Article about Conference by Dr. Raymond L. Johnson

Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences at MSRI

Dr.Raymond L. Johnson
Department of Mathematics
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-0001

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(December, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 1496-1500)

Forty-one mathematicians interested in the development of mathematics among African Americans and other minorities gathered at MSRI in Berkeley on June 21-23, 1995 for a mathematics conference. They were joined by thirty-eight undergraduate and graduate students, whose perspective was sought on critical issues facing the profession. The Conference was funded by MSRI, AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Department of Energy. Since interest in mathematics was the common bond for participants, the bulk of the conference was devoted to talks in a variety of areas such as Differential Geometry, Dynamical Systems, Mathematical Biology, Astrophysics and Numerical Analysis. However, discussions on how to overcome the barriers to participation in mathematics by minorities played a central and vigorous role.

One can ask the same questions about this conference that Lenore Blum asked in her description of the Women in Algebraic Geometry Workshop, (Notices, 40, #7, September 1993, 860-861) and give the same answers plus one. I paraphrase Lenore's question, "Clearly such a workshop would be a stimulating and worthwhile experience for any budding research mathematician; and so the question arises, why have a special program for (African Americans)? Is it because (African Americans) have to learn mathematics in a special way? To the contrary, it is to create an environment where (African Americans) have a chance to do and learn mathematics in a way that most successful (white) male mathematicians take for granted."

The difficulty of doing this is compounded for many African American mathematicians by the fact that they are frequently isolated in their home environments. Many have overcome this isolation by establishing networks of collaborators and contacts outside their home institutions. This conference allowed them to extend those contacts and offered graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to begin that process.

Another benefit was to show the students that there is a community of African American researchers to which they can aspire to belong and from which they can receive advice and support. The Conference benefited greatly from the participation of David Blackwell, the first African American elected to the National Academy of Sciences and still the only African American member in mathematics, and J. Ernest Wilkins, member of the National Academy of Engineering. Many people commented that they never knew that there were so many people like themselves who were interested in mathematics. (Besides those listed at the end of the article, another 28 senior participants were invited but were unable to attend the conference and 48 additional students were identified, but funds did not permit the invitation of all.)

We are a small community which limited our ability to specialize. The talks necessarily covered a wide spectrum of mathematics, but as Bill Massey points out it is important for researchers to be able to communicate their mathematical ideas "outside" their specific research community. Each talk (whether by experienced or beginning mathematicians) was carefully prepared, expertly and confidently delivered and heard by a very attentive audience. Speakers took seriously the injunction to make talks accessible to nonspecialists, and all talks were followed by extensive discussion.

The format was unusual for a mathematics conference, in that discussions of issues affecting mathematics were planned along with the mathematics talks. Mathematics talks were scheduled from 9-4 each day (4 talks/day), with discussion on some topic scheduled each afternoon from 4-6. The first day we discussed concrete steps that can be taken to increase the number of African American researchers. Bob Megginson noted that the problems blocking increased participation in mathematics by Native Americans were similar to those being discussed that affected African Americans.

The second day we discussed steps in developing a career in research, including the central role of racism as an obstacle to opportunity and welcome, prerequisites to success. In 1995, the problems remain surprisingly unchanged from thirty years ago. However, in 1965 there was a vigorous civil rights movement challenging society and academe. Today equal opportunity is under attack; the critical importance of this battle and our need to make alliances with and support community groups engaging in the struggle to extend opportunity was noted. The value of identifying institutions with a poor record of support for African Americans was discussed.

The final day was a wrap-up to get ideas on ways to improve the conference and on whether it was worthwhile to try to have another conference next year. Despite the full day, approximately 95% of the participants remained for the discussions each day and each discussion was ended with some participants expressing a desire to address additional points. Evening events were scheduled to allow continued discussion on Wednesday and Thursday.

The evaluations of the conference were enthusiastic, although there were also several (sometimes contradictory) suggestions for ways to improve it. Many people commented on finding a community with common interests.

"The opportunity to meet so many African-American mathematicians talking and doing mathematics (was a success)."

"I felt that it was great to see that there are others out there who are going through things that I am."

"I met grad students from everywhere! I did not know that there were so many."

"Successes: meeting people who could help me attain my goals of becoming a PhD in mathematics. Gaining inspiration from those who have succeeded."

Some of the comments suggested things that participants seem to miss in their home environments.

"The important aspects to me were being informed on the current research topics and issues in the mathematics world, and being part of a forum in which PhD's and aspiring PhD's can talk in a relaxed environment."

"Speaking with others in my field that I felt were interested in what I had to say"

"The diversity of the talks and the interactions (conversational opportunities) with people, the math community."

"..., I was comforted to see such a wonderful support system for young African-American students pursuing graduate studies."

"Hearing the work of other African-American mathematicians and meeting with students in a friendly supportive atmoshpere."

Almost everyone complimented the speakers, staff, and members at MSRI for their availability for informal discussions.

"Yes, everyone was accessible."

"Yes, there were many opportunities to talk to the speakers and members of MSRI."

"Plenty!! Everyone made themselves available."

"I had numerous opportunities to speak with the other participants. The informal atmosphere offered many chances to interact with the speakers and organizers. "


In September of 1994, Bill Massey and James Turner discussed mutual concerns about issues facing African American students and researchers in the mathematical sciences (see the Notices(41 #5, May/June 1994,p.448) interview with Turner) in the context of a recommendation by the AMS Committee on the Profession to create a task force to recommend steps that AMS could take to increase participation in mathematics by minorities. Massey described conferences organized by groups like the National Society of Black Physicists in which groups of minority researchers presented and discussed their research with other minority researchers and suggested that an analogous effort was needed in the mathematical sciences.

In October of 1994, Turner and I met several African American graduate students who asked for assistance. For the last four years the National Association of Mathematicians has sponsored an Undergraduate MathFest which brings together at a historically black institution undergraduate math majors interested in learning about graduate work in mathematics. A few graduate students are invited to share their experiences and inform the undergraduates from a student perspective. Some of the graduate students at the program in Greensboro, NC last October described feeling isolated in their graduate programs and asked what the community could do to help them. The students from Georgia Tech deserve special credit (Greg Allen, Sherri Burgman, Jimmie Davis, Chenita Hampton, Tasha Inniss, and Michael Keeve) for raising an important issue. They pointed out that current graduate students have already made a commitment to mathematics, yet the community was doing more to attract new students to mathematics than to help those embarked on a career in mathematics.

In November 1994, Bill Thurston expressed an interest in having MSRI help with graduate pipeline issues, and a group of minority mathematicians met at MSRI in January 1995 during the San Francisco AMS meeting to discuss what could be done. Bill Massey, James Turner and I were encouraged to organize a conference as an initial means to get minority and non-minority mathematicians together (through mathematics) to think about what should be done to develop minority mathematicians. Bill Thurston volunteered MSRI as host institution, James Turner supplied considerable funding from grants, Bill Massey convinced AT&T Bell Laboratories' officials of the value of such a conference for students participating in the AT&T Cooperative Research Fellowship programs, and this conference was the result.


Words cannot truly capture the spirit of excitement and camraderie that marked this conference. Even the sum total of the talks, the discussions, and the many photos will not capture the essence of the experience. For three days everyone was able to function as a valued member of a community with common scientific interests and common concerns.

I was extremely impressed with the growth and professional development shown by the graduate students during the conference. They participated fully in all parts of the program, chairing sessions and introducing speakers. They learned after arriving at the conference that this was planned, and enthusiastically volunteered. They made good suggestions during the discussions and communicated with working mathematicians as professional colleagues. They contributed to a lively question and answer period after each talk.

The graduate students' desire to acknowledge mathematical mentors highlighted for me a critical role played by members of the mathematics community that is not always given the attention it deserves. Mentoring can be critically important to minority mathematicians. We will work to establish cross-institutional mentoring arrangements to sustain community members (undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, junior faculty members, in particular) during the long year.

Lee Lorch has seen the mathematics community move from a segregated one to a more open, if not always welcoming, community and now, grapple with the alarming and systematic backlash that threatens the few gains that have been registered, and has attended many conferences. He commented that "I have never seen a more diverse conference - there was diversity of research interest, diversity of type of school represented, substantial numbers of women,who were active participants at all levels, diversity of age, diversity of career level." There was a strong sense of caring about each other's welfare and concern for advancing the common good, even when there were differences in what needs to be emphasized in service of the common good.

I worry about what will happen when participants return to their home institutions, and their relative isolation. They will attempt to apply the lessons they have learned from this conference, but the response will not always be positive. We have set up an electronic listserv for participants and others interested in the issues which we hope will help keep contacts alive(; if interested send a message with "subscribe AARMS YourName@address" to

The inspiration gained from this conference will wear off in a finite time, but the mathematics learned will last forever.

Student participants: Gregory Allen, Georgia Tech; Janine Anthony, Clark Atlanta; Louise Brown, Georgia Tech; Sherri Burgman, Georgia Tech; Cyril Coumarbatch, Rutgers; Jimmie Davis, Georgia Tech; Jonathan D.Farley, Oxford; Kimberly Flagg, Maryland(College Park); Chenita Hampton, Georgia Tech; Illya Hicks, Rice; Regina Hill, Rice; Flory Holmes,Arizona State; Rudy Horne, Colorado; Atiya Hoye, Maryland(CP); Greg Huber, Berkeley; Tasha Inniss, Georgia Tech; Otis Jennings,Georgia Tech; Willette Johnson, Virginia Tech; John Jones,Maryland(CP); Perpetua Kessy,Maryland(CP); Martin Khumbah, Virginia Tech; Mark Lewis, Florida State; Alice Livingston, Northern Illinois; Bethuel Mbugua, Harvard-Westlake; Tyrone McKoy, Maryland(Baltimore County); Cassandra Moore McZeal,Rice; Milton Nash, Princeton; Marcus Neal, Princeton; Rosa Perez, Hunter College; Errol Rowe, Maryland(CP); Regis Smith, Berkeley; Idris Stovall, Virginia Tech; Robert Thrash, Carnegie Mellon; Gikiri Thuo, Maryland(CP); Darrin Vissaraga, Texas(Austin); Frankie White, Texas(Austin); Donald Williams, Rice; Pamela Williams, Rice; Michelle Wilson, MIT.

Senior Participants: Darry Andrews, AT&T; Earl Barnes, Georgia Tech; David Blackwell, Berkeley(ret.); Lenore Blum, MSRI; Robert Bozeman, Morehouse; Sylvia Bozeman, Spelman; Danielle Carr, Bryn Mawr; Duane Cooper, Maryland(CP); Darryl Corey, Norfolk State; James Curry, Colorado; Nathaniel Dean, AT&T; James Donaldson, Howard; Amassa Fauntleroy, NC State; Art Grainger, Morgan State; Isom Herron, RPI; Donald Hill, Florida A & M; Johnny Houston, Elizabeth City State; Fern Hunt, NIST; Raymond Johnson, Maryland(CP); Donald King, Northeastern; Joshua Leslie, Howard; Lee Lorch, York(ret.), Dawn Lott-Crumpler, Maryland(CP); Carolyn Mahoney, Cal State San Marcos; William Massey, AT&T; Eldon McIntyre, AT&T; Camille McKayle, Lafayette; Robert Megginson, Michigan; Walter Miller, Howard; Asamoah Nkwanta, Howard; Kevin Oden, Harvard; Michael Odyniec, Hewlett-Packard; Arlie Petters, Princeton; Carl Prather, Virginia Tech; Abdulalim Shabazz, Clark Atlanta; Peter Szego, Cal State Senate(ret.); Charles Thompson, Lowell; William Thurston, MSRI; James Turner, Florida A & M; J. Ernest Wilkins, Clark Atlanta; Roselyn Williams, Florida A & M.

(Acknowledgment: Anyone who has read Lenore Blum's article "Women in Algebraic Geometry Workshop at MSRI"(cited above) will recognize my debt to that article for suggestions of topics. I owe the suggestion that I write this description to Lenore. I also thank Lenore Blum, James Curry, Tasha Inniss, Lee Lorch, Bill Massey and James Turner for reading early drafts of the article and helping improve it substantially.)

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