Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s popular TED talk is called “The danger of a single story.” In it, she talks about the importance of reading and writing many stories of many people rather than putting a person—or an entire continent of people—into one box. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she says, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.”
If someone were asked to tell the story of a “typical” mathematician, they might talk about a shy, socially awkward white man who is a “genius,” whatever that means. He was a fast learner in school and can perform feats of calculation almost instantaneously in his head. He thinks about nothing other than his research, often to the detriment of practical tasks required for everyday living. Some mathematicians do fit these descriptions, but many more don’t. When that story becomes the dominant narrative of who mathematicians are, people who don’t fit the mold feel like there’s no place for them in mathematics. One of the great privileges of working as a math writer is getting to hear the stories of so many mathematicians when I talk to them for articles or podcasts. There really is no one kind of person who becomes a mathematician.
This fall, I’m happy to share a project, created by Lathisms and sponsored by a Tensor-SUMMA grant from the Mathematical Association of America, to share more stories of mathematicians. Lathisms was founded in 2016 by four Hispanic mathematicians, Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela Harris, Alicia Prieto Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa. Hispanic and Latinx people are underrepresented in mathematics, and Lathisms aims to increase visibility of Hispanic and Latinx mathematicians. Since 2016, the organizers have created a calendar every Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15) where each day has a different featured Hispanic or Latinx mathematician, including a picture and short biography of each of them.
This year, Lathisms decided to extend the celebration of Hispanic and Latinx mathematicians by adding a podcast, hosted by me, where you can listen to these mathematicians tell their stories in their own words. Starting at the end of August, we have published a new episode every Friday. The episodes feature mathematicians featured in past years’ Lathisms calendars as well as some of this year’s mathematicians. Some of them grew up in the U.S., others in Latin America. Some grew up in poverty, and others were better off. Some knew they wanted to be mathematicians from a young age, and others didn’t know anything about possible mathematics careers until college. Some work in pure math, others in applied. Some focus on research, others outreach.
So far we’ve shared conversations with Carlos Castillo-Chavez, who is one of the most prolific advisors of U.S. Latinx math Ph.D. students; Erika Camacho, who does mathematical modeling of eye diseases; Federico Ardila, who mentioned “the danger of a single story” when we talked and finds inspiration and mentorship from both students and teachers; and Nicolas Garcia Trillos, who just started a new job in the statistics department at the University of Wisconsin Madison and talked about the many ways there are to be a good mathematician and how that helps him get “unstuck” in his works. In the coming weeks, we will share many more stories. Tune in on Fridays to find them.
You can find the podcast at the Lathisms website or on iTunes. Transcripts are available already for some episodes and will be provided for all episodes. I hope these conversations will be helpful for teachers who want to make sure their students are aware of the diversity of mathematicians, for Hispanic and Latinx students and early-career mathematicians who are looking for role models and collaborators, and for anyone who wants to hear about mathematicians’ many different stories.