• Scholarly Leadership

Five faculty members and recent grad receive recognition

From left: Jinyoung Park, María Soria-Carro, Fioralba Cakoni, Kristen Hendricks, Lisa Carbone, Nataša ŠešumFrom left: Recent graduate Jinyoung Park, and current faculty members: María Soria-Carro, Fioralba Cakoni, Kristen Hendricks, Lisa Carbone, Nataša Šešum

In the 1960s, Rutgers achieved a distinction few other schools in the world could match: It was home to a growing number of women mathematicians.

And word got around.

Jean Taylor with PosterJean TaylorJean Taylor was doing her doctoral studies at Princeton University when she first heard about Rutgers’ friendly culture for women mathematicians.

Taylor, a widely acclaimed scholar, joined the Rutgers faculty in 1973. “I was very happy to get there,” she said. “I was immersed with a whole bunch of smart, accomplished women.”

Today, women mathematicians at Rutgers–New Brunswick continue that tradition, breaking new ground in research and gaining national and international recognition in a field where men have long outnumbered women. 

Over the last year, five women faculty members in the Department of Mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences, received external honors, including appointments to prestigious scholarly associations and awards for research excellence. In addition, one of the department’s recent graduates won an award from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

All the honorees say they were drawn to Rutgers by the research-rich culture and the collegiality of the math department.

Lisa CarboneLisa Carbone“I had several offers, but what made me come to Rutgers was the number of distinguished colleagues in my field and related fields and the collegial atmosphere among the faculty here,” said Lisa Carbone, a professor of mathematics who was elected last year as a Fellow of the Australian Mathematical Society.

Fioralba Cakoni, who joined the Rutgers faculty in 2015, agreed. She was recently elected as a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. 

“Rutgers was a brand name for mathematics research,” says Cakoni, a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics. “I was impressed by how collegial the department is. There is a sense that, in order to do well, we need to support individuals.”

Three other faculty members receiving honors are: Kristen Hendricks, who received the John and Joan Birman Research Prize in Topology and Geometry of the Association for Women in Mathematics; Nataša Šešum was awarded the Ruth Lyle Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society; and María Soria-Carro won the Dissertation Prize from the Association for Women in Mathematics.

Fioralba CakoniFioralba Cakoni“I think the department is very supportive of all of us as researchers,” Hendricks said. “I feel very happy with the respect my colleagues (in the department) show for my research and the way they make sure I have the resources I need to carry it out.”

The women also say they’re proud to represent a diversity of nationalities: They are from Albania, Australia, Serbia, Spain, and the United States.

“This is what I love about mathematics,” Cakoni said. “We see the whole world with no boundaries.”

Stephen Miller, the chair of the department, said gender equity has long been a priority, particularly in a field long dominated by men.

“Equal representation in STEM fields is a huge issue in this country” Miller said. “We’re incredibly proud of these accomplished mathematicians, and we’re thrilled that they’re getting the recognition they deserve.”

In recent years, the department, which is typically ranked in the top 20 math programs in the country, has sought to recruit more women into its graduate program.

Lisa HendricksKristen Hendricks“We looked at applicants who were not traditional, but had a lot of potential,” Miller said. “These people have blossomed.”

Indeed, one of those students, Jinyoung Park, earned her Ph.D. from Rutgers in 2020 and received the 2023 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize, a $50,000 prize awarded to outstanding early-career women mathematicians.

Park, who began her career teaching mathematics at the middle and high school level, said she hadn’t initially set out to become a research mathematician.

“Rutgers saw something in my CV, and they had faith in my potential,” said Park, citing Professor Jeff Kahn and Miller. “I am really grateful.”

Women mathematicians began arriving at Rutgers in the 1920s to teach at the New Jersey College for Women, which became Douglass College. Decades later, Rutgers began adding more women to the university’s mathematics faculty, an advance that Taylor credits to Kenneth G. Wolfson, who led the department in the 1960s and expanded its research capabilities.

Nataša ŠešumNataša ŠešumBy 1965, nearly one in four senior mathematics professors at Rutgers were women, while nationally the percentage was less than one in 100, according to an online history written by Professor Charles Weibel

Although the world of higher education has changed dramatically since then, the fields of mathematical and statistical sciences still have many more men than women. Women account for about 32% of all full-time faculty, according to the most recent survey by the American Mathematical Society.

Hendricks, one of the five honorees at Rutgers, says one key to making change is providing greater and earlier access to math courses.

“The more students who are exposed to serious mathematics early on, the better chance we have of catching talent,” she said. “I had calculus (courses) in high school, and that enabled me to take the classes I did coming into college.”

Taylor, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, said she dealt with sexism by “putting blinders on” and focusing on becoming a top student “so nobody could try to put me down on the basis of ‘girls can’t do math.’’’

María Soria-CarroMaría Soria-CarroShe brought to Rutgers a novel research specialty that she discovered in graduate school: The exploration of problems related to soap bubble froths, crystals, and quasicrystals, and how they evolve under various physical laws.

“Math didn’t have to be about numbers, it could also be about shapes,” she said. “Mathematics is really about puzzle-solving, looking for structures and understanding at a very deep level of why some things are the way they are.”

Now retired and living in Northern California, Taylor said she’s pleased that women mathematicians at Rutgers are getting recognition.

“I am happy that Rutgers has attracted such women, excellent at teaching and research,” she said. “It is good for them and good for Rutgers. I hope they all thrive and bring ever more renown to Rutgers, and that Rutgers hires many more.”