Conference highlights graduate research opportunities for women in mathematical sciences

September 8, 2020

This fall, 171 undergraduate women from across the globe who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in the mathematical sciences will gather virtually to learn about potential research and career pathways. The annual conference, called Graduate Research Opportunities for Women (GROW), will be hosted by the Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Innovation (IMSI) at the University of Chicago for the first time since its inception in 2015. 

The conference exists to create a space for women, who are historically underrepresented in mathematical fields, to network and learn about graduate research opportunities, graduate program admissions, and career options after they complete a degree. 

Three women sit at a table at the GROW conference smiling

"We're trying to bring women to the table and make sure they're aware of the different opportunities available and how to access them," said Rebecca Willett, organizing committee member and professor of statistics and computer science at UChicago.

When Willett was an undergraduate, she wasn't sure what careers were available to those studying math beyond becoming a university professor and was also under the impression that research in mathematics was esoteric, with little relevance to the "real world."

"I was deeply mistaken," she said. "I hope that GROW communicates a broader way of looking at mathematical degrees and helps make sure this current generation of women doesn't have the same misconceptions I had."

In this year's conference, Willett will present her recent research on trying to mathematically understand how deep neural networks function. She will also moderate a panel where faculty in mathematics, applied mathematics, and statistics will discuss their current research.

In other sessions, students will learn about career opportunities that they might pursue after they finish a graduate degree in mathematical sciences, including pathways in academia and in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, financial trading, cryptography, national security, medical imaging, and disease treatment research.

One woman faces the camera holding a laptop to her chest and two women stand with their backs to the camera

Megan Roda, a current UChicago mathematics graduate student who participated in the conference as an undergraduate in 2017, said the event was a source for the kind of information she didn't otherwise have access to. Even more importantly for her, it was an opportunity to meet others in what can sometimes feel like a small field.

"[GROW] is about building community," she said. "I made initial connections with a lot of people and built relationships from there. We've stayed in touch."

Roda also appreciated the faculty members and current students who attended the events and would stick around to chat and answer questions afterward. "It felt good as an undergraduate to have so many people who came to support us and provide mentorship," she said.

Now, Roda will be promoting that same community of support for others. She will be available after some of this year's panels to discuss what it's like to apply to graduate school and be in a PhD program. 

She's also co-hosting a virtual games night, so that the undergraduates can make connections and build relationships, despite the virtual format. "It will be harder to interact this year," she said, "But we still want to ensure that people have the opportunity to build relationships. It's also a good break from the isolation many of us are experiencing."

One woman with her back to the camera points to figures on a whiteboard. Two women sit facing her.

This year also marks the first that the conference's emphasis will be on mathematical sciences more broadly (including statistics and machine learning) instead of simply mathematics. This shift is aligned with the interdisciplinary focus of IMSI. The new NSF-funded institute aims to apply rigorous mathematics and statistics to urgent, complex scientific and societal problems, and is founded on the belief that an expansive view of the role and relevance of the mathematical sciences goes hand in hand with diversifying them.

"GROW will help give the students a concrete vision of what going further and having careers in the mathematical sciences can look like for them," said Kevin Corlette, the inaugural director of IMSI and professor of mathematics.

GROW started at Northwestern and was also hosted previously by the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. GROW won the 2020 Programs that Make a Difference Award from the American Mathematical Society. Funding and support for this year's event has been provided by the University of Chicago Department of Mathematics and the National Science Foundation.

All photos were provided by the Department of Mathematics at Northwestern University, and were taken by Michael Jue during 2017's GROW conference.

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