Bryn Mawr Professor Wins First-Ever Mentorship Award From Association for Women in Mathematics

Posted July 28th, 2010 at 4:44 pm.

hughesphoto of Rhonda HughesGood mentoring can make a career, says Bryn Mawr Professor of Mathematics Rhonda Hughes. Hughes has devoted much of her own career to ensuring that good mentoring is available to women in mathematics.

At Bryn Mawr, generations of students have benefited from Hughes’ attention and encouragement, building confidence that is evident in the popularity of the math major at Bryn Mawr.

As the co-founder of the EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education) program, Hughes has also spent years establishing nationwide mentoring networks that help women negotiate the transition to graduate school and professional life in mathematics departments.

Hughes’ remarkable record of success has now been recognized by the Association for Women in Mathematics, which has chosen Hughes as the winner of its very first M. Gweneth Humphreys Award for Mentorship of Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. It is the latest in a long series of laurels Hughes has won.

“This prize honors the memory of M. Gweneth Humphreys,  a gifted scholar whose career was dedicated to the mathematical education of generations of young women at what was a woman’s college for many years, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College,” said Carol Wood, the Wesleyan University professor who chaired the selection committee. “I am delighted at the caliber of worthy nominees, and it seems especially sweet and apt that the first recipient’s home base is a college for women.”

Mathematics is consistently among the most popular majors at Bryn Mawr. In the last five years, for example, more than eight percent of the College’s bachelor’s degrees have been awarded to math majors—a figure that dwarfs the national average of about one percent. Provost Kimberly Cassidy gives much of the credit to Hughes.

“When Professor Hughes was hired in 1980, there were only three faculty members in the Math Department and very few majors,” Cassidy notes. Hughes’ “vision and very hard work” were instrumental in making the math department a welcoming environment, she says.

Sadly, says Hughes, departments that encourage all students to embrace math are the exception rather than the rule.

“In math, there’s always somebody who thinks they’re doing you a favor by telling you that you’re not cut out for it,” she says. “But they’re usually wrong! Success in higher math is very hard to predict. I don’t think anybody knows how to predict who’s going to do well, so we ought to encourage everybody.”

Statistics suggest that Bryn Mawr’s math department has put this principle into practice.  Behind those numbers are scores of young women whose precollege experience with math had done little to stoke their enthusiasm for the discipline. At Bryn Mawr, they learned to appreciate the beauty of numbers and to believe in their own ability to work with them.

Talk to Bryn Mawr math majors, and you hear almost endless variations on that narrative, often leading to stellar careers in math and math-related fields.

Annalisa Crannell (left) and her daughter Iolanthe Good (center), who were both recruited to the math major by Hughes (right)

Annalisa Crannell (left) and her daughter Iolanthe Good (center), who were both recruited to the math major by Hughes (right)

One of those stories is told by Annalisa Crannell ’87, now a professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College. Crannell arrived at Bryn Mawr determined to major in language studies. Two analysis courses with Hughes changed her mind.

“Our analysis class was full of women who were inspired by our professor to personalize mathematics and make it their own (although I don’t think we told Professor Hughes about the theorem we renamed as the ‘pizza/sex theorem’),” Crannell wrote in a letter in support of Hughes’ nomination. “When I taught my first analysis course at Franklin & Marshall College, I modeled it on the class that Rhonda had taught to me.”

Crannell later followed Hughes’ footsteps in winning the Mathematics Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics.

“Two dozen years after I did,” Crannel continues, “my daughter entered Bryn Mawr intending to major in Latin. She enrolled in ‘one last’ calculus course (taught by Rhonda), and in that class Rhonda convinced her to continue on through Linear Algebra and into the math major. My daughter and I are two generations of female undergraduates whom Rhonda encouraged to pursue mathematics.”

The Humphreys Award selection committee was impressed by both the stats and the stories. “It is relatively easy—worthwhile but easy—to encourage an undergraduate arriving at college with a solid record of accomplishment in mathematics and with eagerness to learn more,” the committee said.  “However, our committee took particular note of the risk-taking involved, to say nothing of the hard work, in Hughes’ encouragement of students whose potential had previously gone unnoticed, even by the students themselves.”

Alumnae of Bryn Mawr and EDGE have carried that commitment to mentoring younger women with them to their professional lives around the world.

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