Member Spotlight

Women in mathematics: Professor Sylvia Bozeman

December 13, 2010 | Author: AAAS MemberCentral Program Director Peggy Mihelich
Professor of Mathematics at Spelman College, Sylvia Bozeman says building confidence is key to producing more female math majors. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)

Less than one percent of all mathematicians are black, 25 percent of them women, according to The Mathematics Department of The State University of New York at Buffalo. Its website, "Mathematicians of the African Diaspora," chronicles the history of this select group of women. Sylvia Bozeman, Professor of Mathematics at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, is one of them.

For over 35 years she has taught mathematics at America's oldest historically black college for women. Located just west of downtown, Spelman's campus sits adjacent to another prestigious historically black school for men--Morehouse College.

Bozeman moved to Atlanta from Tennessee in 1973 with her husband, Robert Bozeman, a newly minted math Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and their two children. He'd accepted a teaching position at Morehouse. Bozeman had nearly completed her Ph.D. in math at Vanderbilt but timing had it where they had to move before she could complete the dissertation. With just a Master's degree in math, she interviewed for a teaching job at Spelman. The chair of the math department and the chair of the sciences division, conducted the interview. Both women had a Ph.D. in math. At the time, the country had less then 20 black women with a math Ph.D. "I didn't know they lay of the land," quips Bozeman. They wanted her to go back to school to finish her Ph.D. She just looked at them thinking, "I have a husband and two small children, how am I going to go back to Vanderbilt four hours away?"

Sylvia Trimble was born in 1947 in Camp Hill, Alabama, a small town on the eastern side of the state. Her father sold insurance; her mother, a housewife and substitute teacher. On the days her mother worked, three-year-old Sylvia would go too. The pair traveled across rural Alabama to the one-room school houses for black students--the south was still mired in segregation.

As she grew older Bozeman's mother sparked her daughter's interest in math with stories of her youth. Telling her about the math problems she worked in high school and how she and her best friend competed over who could do the math problems the best. "My mother only finished the 12th grade but she was always excited about math," says Bozeman.

Throughout her elementary years, Trimble did well in math but it wasn't until high school that she started to realize she had a real talent for it. Her math teacher, Mr. Frank Holly, "would not let me stop doing math," she says. Holly encouraged Trimble and six other students to take trigonometry. Problem was, the county wouldn't allow it because the class size was too small. Holly knew they needed trigonometry to get into college, so he taught them at night.

The classes paid off. Alabama A&M, a historically black school in Huntsville, offered Holly's students’ scholarships. Five of them, including Trimble, took it. They all went to college, she says.

Alabama A&M was a nurturing environment for Miss Trimble, providing her with a solid foundation in math. Calculus was a favorite and statistics was a challenge: "That was the one course that didn’t come easily, let’s put it that way," she says. Trimble also worked as a research assistant with the chair of the math and physics department, Dr. Howard Foster. Together they worked at NASA's Marshal Spaceflight Center in Huntsville on a computer that was "about the size of a 5 drawer file cabinet and probably did half of what a handheld calculator can do now," she laughs. "I don’t know how much I helped but he gave me credit on the paper. That was a boost to my ego and really got me going in math."

She met her husband Robert Bozeman, also a math major, her freshmen year. They married before starting graduate school in 1968 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Going from Alabama A&M to Vanderbilt proved to be a big transition for the couple. Vanderbilt had only integrated its graduate school the year before. Of the handful of students from Alabama A&M who went to grad school at Vanderbilt that year, only Bozeman and her husband survived the first year and went back the second year. "We were a team," she says.

Bozmen credits her good experience at Vanderbilt from the support and advice she got from the math department's faculty. But she didn't always take their advice.

In 1968 linear algebra was just making its way on to the scene as a regular required course in mathematics curricula. It was offered for the first time when she was a senior at Alabama A&M, but she didn’t take it. The Vanderbilt faculty suggested Bozeman take it her first year in graduate school, but when she realized it was an undergraduate course, she refused. "I paid for that decision for the rest of my graduate years. I spent a long time trying to learn linear algebra on my own," she laments.

At Vanderbilt, Bozeman juggled school and family. She and Robert had two kids--a girl, named Kizzie and a boy, Robert.

When the family moved to Atlanta in 1973 she wanted to get a job. Spelman College, being right next to where her husband was teaching at Morehouse, was a natural choice.

Even without her Ph.D. Spelman hired Bozeman. She quickly realized without it her options were limited. So after her second year, she enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta. Graduating in 1980, Bozeman became only the 23rd or 24th black women math Ph.D. in the U.S.

Throughout her years at Spelman, professor Bozeman has taught a variety of classes--calculus, abstract algebra, transition to higher math, and even her old nemesis linear algebra. She also enjoys mentoring students and junior faculty.

She's co-developed a summer program that helps female math students, particularly those from underrepresented groups (African American, Hispanic, and Native American), prepare and prevent drop out from graduate school. Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) is a "transition program" with a 4-week summer session that runs the month of June. Currently, they take 14 students. Women math majors need to know what they are getting into, it's male dominated, Bozeman explains. Male faculty tend to be less sensitive to the ways in which women treat their studies, Bozeman says. For example, in class, women might say very little unless they really know what they are talking about. "Women make a B on an exam and they are crushed, they think it’s terrible. Men make a B and they think it’s great," she says. The EDGE program brings in senior graduates and panelists. The students form study groups and learn how to give and receive information. Critical to graduate school survival, says Bozeman.

Bozeman on recruiting math majors

One hundred and forty-eight women have been through the EDGE program since it started in 1998. Thirty-three now hold a Ph.D. and many others are still in school.

Bozeman's long-term goal for the program is to change the nature of the mathematics community. One where there is more collaboration and cooperation, she explains.

For the future, she'd like to see Spelman reach out to high schools and middle schools, getting even younger students excited about math.

Her youngest math hopefuls, her two grandchildren in 1st and 3rd grade. Smiling, she says: "They both love math."