Joan Birman

Joan Birman

Joan Birman, Mathematician. As a top expert in braid and knot theory, Dr. Birman was the first woman to receive the Chauvenet Prize, which is the highest award for mathematical expository writing. She has been a Research Professor Emerita at Barnard since 1973. 

Despite excelling in mathematics at her all girl’s high school, college presented different challenges. "Two things changed. First, the college math course that I was advised to take at Swarthmore was a cookbook calculus course, and it was both boring and unconvincing. So I looked around and found other things that appealed to me (astronomy, literature, psychology), although I did major in math. Then I transferred to Barnard College, in order to be able to live in New York. At Barnard, the math offerings were all low-level. When you got to the point where you were ready for serious math, you were directed to courses at Columbia, which at that time was an all-male school. That was the first time that I hit a situation where I was one of a very small number of girls. Most of the Barnard women were cowed by it and gave up. Eventually I was the only girl in my classes, and I caught the idea that maybe math was not for girls.”

"To put it simply, I love it. I’m retired right now, I don’t have any obligations, and I keep right on working on math. Sometimes mathematics can be frustrating, and often I feel as if I’ll never do another thing again, and I often feel stupid because there are always people around me who seem to understand things faster than I do. Yet, when I learn something new it feels so good! Also, if I work with somebody else, and it’s a good piece of mathematics, we get to know each other on a level that is very hard to come by in other friendships. I learn things about how people think, and I find it very moving and interesting. Mathematics puts me in touch with people on a deep level. It’s the creativity that other people express that touches me so much. I find that, and the mathematics, very beautiful. There is something very lasting about it also.”

"The disparity in the numbers of men and women at the most prestigious universities (and I include Columbia in that) is striking. Anyone who enters a room in the math building at Columbia when a seminar is in progress can see it…. On the whole, I think the profession is now very accepting of women. When I took my first job I was the first woman faculty member at Stevens Institute of Technology. A few years later, I was the only woman faculty member (and I was a visitor) in the Princeton math department. Now one sees ever-increasing numbers of women faculty members, although the numbers in the top research faculties are still very small. That is certainly the case at Columbia, but this year for the first time, Columbia’s freshman class of graduate students was half men, half women. Just six years ago it was all men, no women."

Interview via AMS, Photograph via UGA Math Department 

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