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Peggy Tang Strait: A Pioneer in Uncharted Territory

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:20 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:22 PM by AWM Editor ]

2002 AWM Essay Contest:
1st Place in Grades 9-12 and Grand Prize Winner

By Alyssa Chase

The endeavors of female leaders encourage the growth of women in male-dominated or uncharted territories of mathematics during the new century. One such leader is Peggy Tang Strait, a retired professor of statistics and probability who encouraged all of her students to pursue career paths in male-oriented horizons. Her involvement in the fight against gender bias also laid the foundation for a more sophisticated twenty-first century society where men and women are partners in their ventures of unexplored areas of mathematics.

Dr. Strait courageously tackled the obstacles of being a Chinese immigrant as well as a woman in a male-oriented society. She was six years old when she and her family entered the United States in order to escape war in China. While her educated family attempted to succeed in an American society that offered only menial jobs to Chinese immigrants, Dr. Strait struggled to learn English and adapt to American schools. Dr. Strait encountered difficulty in the first, entirely Mexican, school that she attended in a poor district in Phoenix, where the students only knew Spanish. It was there that she learned, along with the rest of her class, the English language. She later moved to a rural town in Arizona, where she attended a school where girls anticipated careers only as housewives. With the support of her mother, Dr. Strait overturned these educational barriers. Her mother incited Dr. Strait to work strenuously in all of her endeavors so that she could be accepted into Columbia University. However, both Dr. Strait and her mother failed to realize that Columbia was at the time an all male school, so Dr. Strait ventured to the prestigious University of California at Berkeley instead with the intention of becoming a doctor.

Dr. Strait was sitting in her freshman calculus class at Berkeley when she had an experience that she says "literally blew my mind." Professor Willoughby was explaining the concept of limits, and demonstrated that the values in a sequence could get ever smaller but never reach zero. The subject amazed her, and she immediately changed her major from pre-med to mathematics. After graduating from Berkeley in 1953, she proceeded to MIT to work for her Master’s in math. Although at both schools the ratio of girls to boys was extremely low, Dr. Strait says that she faced no gender bias. At MIT, though, Dr. Strait says that there were so few female students that the school provided a suite of rooms where girls could seek refuge when they wanted to escape from the multitude of men.

A good education from supreme universities could never prepare Dr. Strait for the obstacles of motherhood and gender discrimination. These blocks along her career path, however, played an important role in determining Dr. Strait’s future jobs as well as in shaping her self-confidence. Dr. Strait was working in a consulting company in New York until she discovered that she was expecting her first child. She planned to return to work within six weeks after delivery, but as she held her son in her arms for the first time, she knew that she could not leave him for a 9-5 work day. Dr. Strait decided to overcome this obstacle by becoming a professor, a career that would allow enough time for her to care for her child. She enrolled in New York University’s part-time mathematics program to obtain her Ph.D. Dr. Strait worked diligently to complete her thesis, so she was stunned when her thesis advisor at NYU made a prejudiced comment: "Well, you’re not in a hurry to finish your thesis. You’re a woman." After she had completed her thesis, he refused to read it, and Dr. Strait reached the lowest point in her mathematical career. She feared that he would never examine her work, and she considered yielding to her advisor and giving up her dream of obtaining her doctorate. Sparked by courage, however, she spoke to one of her professors who compelled her advisor to complete the reading of her thesis. Proud and exhilarated, Dr. Strait moved forward stronger and braver in the pursuance of a mathematical career.

At only forty-one years of age, Dr. Strait was promoted to the position of full professor at Queens College in New York City. She worked diligently and produced a great number of publications, which allowed her to receive rapid promotions. She became the first and only female full professor at the college in the field of mathematics. Her male co-workers were shocked that a woman could be of equal or greater intelligence than they. One stated: "Wow, Peggy, you’re not stupid." Dr. Strait coolly responded, "What, there’s a flaw in my disguise?"

Dr. Strait was unsatisfied with the textbooks in her fields of teaching, probability and statistics. After a fruitless search, Dr. Strait embarked on her next great challenge: the publication of a textbook. Once again, she encountered the problem of juggling her career and family life. She decided to take a sabbatical, and every night from midnight to seven in the morning, she would write her book. She would then sleep while her two boys were at school, and reawake as a mother, wife, and housekeeper. After fifteen months, Dr. Strait completed her book "A First Course in Probability and Statistics With Applications." She describes finishing it as "an exhilarating experience."

After her sabbatical ended, Dr. Strait continued her exploration of both the worlds of teaching and researching in uncharted areas of probability and statistics. Dr. Strait explains that when teaching, the most rewarding feeling was seeing the grasp of understanding in her students’ eyes. She was touched when one of her students wrote a book and listed Dr. Strait as one of the reasons he chose to become a mathematician. She describes researching as being completely different from teaching. She says that one must pioneer "way out into the edges of knowledge" where one encounters "wonderful experiences of creating."

Dr. Strait’s role model, her mother, instilled in her the courage that allowed her to pursue her career in uncharted territory. Dr. Strait’s mother herself was an activist for women’s rights. In her homeland of China, Dr. Strait’s grandmother unbound her mother’s feet, a drastic action at that time. From then onward, Dr. Strait’s mother was treated in male-dominated China as "a person rather than a woman." Her mother instilled the value of equality in Dr. Strait and her brothers and sisters. Dr. Strait’s mother was the driving force that allowed her to venture into all-male classrooms and pursue her dream of becoming a mathematician.

Dr. Strait overcame the prejudices and obstacles that hampered her quest to become a mathematician. Even though she encountered many difficult situations, she describes mathematics as a wonderful field that is "not emotional, [but] so totally mental." She recommends that women hoping to enter the field of mathematics and also become mothers become professors so that they have enough time to juggle both a career and family life. Dr. Strait is a truly amazing person whose achievements can inspire women to become pioneers in unexplored territory.

About the Author: My name is Alyssa Chase, and I am a tenth grader at Townsend Harris High School at Queens College. Mathematics is my favorite subject, and I am in my third term of an honors Math A class. Mathematics has been quite useful to me in other areas of study as well, such as in my chemistry class.