Diversity in Mathematics Summer School aims to tackle underrepresentation

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By Clare Skillman

This story was originally published in The Ubyssey
Photo courtesy of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences.

When asked what she feels is the biggest obstacle to including women and minorities in STEM, Dr. Malabika Pramanik, a professor of mathematics at UBC, responded, “what I hear every year, in every cohort, is the sense of isolation. The feeling that we are really misfit in a discipline where the show of smartness seems to be the norm.”

Pramanik decided to tackle this barrier by founding the Diversity in Mathematics Summer School. The program consists of two weeks of workshops and summer camps aimed to inspire students, primarily those who identify as female, non-binary, and/or two-spirit, to believe in their abilities and view higher education or a career in mathematics as a viable option.

The feeling that Pramanik identified as a barrier to the inclusion of women and minorities in STEM is also known as “imposter syndrome,” which is a psychological pattern that causes the individual to be afraid and to constantly feel as though they are not good enough or a fraud. These fears create a significant mental barrier to women and minorities regardless of their actual talents. Therefore, fostering a supportive environment and connecting students with mentors early on can greatly help to reduce fears that would otherwise hold students back.

The summer school is comprised of two sister programs: one for high school students from the Lower Mainland and another for female-identified undergraduate students studying at a Canadian university. The two programs are interwoven so that undergraduate students can serve as mentors for their younger counterparts.

“We try to focus on students who love mathematics and who should be thinking of pursuing a university career but are not necessarily doing so right now,” said Pramanik.

Although the high school component was only added in 2018, the undergraduate component has existed in some form since 2012. Each week focuses on a different research-intensive and contemporary area of mathematics that is not taught in the students’ curriculum.

Dr. Malebogo Ngoepe, a professor based in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town, facilitator for the 2019 first week module and visiting scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies said:

“It’s been really life giving. There’s something quite incredible about being able to work with women and female students in mathematics, which is typically a very male-dominated field.”

Ngoepe’s specialty is applying computational fluid dynamics models to biological systems. She emphasized that the inclusion of women and minorities in STEM is particularly important because they will help shape which issues are addressed in research.

For example, one of the activities that the students completed this year was developing a fluid mechanics model of a disease or condition of the body. One of the groups chose to examine what effect Von Willebrand disease — a type of bleeding disease — had on the periods of women with the condition.

“If you don’t have women studying that field, I can almost guarantee you that that won’t come up,” said Ngoepe. “The importance of mentoring women in STEM is so that STEM subjects can be more balanced, and we can use our collective intelligence resources to address challenges that face all of humanity.”

Applications for the summer school open in April for undergraduate students and July for high school students. As is stated on the program’s website, “Only a stable support network can enhance minority representation in STEM fields. The program will not just teach exciting math, but also showcase role models and create a self-sustaining support system by training future leaders.”