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Dr. Mahlet Tadesse: A Mathematician’s Quest from Ethiopia to the United States

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:53 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:55 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2009 AWM Essay Contest: 
Grades 9-12 First Place

by Christina Bax

When Mahlet Tadesse was growing up in Ethiopia, she didn’t imagine that one day she would be a mathematician, receive a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, or live and teach in the United States. And yet, Dr. Tadesse, professor of mathematics at Georgetown University, accomplished all of these things by working hard, being open-minded, and discovering what truly excited her. Dr. Tadesse is an example for all of us that, no matter who we are and where we’re from, as long as we persevere, make use of the opportunities that we’re given, and follow our passion, we can lead successful and satisfying lives.

Mahlet Tadesse was born and raised in Ethiopia, where her parents still live. She attended a French school where, as is standard in the French educational system, at the end of 11th grade a decision is made about the students’ area of concentration for the last two years of high school. Although all students took the same general courses, they also picked one area of focus: math and science; social sciences; or humanities. The more academic students usually followed the math and science track because it was considered the more difficult curriculum, which opened more and better career opportunities. She was one of only three girls who chose the science track, explaining that “just like anywhere in the world, or maybe even more in Ethiopian culture, there was this expectation that math and science is more for men than women.” If Tadesse’s parents agreed with this belief, it certainly did not stop them from supporting their daughter’s decision. In fact, she smiled, “they thought it was great that I did better than the boys.” The girls who chose other academic paths “may have been more interested in other subjects or wanted to take it easier,” because there still was the idea that “women don’t need to go into higher education.” After all, their husbands would earn most of the family’s income!

Of course, Mahlet Tadesse had no intentions of taking things easy: after high school, she continued to study math and science at a university in France, but soon was disappointed by the lack of opportunities in the French system. She came to the United States and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia because it had one of the lowest tuition rates. Tadesse still did not know whether to major in math or physics, but ultimately chose math because “the professors in the department were genuinely interested in helping students succeed” and because she felt that mathematics offered her a wider range of career options. Yet, even after settling on mathematics, Tadesse still didn't know what she wanted to focus on.

All this changed at the end of her junior year when Tadesse completed a four-week internship in biostatistics at Harvard University. The intensive sessions and workshops with leading experts were an eye-opening experience as she saw first-hand how mathematics could help solve real-life problems in the biomedical field. “This internship completely shifted my focus,” Tadesse explained. She was determined to go to graduate school in biostatistics, and enrolled in as many statistics courses as she could when she returned to UDC for her final year. The experience also confirmed her belief in being open-minded, and today, she urges her students to “get exposure, do some competitions or go to programs that allow you to see things.” The internship made her a fervent supporter of internships because they help you “to discover things you may not have been aware of, and, of course, also to find out what you don’t like.”

Tadesse knew what she wanted, and after receiving her bachelor’s degree from UDC she entered the PhD program in biostatistics at Harvard University, from which she graduated four years later, receiving a Master degree on the way. Asked about her experience moving from one of the lowest ranked public universities to not only one of the top universities in the US, but in the world, Tadesse immediately tried to rectify a possibly wrong impression: even if you go to a school that may be less prestigious, you can still get a very good education! “The students, the faculty, and the resources at Harvard are top-notch,” Tadesse explained, but “there are many smart and motivated students at UDC who, because of their family circumstances, cannot afford the high tuition bills at other colleges.” Also, there were many outstanding and dedicated teachers at UDC who supported her, giving her independent studies and work opportunities.

Now a professor herself, Dr. Tadesse tries to instill in her students the same excitement about her field that her teachers instilled in her. She considers it her job to show her students that “there is so much you can do with statistics; so much that is related to what is going on in the world.” Moreover, she laughed, if your “math teacher is a grumpy old guy, you don’t want to be here,” and you’ll never discover what the field has to offer. Professor Tadesse, however, is far from being a “grumpy old guy.” She runs half marathons and has a passion for languages, speaking French, Amharic, and English fluently, because “when you speak a common language, it creates a bond.” It is obvious that Professor Tadesse knows how to create such a bond with her students.

Professor Tadesse is certainly a woman at ease with herself, asserting that she did not encounter obstacles due to her gender or race. And she sees progress in her field, stating that “about two thirds of students in biostatistics graduate programs are women.” Citing Larry Summers’ statement that women were not good scientists because of biological differences, she shrugged, “I think there are still people who think that way, but it’s subtle. People wouldn’t say it to your face.” However, she does not dwell on such sentiments and simply advises her students: “Do your work and hope that with time their ignorance will disappear, and that they will accept you as you are.”