How many Black people have received PhDs in mathematics? What did they study?
How many Black women have received PhDs in mathematics? What are their stories?
In a cross-campus collaboration between Pomona College and Cal Poly Pomona, students are taking on the gargantuan task of finding the answers.
Led by mathematics professors Edray Goins of Pomona and Robin Wilson of CPP, the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora (MATHAD) database seeks to document the contributions Black mathematicians have made to their field.
Expanding on the work of mathematics professor Scott Williams, who taught at SUNY Buffalo, MATHAD was founded in 1997 to document the lives and work of Black mathematicians he was meeting at conferences. Over the course of a decade, Williams wrote more than six hundred profiles that he shared online.
“Every good thing comes to an end and he decided to retire,” Goins told TSL, “so myself and a few friends of mine decided to take over the site so that we could continue to add more profiles and update the information that was there. And now it has turned into a much, much larger project.”
Last year, Goins and Wilson hired students at Pomona and CPP to help them expand the scope of MATHAD’s coverage. After transferring Williams’s profiles to a searchable database, students dove into the research to add more biographies.
“We looked for any pertinent information about [the mathematicians’] research areas [and] about their personal life. We found people ranging from the 1800s to present day, so it was a wide variety of types of research we had to do,” said Christina Marsh PO ’23, a student working on MATHAD.
For one of her biographies, Marsh looked into the life of Gladys West, whose pivotal contributions to satellite geodesy models helped shape Global Positioning System technology as it exists today.
Splitting up the research efforts into three groups, some students are focusing on finding out how many Black mathematicians receive doctorates each year, while others are hoping to find leads on more recent figures with a list that starts in 2000.
While contributing to the project, Virgil Munyemana PO ’22 was struck by how few Black scholars currently hold doctorates in the US.
Of all the PhDs granted in the U.S. annually across all fields, only seven percent are granted to Black Americans. Among those, just one percent in the last decade has been in mathematics.
“When you see the actual numbers, like in any given year, there’s only five or 10 [Black people who receive PhDs in mathematics]. I have been taken aback by that,” Muyemana said.
Wilson is leading the charge to identify all the Black women who have received PhDs in math since 1980.
“There is a paper that was published in 1981 that works to identify all of the Black women with mathematics PhDs up to that point and the article shares some of their stories,” Wilson told TSL. “This project attempts to replicate that work for the past 40 years from 1981 to 2021 as well as to add the names and some of the accompanying stories that were missing from the first article.”
Under Wilson’s guidance, students have been contacting graduate school programs for information while siphoning through decades worth of archival articles and records. As they find leads, they have started reaching out with hopes of conducting interviews to add to the database.
For Dante Christian PO ’25, “filling out the stories behind these people is very moving.You get a glimpse into their focus and their niche.”
Christian, who attended a high school in Georgia, found MATHAD especially helpful during his freshman year of college.
“Coming from the south, February was the only time we discussed Black successful people, which was very, very disappointing and disheartening,” he said.
MATHAD has changed that, giving him more frequent exposure to Black mathematicians that came before him as he navigates the math major himself.
“There have been other Black people in the exact same situation as me. The people I’m researching — they’ve been in white dominant spaces. […] It’s very [inspiring] to know that their work has put me in a better position,” Christian said.
Marsh, who brings a unique angle to the project as an environmental analysis major, said being a part of MATHAD inspired her to embark on a similar research endeavor.
Called “Equity and the Environment” for building community, Marsh seeks to expand the work MATHAD initiated to other disciplines, in her case in geoscience and environmental science.“I’ve taken a lot of the lessons and intentions that we set early on [in MATHAD] to use as guiding principles for the work that I’m doing, even though it’s very different,” Marsh said.
“We’re researching people for one thing and building community and networks. I think that a lot of the motivations for both [MATHAD and Equity and the Environment] are very similar to me.”
Goins sees MATHAD growing into a center at Pomona focussing on the history of Black people in mathematics. He already runs summer programs at Pomona, and hopes to introduce an additional program for students to research the lives and work of Black mathematicians.
“I’m hoping to have a research unit that focuses on math history — the first of its kind in the country,” Goins said.
Wilson and Goins hope that the database will be a way for Black students studying math and other STEM fields to feel recognized within the discipline, while learning about those who trailblazed the field before them, and who they might share similar experiences with.
“It’s been important for me in my development to know that I was not the first person that had to experience the isolation and marginalization that goes with being a Black person in a field like mathematics,” Wilson said.