest to handle at this time?

None. I remember wishing that I could have taken the entire first year of R's life off, even without pay, but we were not in a financial position to do that. I think the university would have been supportive of this, had I been able to manage it financially.

9) How did you reintroduce yourself to research?

I am currently trying to do this after many previous attempts that have not been very successful. My plan of action is taking a semester sabbatical (Fall 2003) and trying to build up collaborations. (All of mine pretty well dried up during the last 3 years of inactivity). I am not sure that I'll make it back over the hump. It's a bit of an inertia thing. Once you get rolling, it is not so difficult to roll. But if you have been stationary, getting the boulder to move takes massive effort and concentration. Since I am still the mother of a toddler, and one that is developmentally delayed at that, it is miserably hard to get that level of energy and focus going.

10) In what ways could the math/university communities provide additional support for mathematicians who need time to help a seriously ill family member?

1. Offer a small re-entry grant to help with S&E and travel expenses. Allow this to be used for computer software/hardware. Most grants exclude this, but it is really needed!

Well, my little one is now on my lap trying to feed me a "cookie" (really it's a coaster), so my time for this work is at an end for now. This session was written from 5:00 - 7:00 a.m.

It is now 10:15 p.m. and time to revisit this e-interview...

2. Let the clock stand still, if the person so desires, concerning tenure and promotion. I had tenure (got it just before R. was born) so this was not an issue for me. But I could not even imagine the pressure if I had to go up for tenure a couple of years after her birth. That level of stress would probably have driven me right out of the field.

3. Again, especially if you are a senior member in your colleague's research area, offer to collaborate and help them get reestablished in their research program. Perhaps even submit a joint proposal with them to help them get back to where they were before.

11) In the long run, how have you handled having a child of special needs? Are you able to attend conferences? Do you need flexible work hours? Do you often work from home?

I handle R. much like a parent handles any child. When she needs me, I am there for her. This means a lot of hardship for my career. I am just now starting to attend conferences again. I usually get maybe one or 2 per year at most. And these typically need to be very short, like 2- or 3-day conferences. This summer I went for 8 days (a 4-day conference, but also with weekend stay). It was the first truly restful break for me since R. was born. I had a chance to talk with colleagues I had not seen for as much as 6 years. It was wonderful to be "back."

I absolutely must have flexible hours. Otherwise I would never be able to manage all of the doctors appointments, therapies, and other general interruptions that come with having children in general and a special needs child in particular. I have taken to believing that my work is "task oriented" and to simply try to get things done fast enough to have the time available for R's and N's needs. I can't add hours to my days, and there is no way I could get everything done for the girls on just evenings and weekends. I do work from home, but if the girls see me they want me. As an example, R. will not let me sit at the computer and work, but will be in my lap (or crying while trying to get into my lap) and then pounding the keys as I am trying to type. There are many times, though that they are distracted to play without me and I can be reasonably productive at home during those times.

12) How has your department/university been accommodating your needs?

They have been wonderful. So far, no one has to clocked my hours or has demanded that I be in the office for 8 hour days. If my teaching evaluations are good and my students are satisfied, then I've succeeded in the teaching component of my job. They have been extremely patient on the research productivity end of things. (Much more so than I could have hoped.) It seems that my colleagues consider productivity not necessarily to be measured in the number of papers submitted and accepted. They are happy to count the many other efforts toward productivity. This includes, for example, training graduate students, working on new areas of research for a period of time without publications, attending workshops, being mentored, as well as being collegial in talking with other researchers on their problems and generally showing interest in what my colleagues are doing. Thus far, no one at the university has criticized my productivity...except myself, of course. I am a very harsh critic of myself. Most of the time, I feel inadequate and ashamed of my feeble, often unsuccessful, attempts at research. The fly in the ointment is concentration, something that I have only in low quantities. I wish that I could do more, that there was more of me to go around.

13) In what ways could the math/university community help other parents in your situation?

Be reassuring. Lower your expectations of their performance until life again stabilizes. And realize that this time period may be measured in years, not days or weeks. (For my husband, this required about a year, until R. was safely recovered from surgery. For me, the time has been much more extensive due to her continuing health and rehabilitation problems.) Praise the work that does get done. Offer to help were possible. But most of all, be Patient and Positive (with capital P's!). Take a moment to reiterate this positive attitude to your colleague. Remind them (especially the mom's) that they are doing well for what they have on their plates and that you are proud to be their colleague. For me at least, emotional support goes a long way toward building back what has been let go. Knowing that my colleagues acknowledge that my struggle did not end with R's surgery would be a great boon to me.

14) Do you know of any helpful websites?

I am sorry to say that I don't.

15) Pot Porri: Other questions you would like to address.

These are the hard questions that Christina was too polite to ask, but which I have been exposed to, either before I had a special needs child or as the unspoken, but well understood question on the faces of friends, neighbors or colleagues.

15a) Didn't you consider abortion? Don't you realize how much this child will consume in resources (health benefits, welfare, your time & energy)? Why would you choose to have this child and then labor so hard to save her life, considering her heart problems?

No. My religious beliefs keep me from even remotely considering the option of abortion. Her life is a life that God has sent and I respect His timetable in bringing her life to fruition and completion.

Now, having said this did it ever occur to me that my life would be easier if choice was a choice for me? Sure. The agony of knowing that my second and last child would (possibly) have D.S. was a horrible specter, which haunted me. Never did I want my elder child to have another burden to bear during my husbands and my old age and after our deaths. If there had been a way to erase the pregnancy, reversing time and playing a re-do, I would probably have been in front of the line requesting it. In fact, I am very glad that I did not know of a certainty that R. would have D.S. The simple hope that perhaps she would be typical helped me get through my pregnancy without too much emotional pain. But never could I have ended this pregnancy without an even greater specter haunting me that of the lost possibil is, even so early in life, on state and federal budgets. We receive therapies during the first 3 years of Rs life, virtually free of charge (a monthly co-pay of $50), which the state must pay for. Yes, it humbles me. I am so grateful for all that the Commonwealth of Kentucky has done and continues to do on behalf of my daughter. I do notice the amount of money ou to make happy. She reminds me that my perspective on what is healthy, good, even normal, is skewed by my cultural bias toward my own personal ease. She has made it easy to look at and smile at almost any disabled child without grimace. Truly, these are blessings.

15b) What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to raise a child with D.S.?

My kingdom for an ounce of impulse control! R. has no concept of what it is to control her impulses, nor does she have a clue about why such control would be a good thing. As an example of this: She was chalking on the walls in the basement, when I told her to stop and come chalk on the chalkboard. She looked up from her artwork with a look that said, Why? This one (the wall) is closer. After much insistence on my part, she gave in to my demands with a sigh of resignation. It was very clear to me that she had no idea why I thought the chalkboard was the place for chalking. It was also clear to me that she cared about pleasing me, even if my request made no sense to her.

This leads also to the question of discipline. This is an amazingly difficult challenge, because it is not clear what avenue to take. At her present developmental stage, time outs would have to be enforced by tying her to the chair or physically restraining her amidst her fear-laden cries. (This mom's heart isn't up for that) Spanking isn't a recommended mode of discipline for any child, and even less for a child with low muscle tone. With low tone, the skin has a less receptive nerve response than that of a person with normal tone, so that a general slap on the hands may actually feel good! (So much for it being a discipline!) Taking things away, like the crayon if she marks on the walls, is a little bit effective. (At least there won't be any new marks on the wall until she gets a hold of the crayon box again!) The only truly effective discipline is natural cause and effect. Example: We had tried everything to get R. to stop pushing off from the table while sitting (with seat buckled) in her booster chair. Well, she continued until one day she pushed the chair over with a bang, complete with head hitting the floor. She has never pushed her feet against the table again. The moment she gets an itch for it, she stops abruptly. Now, this is all well and good, except how do you teach her not to put her hands on the stove? (She can just reach to put her fingers around the heating unit.) How do you teach her not to run out into the street? These are serious problems, since the cause-effect mechanism would come at an outrageously high price to her. And again, what do you do about issues of property damage or politeness and etiquette? At this point, I dont have any answers. Suggestions are welcome!

Another biggie is the impossible demands that a special needs child brings to motherhood. To help R. on the road to her best self requires so much time, energy and creativity that I cant imagine anyone joyfully stepping up to the plate and saying, Yep, I can do that. No problem! Personally, I shrink from the task, often overwhelmed both by the enormity of the task and the enormity of the consequences should I fail to press onward in completing it.

15c) Is there any information about Down Syndrome that you would like to tell the general public?

Yes. Very few people without a special needs child have any idea of what is involved in their care, nor do they understand what conditions are involved. For example, when you say "Down Syndrome" the immediate thought is a picture of a mentally retarded person with a particular look about them. There is no idea of what current expectations for such a child are, nor of the level of involvement that it takes to bring such a child into their full potential. Here, I want to comment on what I view as the major issue for children with D.S. (and most chromosomal syndromes) and it is not mental retardation!

A child with a "syndrome" typically has "low muscle tone." This is distinct from muscle strength. The tone refers to the muscle's "readiness to do work" or the underlying tension in the muscle when the muscle is actually at rest. With good tone, a normal baby/child will perform graduated movement fluidly. Without it, muscles jerk from one extreme position to another. To perform even the most basic of movements, the child must be taught how to use additional strength to compensate for lack of tone. Learning to compensate takes hours upon hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy, not to mention hours upon hours of practice when the therapists are not there. At least one parent is expected to attend these therapy sessions (R. has 4 one-hour sessions per week). No one chides you if you can't be there, but it is clear that your child will only achieve as much as you are willing to invest yourself in his/her improvement. This is an additional difficulty in balancing career and family that the typical mathematician never has to deal with. And the problem is tough enough without it!

15d) Is there anything else you would like to add? (A few little tidbits on what to say & do and what not to say & do when a colleague has a special needs child)

1. The capacity of special needs children to learn and to become contributing members in society is changing rapidly. No longer should one assume that the diagnosis of D.S. implies that this child will not grow up to be a reasonably self-sufficient adult. Dream high expectations, while leaving a safety net for those expectations that will remain unfulfilled. It is a very difficult thing to balance "reality" with your dreams for your child. My dreams for R. are much the same as for N. The difference is that I know that R. will some day reach her limitations, and that ultimately I will have to accept those limits even if they are far below what I want for her.

2. The grieving process with a syndrome like D.S. is never completely finished. At every milestone there is another reminder of the long road we've taken to get there, and how far behind "normal" R. is. This leads to the question of how much farther she ultimately will be able to go. It never stops hurting completely. It more or less undulates, with times that are very good and feeling very content and other times that are so painful it is hard to speak of.

3. It doesn't help me to hear that you saw a person with D.S. scrubbing tables at McDonald's "and doing a great job of it!" I really don't want that to be my daughter's ultimate job experience and am pained at such a thought. Don't tell me how "wonderful" it is that my daughtemight actually learn to read on a 3rd grade level. Don't enthusiastically condemn my child to a future that would pain you to see your own child in. But yes, observe the people that you see in society that have these syndromes and who have made incredible strides to get as far as they have. Then dream of how much farther my child may go, standing their shoulders.

Posted November 10, 2003
by Mary Elizabeth Bradley