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Dr. Concha Gomez: A role model for female mathematicians

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:07 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:08 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2005 AWM Essay Contest:
Grade 6-8 Honorable Mention

By Rhitwika Sensharma

Nietzsche once wrote : He who has a "why" to live can bear with almost any "how". Dr. Concha Gomez's life is a living testimony to these great words. She did not get enough support and encouragement to do science as an undergraduate and was never taken seriously when she tried to pursue a degree in mathematics. Instead of giving up and going back to the comfort of ordinary life, she went on to prove herself as a successful student and went ahead to organize groups and efforts to help others like her. Today, as a mathematician she has reached success in her career, but attaches more importance to her role in the society as a promoter of mathematics learning among minority students in colleges, high schools and elementary schools.

When asked what brought her into mathematics and kept her going, she replied "There was always something new to learn." As one learns about her life and works, one will realize she was saying this from her own experiences. Her love for mathematics and her struggle to become a scholar,both drove her to this important conclusion.

Dr. Gomez comes from a family of multiple ethnicities, but spoke English at home. Her father was a Cuban immigrant doctor and her mother, a child of Italian immigrants. Her family attached great importance to studies and science, and it was no surprise that she picked up Chemistry as her undergraduate major in University of Wisconsin.

As a young child, she enjoyed playing piano and wanted to be a concert pianist. She dropped that idea by age 12, though. Then she wanted to become a doctor, but in college she decided she didn't like blood and didn't want to hurt others. She dropped out of her studies in Chemistry because of lack of support and a disinterest in Chemistry. She left college, did odd jobs and then got into a community college in California. She took math courses there and liked it very much. She persevered and moved on to the University of California at Berkley, one of the greatest institutions of higher studies. By this time, she had achieved a lot and was finally on her way to become a mathematician. But her problems also started there.

How would you feel if almost all the people in your college math class were male and you were female? How would you feel if they all looked down on you because you were a female minority student? How would you feel when you come up with great solutions but the professor does not remember you well enough? Concha Gomez felt bad but didn't think too much about it; she just kept pushing herself harder! This was one of the biggest reasons why she was different and why she became successful. Even though she had little support, she was not ready to give up and always found a solution.

There is a similarity between how she solved the problem of her life and how she solved problems in mathematics. She never gave up, had a strategy and used the method to solve problems for others. She organized a group for women mathematics students suffering from same kinds of problems that she faced in classes, called the Noetherian Ring. After a while, the adversity calmed down and the group was accepted and even talked about. Once in her graduate studies, she felt that the environment around her changed for the better. She completed her math class and went on to doctoral studies. Today she is a math teacher at The University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is interested in a branch of abstract mathematics called model theory, and teaches Calculus and Geometry.

She keeps looking into diversity issues and works more with minority students, undergraduate and graduate, and makes sure they succeed. She does outreach work with high school and elementary school students and tries to encourage them to go on to college and choose a math or science career. She is director of Wisconsin Emerging Scholars, a program to provide motivated students with an opportunity to study calculus in a challenging yet friendly and multicultural environment.

If she were to give advice to someone who wanted to become a mathematician, she would encourage them not to give up and keep pursuing what you like. She herself wants to be an example of persevering and helping others along the way, no matter how hard your path is. She has made a few mistakes in life, but has learned from them. When asked what advice she will have for someone wanting to become a mathematician, she said, "Keep trying, don't let anything discourage you, if you think math and science are interesting, go for it."

About the student: 
My name is Rhitwika Sensharma. I am a seventh grader in Lake Braddock Middle School, gifted and talented centre. I was born in India and immigrated to the USA with my parents at the age of 3. I am interested in mathematics, science and music. I have been playing violin in orchestras since 4th grade. I like to write and have published poetry and very short stories on the Zoobooks magazine web site. I also won the Presidential award for academic excellence when I graduated from elementary school.