Rutgers Mathematician Recounts Her Career Trajectory in a Field Not Always Welcoming to Women
Amy Cohen recognized for her pioneering work in math education reform
Amy Cohen remembers her mother’s parting words as she boarded a train bound for Radcliffe College more than half a century ago: “She said, ‘Well dear, it was all nice and well to show how smart you were in high school, but if you continue to do that in college you may never get married."'
Despite her mother’s warning, Cohen did get married – twice in fact – and continues to enjoy a 40-year career as a mathematician and professor at Rutgers. She also raised a son, Nathan Corwin, who is about to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics.
But in 1960, when she set off for a college that looking back she believes was more interested in finding its female students a “suitable husband” than molding a career-minded mathematician, the country was on the brink of social and sexual revolution.
There was no way for Cohen to predict the impressive and, at times, tumultuous personal and professional trajectory of her life. Yet Cohen, who watched her mother pass up career opportunities to be the rock for her mathematician father, Leon W. Cohen, was sure of one thing. She was going to become more than just “an educated housewife.”
A few semesters into her studies during an advanced calculus course at Harvard, Cohen came to another realization that would influence the rest of her career: Not all teachers are created equal.
“One professor taught a beautiful course suitable for the best 5 percent of us. He had a wonderful time talking over the heads of the other 25 students as if “we didn’t deserve teaching.”
The lesson still resonates. As a professor, Cohen works to help people learn, rather than throw information at them. As an advocate for math education reform, she strives to inspire teachers to do likewise.
Cohen’s efforts have earned her the praise of her peers, including a Certificate of Meritorious Service from the Mathematical Association of America and a Distinguished Teaching Award from the New Jersey section of the organization. In January, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) will present Cohen with the 23rd annual Louise Hay Award in San Diego “for her achievements as a teacher, scholar, administrator and human being.”
She said it felt good to be honored by a group she joined during its infancy, “when they were trying to figure out what it would take for women to be accepted as colleagues in the mathematics research community.”
The AWM’s goal especially hit home for Cohen, a newly minted Ph.D. mathematician elbowing her way into the boys club of mathematics research.
Strides have been made in the last 50 years. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the percentage of women with doctorates in math has increased from single digits at the outset of Cohen’s career to a range of 25 to 28 percent today.
Yet women still remain underrepresented in math careers, the NSF reports: “Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (53 percent) and biological and medical sciences (51 percent) and relatively low shares in engineering (13 percent) and computer and mathematical sciences (26 percent). ”
Money, security and family planning are largely to blame for that disparity, according to Cohen.
“Many folks, especially women, who are talented enough to enter math are also talented enough to be attracted to fields with rosier growth potential,” such as biomedical and pharmaceutical fields. “Too many math faculty are unaware of opportunities outside academia, but young women are steered to industry by families who know that industry pays well and has more generous family leave policies than academia.”
At Rutgers, Cohen rose through the ranks – from mathematics professor to dean to vice chair for the undergraduate program back to professor. ( She is especially interested in the Korteweg–de Vries equation and the cubic Schrödinger equation on the line.) She returned to the faculty in 1995 after stepping down as dean of what was then University College. That decision was spurred by a health scare she suffered after the deaths of her father and second husband – which happened less than a month apart and left her to care for her elderly mother and young son.
“I got back to being able to concentrate on teaching math, and I didn’t have to deal with budget cuts and administrative pressures,” Cohen said. As she regained her footing, she finally had the time to use what she’d learned as a dean for the benefit of education reform.
“As mathematicians, we think the resources will come if they are needed. And guess what? That isn’t how the world works,” she said. “I learned the job of dean is to be shameless. You’ve got to ask for it. You’ve got to push for it. ”
With the right pushing, Cohen has landed several grants, including one for $5 million from the National Science Foundation in 2009 to fund the New Jersey Partnership for Excellence in Middle School Mathematics (NJ PEMSM).
Unlike her previous efforts, which focused on finding and keeping graduate students in the mathematical sciences, the project aims to reach students while they are still reachable by asking middle school teachers to “reconsider the math they teach” and understand it more deeply. The program, which also received Rutgers funding, provides participating teachers with seven master’s level courses in the math and math pedagogy of middle grades.
“We need to be worried about not whether we use a calculator in grade three or grade six, but knowing extremely well and passionately the subject itself and being able to communicate about it in an effective and inclusive manner,” said Michael Beals, a fellow professor of mathematics at Rutgers and co-principal investigator of NJ PEMSM. “(Cohen) has been a leader in that area here at Rutgers for as long as I can remember. She has very high standards for what we ought to be doing. She’s pushed a whole bunch of us for more than 20 years, and it’s been fantastic.”