Home > math education, women in math > I love me some nerd girls

I love me some nerd girls

January 24, 2013

Last night I was waiting for a bus to go hang with my Athena Mastermind group, which consists of a bunch of very cool Barnard student entrepreneurs and their would-be role models (I say would-be because, although we role models are also very cool, I often think the students are role modeling for us).

As I was waiting at the bus stop, I overheard two women talking about the new Applied Data Science class that just started at Columbia, which is being taught by Ian Langmore, Daniel Krasner and Chang She. I knew about this class because Ian came to advertise it last semester in Rachel Schutt’s Intro to Data Science class which I blogged. One of the women at the bus stop had been in Rachel’s class and the other is in Ian’s.

Turns out I just love overhearing nerd girls talking data science at the bus stop. Don’t you??

And to top off the nerd girl experience, I’m on my way today to Nebraska to give a talk to a bunch of undergraduate women in math about what they can do with math outside of academia. I’m planning it to be an informative talk, but that’s really just cover to its real goal, which is to give a pep talk.

My experience talking to young women in math, at least when they are grad students, is that they respond viscerally to encouragement, even if it’s vague. I can actually see their egos inflate in the audience as I speak, and that’s a good thing, that’s why I’m there.

As a community, I’ve realized, nerd girls going through grad school are virtually starved for positive feedback, and so my job is pretty clear cut: I’m going to tell them how awesome they are and answer their questions about what it’s like in the “real world” and then go back to telling them how awesome they are.

By the end they sit a bit straighter and smile a bit more after I’m done, after I’ve told them, or reminded them at least, how much power they have as nerd girls – how many options they have, and how they don’t have to be risk-averse, and how they never need to apologize.

Tomorrow my audience is undergraduates, which is a bit trickier, since as an undergrad you still get consistent feedback in the form of grades. So I will tailor my information as well as my encouragement a bit, and try not to make grad school sound too scary, because I do think that getting a Ph.D. is still a huge deal. Comment below if you have suggestions for my talk, please!

  1. Judy Walker
    January 24, 2013 at 7:41 am | #1

    We are looking forward to your visit!

  2. strohrbaugh
    January 24, 2013 at 10:24 am | #2

    Cathy –

    I’m neither a girl nor an undergrad, but I’d be totally stoked to see the material of your talk. Is there any way that you can share your talk with us here, after you’ve given it?

    If it’s any help: I’m a physicist in industry, and I love what I do. And the advice I give physics grad students who are angling towards industry centers around this: poke around in other departments as much as is practical, because the problems a scientist is exposed to in industry are (almost by definition) more varied than the ones they’re exposed to in their own department’s colloquia. I think it’s always good to have some understanding of non-adjacent subjects, because: it’s enriching, and; business objectives can change like the breeze.

    PS: Have I mentioned recently how rad you are? Pretty darn rad, I think.

  3. January 24, 2013 at 10:46 am | #3

    Maybe get them interested in toddler-friendly language (and math) learning. 2-yr-olds are already better writing on a keyboard than the most proficient Sumerian scribe on a clay tablet. Problem is, they haven’t yet learned the code. Baby writing (eyes/fingers) along with baby talk (ears/voice). If you’re naive in that area, all the better. You’ll have a fresh approach. Oops, you’ve already raised children! Seriously, we could use more women developmental linguists with analytic skills in IT.

  4. Ruthi
    January 24, 2013 at 11:14 am | #4

    While I understand what you’re saying about grades giving feedback but I think undergrads could still use lots of encouragement. In my experience, female students tend to have higher standards for themselves. Women will interprete a B as being a sign they aren’t good enough at math, when really it just means they’re taking a hard class.

  5. NotRelevant
    January 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm | #5

    I’ve always heard that too much encouragement vitiates commitment, so you would want whatever you say to increase valence. You may also want to acquaint them with a term known as special snowflake syndrome, but I’m not convinced the incidence of this phenomenon is as prevalent among women in hard sciences as it is in those majoring in women’s studies. In fact they could under some circumstance they could suffer from snowflake inflation.

  6. Michelle
    January 24, 2013 at 12:05 pm | #6

    Seconding the request for you to blog all or some of your talk when it’s over. A week ago, I had a bunch of female grad students asking me about opportunities outside academia. I had a bit to say, but not enough beyond general encouragement. I’ll point them to your old post, but a new one would be great to send along as well!

  7. brownian
    January 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm | #7

    I think at undergraduate level women do not need too much extra attention for being women in math, things get complicated at grad school (I should remind that I did not go to undergrad in the US but to only graduate school). I would recommend them to keep some applied side alive, that will make them feel competent and ready for other types of math if they end up not liking the environment their specialized topic has lead them to. Although the second advice I will give is not good as it prevents some change: I believe the areas of math where women are less underrepresented are better/more comfortable to work at. At least women do not feel isolated and they have enough people who are potentially like them and share similar interests or characteristics to talk to. I would also tell them to read books and studies about gender inequalities. (New york bestseller: Female Brain, Athena Unbound and so on) knowledge of why things happen in the way they do, can be empowering and also useful to find ways to fight with existing problems.

  8. Jason Starr
    January 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm | #8

    What do you think about the pick for the new chief of the SEC?

  9. January 25, 2013 at 5:04 pm | #10

    Thank you for your pep talks! We graduate students (gender notwithstanding) definitely need them, especially in the first couple years while we’re figuring out how we’re gong to make our mark…in our department, in our communities, and world wide.

  10. Evelyn
    January 25, 2013 at 5:58 pm | #11

    I’m so glad you have an opportunity to do this.

    Would you be up to presenting at the R/Finance conference in Chicago on May 18 and 19? It’s the largest applied finance conference in the world.

    I think your views on the dangers of financial modeling would be refreshing.

    http://www.rinfinance.com/

  11. Brownian
    January 25, 2013 at 8:15 pm | #12

    Why can not I understand the title of this post?

  12. Olivia B
    January 25, 2013 at 10:52 pm | #13

    You rock Cathy! Helping us find our shtick one day (or dinner) at a time

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