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The Infinite Possibilities Conference: Creating Moments of Belonging

Lily S. Khadjavi
Tanya Moore
Kimberly Weems

Sometimes remarkable creations come from a moment of gratitude. In 2003, on an uncharacteristically misty afternoon in Los Angeles, Spelman alumnae found themselves serving as members of the audience for a dozen middle-school-aged girls. All shades of brown skin reflected beautifully against the white lab coats the students proudly wore, as they explained their science experiments with big smiles. Ostensibly, the Spelman graduates were to serve as role models for the girls. They fulfilled their designated role …and much more. The experience inspired them to reflect on their time at Spelman as mathematics majors, the uniqueness of their college experience, and the critical role of professors who served as role models that balanced high expectations for academic performance with support and encouragement. Although they did not realize it at the time, those Spelman faculty offered them their first glimpse of a mathematical community.

The two alumnae continued to talk with each other about their college peers with whom they had worked collaboratively on problem sets and exam preparation. They remarked on how many of the Spelman math majors had gone on to graduate school, successfully completing master’s and doctoral programs in mathematics, statistics, and related fields. The conversation then veered to the recent passing of Dr. Etta Falconer, a Spelman giant who was instrumental in increasing opportunities that supported Black women mathematicians and scientists. In appreciation of the Spelman experience that launched so many women into math careers, they thought out loud about how great it would be to have a reunion or celebration to bring everyone back together, to honor Dr. Falconer, and to acknowledge the contributions of the math faculty in shaping their paths. Then Marlisa Johnson turned to Tanya Moore and said, “You should do that.” At that moment, the Infinite Possibilities Conference (IPC) was born.

The first IPC

IPC was created with the mission to support, encourage, and celebrate underrepresented minority (URM) women⁠Footnote1 in the mathematical sciences. The first IPC was organized under the leadership of Leona Harris, Tanya Moore, and Nagambal Shah and took place at Spelman College in 2005. In grassroots fashion, they assembled an organizing committee of URM women mathematicians who, along with faculty and staff of Spelman College, thought that IPC could form part of a response to the problem of underrepresentation.

1

Consistent with language which has been employed by academic institutions, we use the terms “underrepresented” or “minority” (or URM) to refer to someone who self-identifies as Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino(a), Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander. We also use “women of color” to refer to racial or ethnic groups traditionally marginalized in the United States and to those who self-identify with the term woman. The term BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous, People of Color, recognizes the complexity of marginalization. While some scholars have pointed out that terminology can implicitly suggest white as neutral and in effect essentialize racial groups, these more recent umbrella terms are embraced by many activists and have the advantage of moving away from majority/minority designations.

Even as of 2018, only two percent of doctoral degrees in mathematics were awarded to African-American, Latina, and Native American women in the US 36, while those same groups comprise approximately seventeen percent of the US population. Even earlier in the pipeline, fewer than six percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to URM women in the mathematical sciences 6. The largest share of bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in the mathematical sciences was awarded to white males, and respectively 6. While the overall number of doctoral degrees in mathematics has increased between 2006 and 2018, the number of URM women receiving those degrees has stayed relatively flat. In tandem, the persistence of stereotypes of the typical mathematician has held strong. In most minds, the image of a mathematician or scientist conjures up a white male, and the data regarding who receives a degree in mathematics at the undergraduate and graduate level support that association.⁠Footnote2 The lack of diversity in the mathematical sciences becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—a cycle of acceptance around traditional notions of who rightly belongs in the mathematical community.

2

In a striking “Draw a scientist” study which originated in the late 1960s and has been repeated in more recent eras, children drew male images far more often than female. In the study’s first iteration, out of over 4800 drawings of scientists, only 28 were of women (all drawn by girls). As of 2008, children still drew twice as many male figures as female, whereas for professions such as teacher, only a quarter of the sketches were of men 9.

Armed with personal testimonies and their awareness of the lack of representation of URM women in the broader math community, the organizing committee set out to design the first IPC. The initial planning discussions provided an opportunity to envision a conference they would want to attend. The organizing committee posed exciting and empowering questions: What kind of workshops and speakers should be featured? Should the conference target only Black women, or all women? What were the key elements of environments, programs, and relationships that supported success in completing graduate school? What needs to be known and shared with other women interested in math?

It was ultimately decided that there was a unifying experience of African-American, Latina, and Native American women in math, in that their identity stood in direct contrast to the stereotypical image of a mathematician. So IPC would be created intentionally for them, by them. There was also a desire to create a platform to showcase different career paths chosen by women who love math. IPC could expand awareness beyond the perceived limited professional opportunities available with a math degree as well as combat conventional beliefs of who could do math; hence, the organizers chose the name “Infinite Possibilities.”

As the organizers planned a combination of plenaries, panels, and smaller parallel sessions, they wanted to address and share the multi-faceted factors contributing to retention in the field, such as the importance of being seen and valued, feeling connected, and finding the appropriate level of challenge to excel. As the only (or one of a few) URM women in their graduate program, many of the organizers had begun to question whether they belonged in mathematics and if they could be part of the broader math community without sacrificing their identity. If the conference could provide an opportunity for URM women to know that they were not alone and that relatable models of success existed, then perhaps it could provide encouragement for those in attendance to persist.

Many of the Spelman graduates on the organizing committee had experienced the privilege of mentorship from Spelman faculty that extended into their time at graduate school. Was there something different about mentoring women of color in mathematics that should be explored? The organizing committee also aimed to have all aspects of the pipeline represented, from students to professionals in the field, in order to provide opportunities to connect to role models and encourage networking. These are activities that have been identified as effective mentoring strategies, especially for women of color in the mathematical sciences 5. The first conference would include a panel discussion on mentoring women in mathematics and a session that proactively facilitated dialogues on mentoring among women at different stages in their journey. Linking high school students to undergraduates to graduate students to professionals could provide connection points to “near peers,” with the belief that near peers can often provide the most useful advice and insight for the next step in the journey. Moreover, the intent was for the conference to create a community of mentors of various roles, such as advocates, role models, peer mentors, and coaches, who could augment existing mentoring structures at their home institution or industry 2.

Figure 1.

IPC Group Photo at UCLA, 2010.

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Acknowledging that the gold standard for success in academia is often publications, the organizers felt compelled to support one another along the research path by providing a supportive environment for sharing, receiving feedback, and dialoguing about research, necessary steps in the process of becoming a high-caliber mathematician and researcher. It was important to include opportunities for IPC attendees to communicate their results during the conference through Research Roundtables, concurrent sessions of oral presentations that showcased the participants’ work in applied mathematics, mathematical biology, mathematics education, pure mathematics, and statistics. Students could also make poster presentations. These sessions would provide a supportive environment to discuss and receive feedback on theses, dissertations, works-in-progress, and research reports.

The participation of Spelman alumnae and faculty in the planning of the first IPC influenced another key decision. To honor the legacy of Etta Falconer, the IPC Steering Committee, Spelman College Mathematics Department, and the Falconer family established the Dr. Etta Z. Falconer Award for Mentoring and Commitment to Diversity. The award recognizes the importance and value of individuals who make significant efforts toward building connections and community. For her dedication to increasing the number of women and African-American students in mathematics, Janis Oldham of North Carolina A&T State University became the first Falconer recipient. As noted by her nominators, Oldham embodies the spirit of Falconer by having high expectations of her students and a willingness to invest generous amounts of her time to nurture their mathematical development.

Initially, the organizers planned to have just one conference. But after the closing banquet of IPC 2005—which opened with a drum ceremony, gave tribute to Falconer, presented an overview of the history of URM women in mathematics by Sylvia Bozeman, and honored Oldham with the Falconer award—the room was filled with tears and full hearts. Initial feedback on evaluations from the first conference further validated the organizers’ intuition about the importance of providing a space for women of color to feel supported and more connected within the math community. As a result, planning for the next conference began.

The power of reflection and critical mass

We can all understand the power of images to influence our beliefs. Many of the organizers for that first IPC were newly minted PhDs and had their own personal experiences in graduate school fresh on their minds. They shared their need to form their own communities outside of mathematics or to seek therapy in order to cope with the stress, doubt, and sense of isolation while in school. For those who attended a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) as undergraduates, their first introduction to a math community had included supportive faculty and peers. Professors and classmates served as living proof of the possibility to obtain educational degrees and achieve professional success. The question of gender or race as linked with skill in mathematics was implicitly removed from consideration. While this knowledge fortified them, as they pursued graduate-level education in environments that were radically different from HBCUs, the sense of isolation and the experience of not fitting in could still be painful and challenging to navigate.

The numerical data for URM women in math imply that most are the only (or one of very few) women or URMs at their respective institutions. One of the most common themes from conference evaluations by attendees focused on how IPC made them feel less isolated by being in the presence of so many women with whom they identified. Attending the conference encouraged them to continue along their paths in mathematics.

Mostly it made me feel less alone, which has made me a little more comfortable pursuing the PhD. (IPC attendee)

The conference is one of the most encouraging conferences I have been to. I found inspiration and made connections with women who ‘looked’ like me or had the same ‘walk.’ I am more determined to finish my PhD and to continue to build my village. I sincerely will recommend this conference to all mathematicians and scientists (females). Let me know how I can be more involved. (IPC attendee)

Impostor syndrome is a common experience among many students and professionals in the academic environment, regardless of background or identity. This feeling challenges one’s belief that success in math is possible. The suspicion that one has been let in “by mistake” is further exacerbated by the experience of not fitting in. Additionally, when faced with microaggressions or more explicit comments regarding doubt in ability, impostor syndrome begins to feel like a credible belief. IPC provided a brief but impactful respite from the questions and doubts of belonging by bringing in URM women en masse. When we think about the fact that there are on average twenty URM women that complete doctorates in math each year in the US, being in a room with 100–200 URM women all at one time takes on another level of significance (Table 1). With this moment, there is an opportunity for seeing to translate into believing that belonging in math is possible as a URM woman.

While attending IPC I was very doubtful if I should continue striving toward a PhD because I had one more qualifying exam to pass that I had taken four times already. But after attending IPC and talking to many of the very inspiring women who were just like me, it made me see that I am not alone, and if they could do it, I could too. So that June I took the test, passed it and even received a fellowship for the next year. I am extremely grateful to have been a part of IPC; it is a conference that was both inspirational and educational to me. It is an experience I will never forget. (IPC attendee)

My first conference was a pivotal moment in helping me see my personal fear in pursuing a doctorate degree (feeling like “I can’t do it”) and address this fear along with seeing my true desire to earn a degree and follow my passion. (IPC attendee)

It made me believe that I can be one of the professors in a future meeting. (IPC attendee)

Table 1.

IPC registrant totals and demographics between 2005 and 2018.

2005⁠Footnote3
3

Estimate based on partial demographic data.

2007 2010 2012 2015 2018
Total Registrants 148 206 191 288 203 135⁠Footnote4
4

Attendance intentionally capped because of space constraints at host institution.

Female 95% 94% 96% 90% 86% 96%
URM⁠Footnote5
5

URM includes African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian and Bi- or Multi-Racial.

87% 70% 81% 70% 53% 78%
URM Women 85% 67% 79% 67% 49% 76%

Wherever possible, IPC sought to put notable URM women in math at the forefront of the conference. Critically, the organizers themselves reflected the intended audience and the conference showcased the accomplishments of women of color who were featured as plenary speakers and panelists. Photographs of attendees were included throughout the conference proceedings. The reflection of URM women in every aspect of the conference was very purposeful and important.

For some of the organizers, the relationships with former undergraduate professors continued throughout graduate school, helping them to contend with a sense of isolation and a new environment. The conference became a vehicle to express appreciation for the dedication of these mentors. Mentors can have an especially significant role in supporting long-term success for women of color in STEM fields pursuing graduate degrees 7. Yet, the work of mentoring is often not as visibly acknowledged as other aspects of professional activities. To honor this important work, the culminating event of each IPC has been the presentation of the Dr. Etta Z. Falconer Award for Mentoring and Commitment to Diversity, recognizing individuals that were nominated by their mentees and colleagues and selected by a panel of reviewers. Past recipients of the Dr. Etta Z. Falconer Award include Janis Oldham, Sylvia Bozeman, Ivelisse Rubio, Roselyn Williams, Genevieve Madeline Knight, and Javier Rojo.

Addressing intersections of identity

Your conference fulfills a unique role in the mathematical community. You inspire and encourage young and minority women to excel in mathematics and address the concerns of being a professional and leading a satisfying life. Your holistic approach has produced two exciting conferences that are to my knowledge completely new to the math world. (IPC attendee)

From the outset, the Infinite Possibilities Conference was implicitly designed to address the intersections of identity. Noted legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the idea of intersectionality in the late 1980s as a legal theory in order to shine a light on the inadequacy of the law in addressing racism and sexism, and indeed other forms of discrimination, when it failed to take into account the “intersection” of individuals’ identities. The notion of intersection is of course fundamental to mathematicians. An intersectional perspective in this context requires us, as a mathematical community, to take into account how, for example, a woman of color might experience gender bias differently from a white woman. People at the intersections can even inadvertently be displaced, and there is a need to address their experiences. While valuable mathematical programming has been created to support women or to gather students and researchers of color, few initiatives are aimed specifically at those in the intersections. (To put another mathematical spin on it, the many labels for race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, and so on, are not mutually exclusive.) How, then, can we create a mathematical community where we don’t have to check some part of our identity at the door in order to enter?

I was able to connect with other women of color who are in [the] mathematics field and learn how they navigated the academi[c] world. (IPC attendee)

While mathematics has been a consistent theme at each IPC with parallel research talks and poster sessions, over the years the programming committee has always made space for participants to directly discuss the intersections of their identities and their academic experiences. Sometimes these conversations have taken place in plenary panels and sometimes through small-group discussions. All spaces created a comfortable venue to share experiences and advice.

Sessions on race and gender issues elicited stories that illustrated the common experiences of isolation, tokenism, and more. Even seemingly incidental examples reported in the very first Proceedings of IPC, paraphrased here, captured these sentiments: One student expressed frustration at feeling like a token as an undergraduate when a faculty member said to her, “Do you know how good it would make us feel to have a black female go to graduate school?” Discouragement could come from fellow students, as in, “Many had teaching assignments and when a student heard I [a Latina female] had a fellowship [that year], he said, ‘Oh, if I changed my name and gender, I’d have one too.”’

These encounters had not created a sense of belonging in the programs where they occurred. Importantly, IPC was an opportunity to air these frustrations and larger challenges, at every level of participants’ careers, in a safe space. Attendees shared suggestions for building support.

Later IPC programs have included sessions on the many intersections of our lives: sessions on balancing career and personal life, challenges of motherhood, being LGBTQ in mathematics, and more. Parallel sessions allowed us to create smaller group discussions that also spoke to participants at their specific stage in education and career. While college students could attend a session on applying to and thriving in graduate school, those later in their studies or career could discuss negotiation skills and fighting gender and racial stereotypes in the workplace. Specifically targeting the retention and advancement of faculty, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, led a workshop on “Solo Success: How to Thrive in the Academy When You’re the Only in the Department.”

I have multiple identities: by race/ethnicity, gender, as a math nerd, by my [sexual] orientation …IPC has been a space where I can find community. I feel a sense of belonging in the mathematics world here, with others who don’t need to match me in every characteristic. (IPC attendee)

Living history and Hidden Figures

It really gave me more push and motivation to finish my degree. I was surrounded by women who were great mentors and inspiration for me. (IPC attendee)

I got to see influential women in the mathematical sciences who looked like me but also who had gone through struggles and overcome similar obstacles like myself in order to pursue education. (IPC attendee)

The first IPC featured a special keynote speaker, Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first African-American women to earn a PhD in mathematics. Granville’s very presence gave conference attendees a powerful connection with their history. Her rendition of the debate regarding the first African-American woman—Euphemia Lofton Haynes, Marjorie Lee Browne, or Granville—to receive a PhD in mathematics served as a priceless testimony celebrating this groundbreaking achievement as a whole rather than as an individual accomplishment 1. Even more, Granville’s mentor Lee Lorch, himself a civil rights activist and mathematician, also attended the event. To round out the weight of the moment, after Granville spoke, she posed for a picture with Tasha Inniss, Sherry Scott and Kimberly Weems, the first three African-American women to receive doctorates in math from the University of Maryland in the same year. Subsequent IPCs have featured trailblazers including Freda Porter, an entrepreneur and one of the few Native American women with a PhD in mathematics, and Ruth Gonzalez, recognized as the first US-born Mexican-American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics 4.

Figure 2.

(From left) Kimberly Weems, Tasha Innis, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Lee Lorch, and Sherry Scott. IPC at Spelman College, 2005.

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So often, when history is discussed in mathematics courses, the names mentioned are connected to the theorems and equations that fill textbooks. We know the names of Euler, Descartes, and Pythagoras, but we are less familiar with the names of Granville, Gonzalez, or Porter. These pioneers and role models are important to inspire future generations of URM women. Not only have they paved a way forward, but they also serve as examples that it is possible to complete advanced studies in mathematics. Plenary speakers discussed a range of mathematical subjects, often sharing their personal journey in mathematics—both highs and lows. The IPC provided an opportunity to demonstrate that URM women have made and are making meaningful contributions to the field of mathematics.

Upon learning about the upcoming release of Hidden Figures, the book and movie that showcase African-American women’s contributions to mathematics, computing, and space exploration, IPC co-founder Tanya Moore conceived the idea of creating some type of IPC and Hidden Figures collaboration. The connection was evident, with IPC striving to promote URM women in mathematics and Hidden Figures shining a spotlight on unsung “shero” mathematicians behind aeronautical breakthroughs. The timing could not have been more perfect as the film’s screen release date was in late December 2016—just weeks prior to the largest gathering of mathematicians in the country.

Thus, at the January 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Atlanta, IPC—along with its umbrella organization, Building Diversity in Science—partnered with the American Mathematical Society, Association for Women in Mathematics, Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education, and the National Association of Mathematicians, to sponsor a panel on “The Mathematics and Mathematicians behind Hidden Figures.” Moderated by Moore, the panel featured Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book on which the movie is based; Christine Darden, retired NASA “human computer” whose contributions are discussed in the book; and Ulrica Wilson, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Morehouse College, who presented the work of another hidden figure, Dorothy Hoover.

This panel broke down walls—literally and figuratively. Originally, the event was assigned to a room with space for about 200; at the last minute, staff removed room dividers to increase the capacity and accommodate the massive crowd. This panel marked the first time IPC programming was introduced to the broader, mainstream, (inter)national mathematics community. To the delight of the organizers, positive response to this panel was overwhelming, and it is our hope that after hearing about the struggles and accomplishments of hidden figures, attendees who may have felt like outsiders began to experience a sense of belonging in mathematics.

The power of learning this history is captured in inspiring terms by Shetterly in the prologue to her book: “What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are Black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic. 8.”

Figure 3.

(From left) Tanya Moore, Margot Lee Shetterly, Christine Darden, and Ulrica Wilson. The Mathematics and Mathematicians behind Hidden Figures Panel, Joint Math Meetings, Atlanta, Georgia, 2017.

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Looking towards the future

Each IPC has been planned by a group of women from around the country who volunteered their time to make IPC a reality. Membership in the organizing committee intentionally changed for each conference in order to continue to bring fresh ideas and diverse perspectives to the program. Meanwhile, at each host institution, a local committee supported the conference activities. A consistent group of women provided leadership from year to year as members of an IPC Advisory Board. Members of the IPC Advisory Board have included Erika Camacho, Leona Harris, Lily Khadjavi, Tanya Moore, Nagambal Shah, and Kimberly Weems, who shared their perspectives on sites for the conference, key themes to incorporate, and suggestions for organizing committee members.

Though the first IPC was a grassroots effort, the leadership realized the need to form collaborations for sustainability of the initiative. After the first conference, IPC formally joined a non-profit, Building Diversity in Science, whose mission to inspire, empower, and support underrepresented groups in the pursuit of STEM careers aligned with the goals of IPC. Early in the history came a partnership with the NSF Math Institutes. These collaborations resulted in increased staff support for essential tasks such as registration, travel reimbursements, and advertising, and allowed the organizing committee to focus more of its energy on creative programming for the conference. Primary and consistent conference support was obtained from the National Science Foundation and, in various years, the National Security Agency, host institutions, and other corporate funders. A significant portion of the funding went towards providing student travel scholarships and for underwriting the majority of conference expenses in order to keep registration fees low. Partnerships have been critical to IPC’s ability to endure over the last fifteen years.

The conference really lifted my spirits and helped me to move forward. As a first year graduate student, I needed to hear the stories of women who look just like me who have also struggled with racism, sexism, and favoritism in their respective institutions but through faith, help, and support from family and peers, and, most importantly, with strong determination were able to overcome these obstacles and succeed. After the conference I came back to my school rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. (IPC attendee)

As the only program of its kind, IPC has aimed, since 2005, to sustain the spark for women who have an interest in math. IPC creates a space where personal identity doesn’t have to be separated from identity as a mathematician. Shared cultural experiences help establish a community in mathematics so that participants are not alone in their academic and professional pursuits. We have learned that a two-to-three-day conference, as one piece of a web/network of activities, can make a difference. The founders set out to create a conference to honor their alma mater and share the best of what they received with other women like them. They wanted a conference that created community, embraced the full identity of participants, and highlighted relatable models of success for students and professionals. They came to see it as creating belonging.

References

[1]
Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett (eds.), Complexities: Women in mathematics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2005. MR2118372,
Show rawAMSref \bib{1}{collection}{ label={1}, title={Complexities}, editor={Case, Bettye Anne}, editor={Leggett, Anne M.}, subtitle={Women in mathematics}, publisher={Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ}, date={2005}, pages={xx+413}, isbn={0-691-11462-5}, review={\MR {2118372}}, }
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D. J. Dean, Getting the most out of your mentoring relationships: A handbook for women in STEM, Springer, New York, NY, 2009.
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A. L. Golbeck, T. H. Barr, and C. A. Rose, Report on the 2017–2018 New Doctoral Recipients, Notices Amer. Math. Soc. 67 (2020), no. 8, 1200–1206.
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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Effective mentoring in STEMM: Practice, research, and future directions: Proceedings of a workshop in brief, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2017.
[6]
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, special tabulations of US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Completions Survey, unrevised provisional release data, 2016, https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/.
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M. Ong, C. Wright, L. L. Espinosa, and G. Orfield, Inside the double bind: A synthesis of empirical research on undergraduate and graduate women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Harvard Educational Review 81 (2011), no. 2, 172–209.
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M. L. Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2016.
[9]
E. Yong, What we learn from 50 years of kids drawing scientists, The Atlantic, March 20, 2018.

Credits

Figure 1 is courtesy of David Weisbart.

Figure 2 is courtesy of Frederick Moore.

Figure 3 is courtesy of Edray Herber Goins.