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Elizabeth Stanhope: Overcoming Silent Barriers

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:38 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:40 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2003 AWM Essay Contest:
1st Place in the College Category

By Jessica John

On the surface, the common themes for women's rights movements in the 1970's were always something to the effect of "women can do anything" and "women are invincible." As a result, without the experience of being treated unfairly because of their gender, many young girls raised during this time period took for granted the struggles and hardships faced by their female predecessors. Growing up during the "feminist generations," Elizabeth Stanhope was one of these young women who began her academic pursuits consciously unaware of the silent roadblocks littering her path to a career in mathematics. It wasn't until she had graduated from an undergraduate program that she realized how important the support of others would be in the development of her future as a female mathematician.

Having always liked math, Liz officially became hooked after attending a science camp in eighth grade where she saw a fractal for the first time. With a strong background in nature studies as the daughter of an environmental educator for the Baltimore County Parks Service, fractals fascinated Liz because by geometrically manipulating algebraic concepts like power functions, one could produce beautiful artistic patterns, some of which even occur in the natural world.

Growing up in a rural area north of Baltimore, Maryland, Liz attended a local high school and received a very strong math foundation. Unfortunately, just as in most high schools, girls who like math are not popular and Liz was no exception, describing herself as an "oddball".

Despite encountering this early social barrier, Liz always found support from her family and was able to overcome the unpleasantness associated with being a teenager. Her parents were "hands-off" in raising her; rather than pushing her to pursue interests in any one direction, they instead encouraged Liz to explore multiple options. Attending college was never a question in the Stanhope household; her parents informed her early on that once she graduated from high school, they would no longer support her living at home, so she "might as well go to college and figure her life out."

In keeping with her upbringing of exploring many options, Liz waited until the end of her first two years at Carleton College to declare her math major, but not before trying several times to convince herself to major in studio art or geology. During her undergraduate years, Liz was what some could call an invisible math major --- she found that she had more in common with religion majors and tended to be the only math major in her circle of friends.

Looking back on her experience, Liz attributes her difficulties in connecting with other math majors to the fact that her personal interests pulled her away from math. "I think the big disconnect with the math department was that during college I was exploring identity issues --- gender and sexuality --- to which math seemed completely irrelevant."

During her junior and senior years, Liz participated in programs at the University of Minnesota Geometry Center and the Budapest Math Semesters Program. Although feeling like a big fish hailing from a small pond, Liz nevertheless relished the challenge of the classes and the opportunity to form academic relationships with exceptionally talented mathematicians from all over the world.

After graduating from Carleton, Liz spent a year teaching ESL in the Czech Republic. "Prague is a beautiful city," she recounts, "but a tough place to live." Observing the social chasm between the fairy tale lives of the upper class and the dramatically impoverished existence of the lower class presented Liz with a grounding perspective on the world.

Returning to the US, Liz taught geometry and contemporary math for one year at the Dana Hall High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Liz knew she liked teaching but was frustrated not to be teaching topics beyond calculus and thus decided to attend graduate school.

The small graduate mathematics program at Dartmouth in New Hampshire lent itself to a close, community feel. Despite the familiarity, however, Liz recalls having to face what some might consider "less than PC" remarks made by her male classmates. Although she was confident enough in her own personality to ignore the comments, she still found herself banding together with and supporting the other women in the program.

After obtaining her degree with a focus in differential geometry, Liz conducted post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor that continued her graduate work in spectral geometry. Imagine snare drums with various shapes that have infinitely thin membrane surfaces. Liz's studies focused on the idea that if you strike this surface and analyze the sound waves produced, you can sometimes determine the shape of the membrane surface. Liz chose this topic because she wanted to be able to explain conceptually her research to anybody, not just other mathematicians.

"As you advance into elite programs, the number of women in those programs tends to drop off," Liz explains, referring to the homogeneous gender culture in the math department at Michigan. Although a remarkably friendly atmosphere for a department of its size, Liz admits there were occasions when "people passed me in the halls with these curious looks, as if to say, 'what is a woman doing here?'" Gender is a factor in forming support networks and Liz admits that had she had a long-term position in such a program with so few other women, she "probably wouldn't have survived."

Currently a professor at Willamette University, Liz stresses how networking with other mathematicians has been central to her development as an academic. Her mentor relationships with prominent individuals such as Deanna Haunsperger and Carolyn Gordon have been extremely beneficial, and Liz encourages anyone interested in a math career to connect with co-workers and actively seek out senior mentors. "Don't be shy about networking," says Liz, "especially with other women." An excellent role model for young people, Liz exemplifies the strength of character necessary to overcome even the silent barriers in the path to achieving one's goals.

About the Student: Jessica John is currently a sophomore mathematics major at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. When asked why she is pursuing a math major, Jessica often replies that it's for the love of numbers. A fan of language and logic, she is also working towards minors in philosophy and Chinese studies. Jessica is interested in a career in international business, but is also contemplating middle or high school math education.