I was looking through an old photo album (the kind where there are sticky pages and actual physical photos- it looks like an ancient technology now) and I came across one of my favorites of all time- a picture of me being embraced and supported by Cora Sadosky on one side and Barry Mazur on the other. This picture was taken in 1993 in Vancouver, where I received the Alice T. Schafer prize. It was a critical moment for me, and both of those people have influenced me profoundly. Barry became my thesis advisor; part of the reason I went into number theory was to become his student (the other part was this book).
Cora became my mathematical role model and spiritual mother. I already wrote earlier about how going to math camp when I was 14 changed my life and made me realize there is a whole community of math nerds out there and that I belonged to that nerd community. Well, Cora, whom I met when I was 21, was the person that made me realize there is a community of women mathematicians, and that I was also welcome to that world.
Actually it was something I didn’t even really want to know at the time. After all, I was happy to be a successful math undergraduate at UC Berkeley, frolicking in the graduate student lounge and partaking in tea every day at 3:00. Who cares that I was a woman? It seemed antiquated to me, almost crude, to mention my gender. When I got word that I’d won the prize, my reaction was essentially, “is there money?” (there was a bit).
And when I meet young women in math nowadays with that attitude, I am happy for them, really very happy for them. To live in that state of not caring what your gender is in mathematics is a kind of bliss, that lasts until the very moment it stops. My greatest wish for future generations of women in math is for that bliss to never stop.
And yet. I went to Vancouver and met Cora and learned about Alice Shafer and her struggles and successes as a trailblazer for women in math, and I felt really honored to be collecting an award in her name. And I felt honored to have met Cora, whose obvious passion for mathematics was absolutely awe-inspiring. She was the person who first explained to me that, as women mathematicians, we will keep growing, keep writing, and keep getting better at math as we grow older (unlike men who typically do their best work when they’re 29), and we absolutely have to maintain a purpose and a drive and fortitude for that highest call, the struggle of creation.
I kept up with Cora over the years. Every now and then she’d write to me and send me pushy little maternal notes reminding me to work hard and stay strong and productive. And I’d write to her with news of my life and my growing family and sometimes when I visited D.C. I’d meet her and we’d have lunch or dinner and talk about ideas and great books we’d read and how much we loved each other.
When I googled her this morning, I found out she’d died about 6 months ago. You can read about her difficult and inspiring mathematical career in this biography. It made me cry and made me think about how much the world needs role models like Cora.