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Joan S. Birman, Columbia University

In her acceptance speech for the Satter Prize, Dusa McDuff wrote about the crooked path she followed before she found her creative voice. I wandered along other crooked paths and would like to share some of my experiences with you.

I was forty-one when I received my Ph.D. and began a career as a research mathematician in academia. A plausible explanation might be that (like some of today's students) I did not discover the beauties of mathematics until I was past the traditional age, but that was not the case. Some of my earliest pre-school memories are of fascination with patterns and the way things ``fit together.'' Moreover, in elementary and high school, I excelled in mathematics and even had some excellent teachers who encouraged and challenged me. What went wrong, and, even more, was it ``wrong''?

The simple truth is that at some point during college, and more particularly at age twenty-one, when I graduated from college, the deep commitment which was required to become a professional mathematician did not seem so appealing to me. While I knew I wanted more from life than the traditional woman's role as a homemaker, I was less clear about the precise alternatives. When the opportunity came to take a math-related job which would not require the kind of total involvement which I knew must go with a full-time graduate program, I veered off to the side, beginning what stretched into a fifteen-year detour. I worked in what was called ``Systems Analysis'' in the aircraft industry. Later, as my three children were born, my work went down to two days a week, then one, and finally (briefly), none. I didn't have to do it that way, but it was pleasant to be with my children as they grew and developed. Moreover, it did not feel right to me to hand over a matter as important as the day-to-day supervision of my children's growth and development to strangers.

I was thirty-six when I found myself in an evening graduate course at the Courant Institute. My initial goal had been to maintain some small level of competence in preparation for an eventual return to full-time work, but I was actually unclear about where I was heading and simply did what seemed interesting and possible at the time. To my pleasure and surprise, the challenge of graduate work was wonderful! To be sure, I was rusty, but that did not seem insurmountable because, as a compensation, maturity had given me an ability to focus and to concentrate in a way which had seemed impossible fifteen years earlier. Also, I could set my own pace, taking on more as I could handle more. Eventually, I did need help at home, but that was an easier matter once children were in school all day. Also, I did much of my work at home.

I think there was lots of good luck in my subsequent experiences. My husband was on the faculty at NYU, so it was natural for me to apply to the Courant Institute, where my tuition was free. As it turned out, it not only had a world-class mathematics department and a group of talented full time Ph.D. students, but it was also extraordinarily welcoming and open to its part-time students, a rag-tag lot with diverse backgrounds and goals. I was lucky to find fellow students who were tolerant of the middle-aged lady in their midst, and we worked together. When I was stuck on a difficult point, I sought and obtained the help I needed, and it was gratifying when sometimes my insights helped others. As for the faculty, most paid attention to my work and not to my age or sex. Later, my thesis topic was immediately absorbing, and when the creative ideas came and I solved the problem, it was deeply satisfying. When I received my Ph.D., the job prospects seemed dim, but with incredible good fortune, I stumbled into an excellent job at the Stevens Institute of Technology. There I found a colleague with whom I did joint work (the first of many such collaborators) and enough good students to make the teaching worthwhile. From that point on it was easy. Conferences and seminar invitations broadened my world, the research problems began to suggest themselves, and my career was on its way.

What I did was natural to my life as a woman, yet at this time I would hesitate to advise other women to follow the same route, because I tend to think my good luck was atypical. I have often wondered whether, if the mathematical community welcomed older women as graduate students in a serious and non-patronizing way, and if women rejected the myth that mathematics is a young man's game, we might not see real changes in those discouragingly low numbers.

Web editor's note: This section has been slightly modified at the author's request.


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Next: Deborah Tepper Haimo, University Up: In Her Own Words Previous: In Her Own Words

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