December 9, 1998

Skills add up to science medal
Winner says award proves women equal to the task in math

When Cathleen Synge Morawetz left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master's degree in math half a century ago, she says, "I just wanted what a man could get" — a good job.

But Morawetz learned that the best jobs at companies like General Electric weren't open to women. So she went off to New York University to earn her Ph.D., where she found mentors who, she says, judged her by the quality of her thinking, not her gender.

On Tuesday, Morawetz's thinking earned her the highest honor in U.S. science, a National Medal of Science, awarded by President Clinton. She is the first woman to receive the medal for work in mathematics.

"It's a tremendous moment for me," says Morawetz, now 75 and an NYU professor emerita. "And I hope it will draw attention to the idea that women can do math and will have some influence on women all the way from grade school to graduate school and beyond."

That kind of boost is sorely needed, says Sylvia Wiegand, president of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

"We have a real problem with encouraging young women to go into mathematics, even though we should be well beyond that," says Wiegand, a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

"There still are a lot of talented women who don't stick with it," she says, because they are convinced that math is for men.

Just a quarter of Ph.D.s in math go to women, Wiegand says. And women remain underrepresented, she says, on the math faculties of top universities.

For Morawetz, the decision to pursue a math career was not too difficult. She had the support of her father, John L. Synge, an eminent mathematician who taught at the University of Toronto, and her mother, Eleanor, who also studied math.

"Both of my parents felt very strongly that a woman should have a profession and that women were as capable of doing anything as men were."

Morawetz, raised in both Canada and her parents' Irish homeland, has been a U.S. citizen since 1950 and has spent most of her career at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

She is known for developing mathematical models used in aerodynamics, acoustics and optics. Her work helped engineers develop airplane wings that minimize the impact of shock waves.

She was only the second woman to serve as president of the American Mathematical Society..

And in the midst of her career, she and husband Herbert — a refugee from World War II Czechoslovakia who became a well-known chemist — raised four children, now all successful professionals. They have six grandchildren.

When she was having her children, Morawetz says, "I took a certain amount of criticism from other women who wondered why I was having children if I wanted a career or why I was pursuing a career if I wanted children."

In 1990, she was honored by the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund for raising her children with a "commitment to equality at home."

The latest award "means a great deal" to women in math and is well deserved, Wiegand says. "She's been a role model to a lot of us."

Elizabeth Toledo, a vice president at the National Organization for Women, says: "We have to change the way we teach girls, and we need role models so that girls can see themselves succeeding in this field. So she's providing one of the elements necessary for change."

By Kim Painter, USA TODAY

Copyright 1998, USA Today. Reprinted with permission.
Brought to you by the Association for Women in Mathematics.