Mentors in Mathematics

Influencing the Next Generation of Mathematicians

Creating opportunities and developing innovative strategies to broaden participation among diverse individuals are critical to the NSF mission of identifying and funding work at the leading edge of discovery.1

This was a statement released by the National Science Foundation (NSF) several years ago; since then, many scientific communities have held conferences devoted to improving diversity, gender equity, and participation of historically underrepresented groups in the sciences. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) later released a similar statement, stating that “low participation of women – and other underrepresented groups – in certain parts of the innovation process limits diversity, which is essential for innovation to flourish.”2

Naturally, one might think that faculty and staff at MIT – an institution on the cutting edge of research and always looking for ways to push innovation – are involved in ensuring this diversity of perspective and broad base of talent is entering the mathematical sciences. And so they are.

Dr. Chelsea Walton, a postdoc in our Department of Mathematics, is a woman doing great work – both in her field of mathematics and in the critical effort to broaden the diversity of students and professionals in the mathematical sciences.

Walton attended Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan, a public high school with test-based admissions; it is a college preparatory school and arguably the best public high school in Detroit. It is there that Walton learned she could make a career out of her lifelong interest and aptitude for math, when her senior year calculus instructor introduced her to the possibility of becoming a mathematician. 

“I knew what an engineer was because engineering is really promoted in Detroit, but mathematician? I never heard of this before.” But Walton believed in his confidence – in her own ability to be a mathematician – and went on to pursue the career at Michigan State University. “Freshman year… I took an advanced calculus class, Honors Calc, and I did well; but I was also a little thrown off because there were people from other schools who knew a lot more than I did.” For example, many of her peers had been exposed to college-level mathematical proofs in high school, and were thus better prepared to work with them. As a result, Walton wasn’t the fastest or strongest student in the class, but she worked hard, brought people together, and, most important, loved math.

It was during her sophomore year of college that Walton met a particularly good instructor, Dr. Jeanne Wald, who went on to become her mentor. Wald’s work was in a field of mathematics called noncommutative ring theory, which is the same field Walton went on to study. Now, as a postdoc at MIT, Walton continues to pursue this line of mathematical research  (click here for details on her research).

After earning her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan, she did a postdoc in Seattle before being offered a position at one of the best math departments in the world: MIT’s. “When I [got the job], I didn’t really believe it and even after I got here I still didn’t quite believe it… Once I got into the groove I realized, wow, there is so much going on and so many people to learn from. My postdoc mentor, Dr. Pavel Etingof, is great to work with; I’ve been learning a lot from him. It’s amazing!”

It was also Pavel Etingof, Professor of Mathematics at MIT, who ultimately recruited Walton to become the program coordinator for PRIMES Circle, an academically rigorous program for mathematically talented, underrepresented students attending Boston-area public schools. The focus of the program is to increase diversity in the mathematical sciences by getting students interested very early and introducing them to different fields within mathematics. 

“To get somebody interested in math very early and to let them know that they’re good at it, it might draw their interest in pursuing math or science as a career. Or it might not. But the exposure is key.” -Chelsea Walton

It is easy to draw a parallel between the message of PRIMES Circle and the message Chelsea Walton received as a young student. She was lucky to be encouraged to invest in her mathematical skill; it is this encouragement she now gives to other young, talented students. Through programs like PRIMES Circle and other initiatives to increase diversity in mathematics, Walton is influencing the lives of many talented high school, undergraduate, and graduate students.

 

Learn more about Women in Math at MIT or PRIMES Circle

 

1Broadening Participation at the National Science Foundation: A Framework for Action 

2Innovation to Strengthen Growth and Address Global and Social Challenges: Key Findings