Women in math

Women in math: graduate program celebrates largest class to date

October 18, 2019

They are the future of mathematics, and though they come from different backgrounds and geographical locations, they share one thing in common: These women are on a mission to make their mark in a historically male-dominated industry. 

“Women can do literally anything they want to do,” said Makayla Cowles, one of six incoming female doctoral students in CU Denver’s Department of Mathematical & Statistical Sciences—the largest incoming class of women in the history of the department’s graduate programs. In total, 32 of 90 graduate students in the department, or roughly 36%, are women. For comparison, the national average of female math PhD students is about 29%, according to the National Science Foundation

The advantage: a larger female presence in the industry serves as inspiration for young female mathematician hopefuls, said Stephanie Santorico, PhD, the Director of Statistical Programs and co-director of graduate programs in the department. Growing up, she didn’t have any female role models in mathematics, and she wants that to change. 

“I would love for girls coming up who like math to see that there are people just like them who are doing it,” Santorico said. “I really think the visibility is important.” 

Santorico and other faculty members in the department highlight the need for mathematicians in general, and they emphasize that math can be applied to a number of careers—research, academia, meteorology, science, the list goes on. “Research is a huge part of the job, but there are other places you can go and do research,” said Emily Speakman, PhD, the newest female faculty member in the department. 

Having a female perspective in the classroom benefits the learning environment. As in all areas of life, diversity is a good thing. “Women bring an important perspective to math,” said PhD student Kirana Bergstrom. “They have tenacity, creativity. They bring different life experiences and different approaches.”

In the close-knit cohort of female PhD students, the mindset is perseverance, determination, and support for one another. They are working to establish a local chapter of the American Women in Mathematics Association, which would increase visibility on campus through sponsored events, and hopefully recruit more females to the department. 

Reasons for pursuing a PhD in mathematics differs among the six students and faculty members, but in many cases one professor or mentors’ guidance paved the way. 

“If I can even come a little close to doing what my mentor did for me as a student, then that would be amazing,” Speakman said. “School is hard, and sometimes you don’t realize you’re good at something unless someone tells you you are good at something.”

Hear from a few current PhD candidates in Mathematical & Statistical Sciences:

Originally from Portland, Kirana Bergstrom is working toward her PhD in computational mathematics while conducting research on wildfire modeling. Math wasn’t always in her plan–in high school she didn’t even really like the subject. Her undergraduate professors changed that. “They were very attentive and inspiring, and they were passionate about teaching,” Bergstrom said. She aspires to be a researcher at a national lab. Her message to others: “It’s really important to get more people in general who are specialists and experts in the field. There are a lot of important world issues that math can help to solve.” 

Drew Horton, a native of California, attended undergrad at a community college where in the math department more than 50% of faculty were women with tenure. Her advisors and mentors told her to continue her education somewhere with a strong female presence. “And that’s why I was really excited about CU Denver,” Horton said. She’s working toward her PhD in discrete math and graph theory and hopes to someday be a professor at her undergrad alma mater. “Women should be encouraged to pursue whatever they like, and if that’s math then it’s important to have other women there for support,” she said.

Makayla Cowles, from Southern California, was drawn to math because of its versatility. “With math, you can really research any topic,” she said. She’s unsure of her specialty area but she’s leaning toward computational math. She aspires to use her skills in a research lab. For now, she’s excited about the future of women in science and math. “I think it’s still very majority men, and I think having women being involved shows other people that women are present in this field.”