News, Science & Research

Ten years in, first tenured woman in APMA department reshapes mentorship

Hired in 2010, Ramanan strives to tackles gender inequity on campus, beyond

By
Science and Research Editor
Friday, December 6, 2019

When Professor of Applied Mathematics Kavita Ramanan PhD’98 was hired by her department in 2010, she became the department’s first and only tenured female faculty member. Today, almost 10 years later, there are two.

Ramanan has witnessed and driven change within mathematics over the past 10 years. She has bolstered support for women in a field where they have struggled to achieve the same status and success as their male colleagues. Beyond her push to diversify the field of math, her research on probability and stochastic, random processes has provided clarity and advanced work in fields ranging from engineering to biology.

“There are very many things in the world that are uncertain,” said Mira Gordin ’20, an APMA concentrator. “Probability is a really elegant language for expressing that and studying it.”

In 2013, Ramanan helped tackle the gender divide when she co-founded the University’s chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics. “It started quite modestly … but now it is a really active group.” The group, open to anyone regardless of gender identity, fosters a unique sense of community for undergraduates in the field, Ramanan said. “It creates a space for people underrepresented in the field to come together.”

Ramanan also founded an outreach group in 2014 called Math CoOp that shares mathematical concepts with middle and high school students who may otherwise lack easy access to the material.

“One must contribute to one’s society more broadly in whatever capacity possible,” she said.

Since coming to the University, addressing the “paucity of women” in math has been one of Ramanan’s central contributions.

“There definitely is a gender divide, and it becomes more extreme (with) every … progressive step,” said Gordin, who is the undergraduate president of Brown’s AWM. Though a gender gap is evident in undergraduate classes, it worsens as one looks up the ladder of academia toward faculty positions. At those stages, “there are a smaller percentage of women and non-binary people,” Gordin said.

“There is a lot of leakage as you go to the postdoctoral level, and higher… especially in the higher echelons of schools,” she said. According to data from the Office of Institutional Research, the University has awarded more degrees to male students than female students in the physical sciences, the broad category in which APMA falls, for the last 11 years. While 43 percent of physical science baccalaureate degree recipients last year were female, only 34 percent of masters degree recipients were female and a mere 18 percent of doctoral degree recipients identified as such.

According to Ramanan, the APMA graduate program has reached enrollment levels of about 50 percent female to male at times, but even so, a gender gap persists. “This is due to a lot of factors, including societal factors which are beyond academia. I think a lot of efforts are being made by some institutions and also the general math community to make the (field) more inclusive. But I think a lot more have to be made,” Ramanan said.

The difference in gender representation is similar for faculty. In 2010, the physical sciences had 26 female faculty members and 162 male faculty members. The latest available data from 2018 shows that there were 27 female faculty members and 165 male faculty members — marking little change over the past decade and reflecting the broader divide that exists in these fields on the University’s campus and beyond.

“It’s sad to me, because I think there are so many incredible people who can do math, who are not able to progress because they don’t have the support from the community. And that’s one of the things that we try to mitigate through identity based organizations like (AWM),” Gordin said.

To Gordin, role models like Ramanan matter because they set a basic example — women successful in math. Ramanan has specifically mentored Gordin in her work, helping her explore her interest in probability while also inspiring new initiatives for AWM. “At the end of the day, I just want to do math,” Gordin said.

Ramanan studied engineering as an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology. But like many students, she eventually came to realize that her career plans should lie outside of her undergraduate concentration. Unlike many students, the realization came to her at a random moment in the backseat of a cab.

One of her otherwise-supportive undergraduate mentors cautioned her against making the switch to APMA, warning that Ramanan wanted to enter the field too late. In India at the time, APMA “was not a common concentration offered by graduate programs.” But it did imbue other disciplines so centrally that Ramanan already had a background through her engineering studies.

“I really found myself constantly attracted to the more rigorous formulations of things rather than mere applications of them. I wanted to actually develop the (theories),” she said.

After switching to applied math, Ramanan moved from Mumbai to Providence to pursue her PhD at Brown. She found that at Brown, “people strive for excellence without being ultra-competitive with somebody else, you’re just competing with yourself. There’s a more collaborative atmosphere.” She completed her doctorate in 1998 and then left Brown for other endeavors, including a post doc in Haifa, Israel. Twelve years later, she returned to Brown as a tenured professor in 2010. “That ethos continues today,” she said.

Ramanan has always been drawn to the creative side of mathematics. “I felt an academic profession would allow me to always keep learning and sharing my knowledge for life,” she said.

She described her job as a “24/7 occupation.” After 5 p.m., she is still thinking about the theories that drive her to work every morning.  She is motivated by “beautiful eureka moments” that mark the discovery of a new theory or completion of a certain problem. After that moment of discovery, the finding seems obvious — “If you put it in the right framework … it sometimes seems so evident that you wonder why you did not see it earlier.”

With the creativity required to tackle the difficult work in APMA, comes the need to collaborate on the international scale. “You get to know people really well through this creative process, or discussing a problem, but then you also get to know them as human beings. And they’re people from all over the world.”

While Ramanan has shaped math over the last decade through her advocacy and research, the University has also facilitated a shift in the field through the founding of the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, which opened on South Main Street in 2011. The institute bridges the gap between pure and applied mathematics to create timely applications for computation. “It also does typically bring together very diverse sets of people.” Starting this January, Ramanan will serve as the Institute’s deputy director.

This month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Ramanan as one of their fellows “for her research in applied probability and efforts to increase the number of women in the sciences,” according to AAAS. The AAAS is a nonprofit organization that works to defend scientific freedom, advance science policy and promote collaboration and cooperation between scientists, according to their website. Fellows are nominated by their peers.

“I really like belonging to this broader scientific community, and not just my mathematical community — one that is engaged actively in policy as well as spreading rational thinking and issues like that,” Ramanan said.

“Upholding the value of scientific inquiry and related aspects are very dear to my heart, so I’m particularly honored and excited to contribute my little bit,” she said.

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