Q&A with Wall Scholar Malabika Pramanik

January 7, 2019

Photo: Paul Joseph.

By Katie Stannard

How does math relate to the way music is composed? Why is it so important to tackle isolation and a lack of adequate role models for women and minorities in STEM? 

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) caught up with Malabika Pramanik, a 2018 Wall Scholar and Professor in Mathematics at the University of British Columbia, to discuss her research, why she considers herself a “mathematical Lego builder,” the experience of being a woman and a minority in STEM, and her mentorship program.

PWIAS: How would you describe your research to someone with limited knowledge of your field?

Malabika Pramanik: I work in an area of mathematics called harmonic analysis. The word harmonic often generates an image of music. One of the early applications of harmonic analysis was understanding how music is composed of different notes and frequencies and how they superimpose together to generate an intricate piece of orchestral music. This early application of taking an extremely complex structure and breaking it up into simpler components has become a core theme in harmonic analysis.

I’m kind of like a mathematical Lego builder. I figure out how mathematical pieces’ work and join together to build objects. Once I finish building “Lego”, I try to figure out what it is good for and how I can make something real out of the model.


Photo: Paul Joseph.

PWIAS: What does the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies provide that you are looking forward to?

M.P.: Usually, in a university setting, we dive into tunnels of specialization and lose the ability to communicate with serious scholars in other disciplines. And yet there is a deep commonality in the way we conduct research. The way we first raise questions, perceive the technical hurdles, and how we systematically address concerns or identify parameters of problems. What I think the Institute does is bring this commonality in focus while celebrating the diverse strengths of its scholars.

The Institute forces me to place my research in the proper context in this vast tapestry of human knowledge, and it requires me to showcase my research in a way that is relatable to the scholars in my cohort. We have a group of extremely distinguished academics who are not only great at what they do but are generous and kind enough to pay attention and listen to each other. In such a warm and welcoming environment, my short-term goal is to adequately communicate my research, passions, and interests, and in reciprocation learn more about what my fellow colleagues do.

Taking a more ambitious perspective, I hope that our cohort can find connections for growth and development in a research direction that I myself would never have been able to undertake given my current expertise. The scholars at the Institute have such a varied skillset, that occasionally it seems that almost any challenge could be surmounted by pulling together the diverse adeptness that the cohort has to offer.


Photo: Paul Joseph.

PWIAS: What is your experience working in STEM as a woman and minority?

M.P.: As an undergraduate, I was one of two women in a cohort of 25 students at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta. I had difficulties fitting in and my good grades were often attributed to my hard work. Looking back, I feel proud of that hard work but back then the culture of academia was that you had to be brilliant, and I never internalized that I had an innate intelligence that was worthy of celebration.

When I went to graduate school in the United States, I suffered from culture shock and had difficulties adjusting to explicitly putting your strengths and accomplishments out there to garner respect and recognition. Whether it is my personality or the culture that I came from, I struggled with this.

Throughout my experience in academia, I felt isolated since I did not know where I fit inside the mathematical community. Based on many conversations with people at different stages of their career, it slowly grew upon me that I wasn’t alone. Many students, peers, and senior researchers in the field, especially women and racialized individuals, have felt the same sense of isolation.

PWIAS: You lead a summer program for students called Diversity in Math, can you describe that program and its objectives?

M.P.: Diversity in Math is a series of summer camps and workshops at the University of British Columbia which attempt to tackle isolation and lack of adequate role models in STEM. Participants interact with members who can explain the different career paths available in science and technology, creating opportunities for connection and guidance.

The program has two intertwined sections. A mathematics day camp for B.C.’s Lower Mainland high school students, geared towards underprivileged youth. The other is an undergraduate summer school for women studying mathematics or a related discipline in Canada or the northwest United States. Diversity in Math enables high school students with disadvantaged backgrounds to discover more about the journey they can take at a post-secondary institution and give undergraduate women opportunities of leadership as they interact with and act as mentors to the high school students.

There are a number of high school students who love math but are constrained by disadvantaged backgrounds to see the value of mathematics at the university level, or they are unsure if pursuing advanced degrees is a viable option. Diversity in Math participants who attend the day camp for high school students include youth with socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous, and recent immigrants. It can be a challenge for Indigenous students to relate to mathematics because there is a disconnect between the traditional mathematical curriculum and how it is woven into their lives and traditions. Recent young immigrants may have lower English literacy but have strong math abilities, and their families may not be aware of the resources available for students, or their financial needs may limit their options. As children catch up academically in other areas, Diversity in Math can act as a validation of the students existing strengths and provide information about their options for post-secondary studies.

Many of the undergraduate participants are the only women in their programs, and there are limited opportunities for them to discover how they can continue working in STEM. We bring panelists in who are able to speak to the challenges of underrepresentation and how to overcome them, as well as speakers from a range of applications of mathematics such as academia and industry so participants are able to get a sense of the diverse career paths available.