Mathematics and Me

I recently read this pretty amazing article, written by a computer programmer who recognized the importance that the privilege of being male and Asian had for his development and ultimate success as a programmer.

Dandelin's spheres, my favourite mathematical proof.

Dandelin’s spheres, my favourite mathematical proof.

This got me thinking about my own relationship with mathematics, and how I perhaps had also benefited from the privilege of being (South) Asian. This might be an odd thing for me to say, since I don’t do maths now and once upon a time definitely wanted to be a mathematician. I might therefore appear to be evidence for the leaky pipeline–a woman who wanted to do mathematics but didn’t. However, viewing me as a statistic misses the most important feature of my interaction with maths–that I got to leave mathematics on my own terms.

Growing up in India and studying in an elite but offbeat boarding school, there was never a question about whether women could do maths. I can’t recall anyone ever telling me that girls were inherently worse at maths or science than boys, and since we girls almost always topped these subjects in my class, I wouldn’t have taken such a suggestion seriously anyway. I continued taking maths classes when I started my undergrad degree, and continued to do well, but also took many biology classes and could see my interests solidifying in the direction of ecology and evolutionary biology. When I decided, after taking abstract algebra and real analysis, that I would make better use of my remaining time in college by taking literature and art classes than by finishing the math major, the decision had nothing to do with how I’d been treated, implicitly or explicitly, in maths classes or by maths professors.

My experience seemed in stark contrast to the one outlined in this hard-hitting article about women in science. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“Mostly, though, I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame. Pained by the dream I had failed to achieve, I locked my textbooks, lab reports and problem sets in my father’s army footlocker and turned my back on physics and math forever.”

It was only on reading this that I realised how lucky I had been. Not only had I never been told I couldn’t do maths, I’d also been constantly encouraged by my professors to continue with the math major even when I decided that I didn’t want to. One math professor in particular brought this up in almost every conversation I had with him, and at the time I found his behaviour kind but a little odd, wondering if he didn’t believe my reasons for not wanting to major in math. It’s only now that I recognise how important his encouragement was in letting me leave maths on my own terms, that because of it I’ll never doubt my reasons for leaving.

I don’t quite understand the role that growing up in India and being South Asian has had in making my experience so positive. I’m sure it’s been important, though, and is something I want to explore more, so let me know if you have any thoughts!

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