NCUWM inspires pursuit of math

Students present their research at one of two poster sessions at the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics in January 2015. LINDSAY AUGUSTYN/UNL CSMCE

The high demand for a spot at the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics causes online registration to fill and close in a matter of hours.

Yes, you read that right.

“Presenter slots fill up in about a day and a half, and when non-presenter registration opens after that, the remaining spots are gone within three hours,” said Stephanie Vendetti, events coordinator for the UNL Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, which manages NCUWM’s logistics for the Department of Mathematics.

So, what makes more than 250 undergraduates and 100 faculty, invited speakers and invited graduate students from institutions across the country come to UNL in January for this annual three-day conference? With a mission to arm undergraduate participants with knowledge about career options and educational programs in mathematics, self-confidence in their abilities and choices, and a network of peers with related goals and interests, NCUWM is highly popular because, simply, it opens up a world of new opportunities.

“It’s successful because it makes a difference in individual lives,” said Glenn Ledder, who is co-chair of the conference organizing committee, along with Christine Kelley, and has been a part of NCUWM for 11 years. “One of our panelists last year told the audience how she had never been encouraged in mathematics in spite of always doing well. She came to NCUWM and realized that she could do what some of the panelists had done. She called her mother and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to go to graduate school in mathematics!’ Now she is a professor at Oberlin College.”

NCUWM has grown tremendously since its first year in 1999, when it had 43 undergraduate participants and all the sessions were held in the same room, to this year’s 260 undergraduates, five sessions of three concurrent student talks and two poster sessions, said Judy Walker, chair of the math department and founder of NCUWM.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency, NCUWM also features two plenary speakers, three panel discussions and 15 distinct breakout session topics, giving the students ample chances to learn more about careers in mathematics.

Thirteen-time conference attendee Sue Geller, professor of mathematics at Texas A&M University, said NCUWM is beneficial because it helps female students learn that “there are lots of women their age in math, so they are not weird or alone. Many friendships which were started at NCUWM develop and deepen over the years. There are also enough faculty, almost all women, for the students to have one-on-one mentoring time if they want it. The chance to be with that many women who love math is exhilarating.”

The conference also has been described as feeling like “home” by several participants, including Geller and Lauren Keough, who received her Ph.D. from UNL in 2015 and was UNL’s 2014 graduate student representative at NCUWM. Keough will be attending in 2016 as a faculty member from Davidson College and is bringing four students.

“I hope that my students, being from a small college, will be able to expand their networks by making connections with both their peers and more senior women in the field,” Keough said. “Everyone, from the organizers and staff to the invited speakers and the undergraduates, is incredibly friendly. NCUWM has always felt to me like being at home.”

NCUWM fosters a real community among female undergraduate math majors who may otherwise feel isolated at their home institutions, said Kelley, who has worked on the conference since 2008.

Ledder added that most undergraduates are surprised to find out that they can get paid to be a graduate student in mathematics, and they are unaware each math graduate program can be very different.

“I recommend NCUWM to undergraduate women in our RIPS program because the students find it inspiring to be in the presence of so many women who study or work in mathematics,” said Stacey Beggs of UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics. “Also, it’s a supportive environment for them to present their research.”

The Jan. 29-31, 2016, conference plenary speakers are Emina Soljanin of Bell Laboratories and Abigail Thompson of the University of California, Davis. Visit the website to learn more about the other invited guests and graduate students.

“You would think after attending this conference every year since 1999 it would eventually get old or routine for me. But, it doesn’t,” Walker said. “Every year I am amazed and inspired anew by the participants.”

– Lindsay Augustyn