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Talithia Williams receiving award from Sastry Pantula

Infinite Possibilities Conference held at Oregon State University

By Srila Nayak

Photography by Hannah O'Leary

Dean Pantula and Talithia Williams

OSU Mathematics Ph.D student Kalei Titcomb, a first generation college graduate, says she rarely sees women like herself in mathematics. Titcomb was the only native Hawaiian in her mathematics classes at Pacific University where she received her undergraduate degree.

Recently, she participated in the biennial 10th Infinite Possibilities Conference (IPC) held at Oregon State University (OSU) on March 1-3. This one of a kind national academic event focused on empowering, educating, celebrating and promoting the careers of underrepresented minority women in mathematical and statistical sciences.

"It is nice, especially, to have a conference where we all come out in these numbers, so that other people in our position will see and think, wow, look at how many of us are there! We all can do this and take to heart the message that no particular discipline is reserved for any particular race or nationality," said Titcomb.

The conference attracted more than 230 diverse participants from 19 states, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The Departments of Statistics and Mathematics at OSU proudly co-hosted IPC 2015, which has received generous support from the National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency and Oregon State University. IPC is a program of Building Diversity in Science (BDIS), a nonprofit organization that encourages diverse students to enter STEM disciplines. The model for the annual conference is joint hosting between a University Partner and the nonprofit.

IPC was started in 2005 by Tanya Moore and a few of her former Spelman College mathematics professors and classmates. Moore, a biostatistician who works as education policy adviser in San Francisco, excelled as a mathematics major in Spelman—a historically black college for women—but struggled to connect with her peers and professors in her graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. She eventually transferred to the University of California at Berkeley.

Moore says that her "challenging and instructive experiences in graduate school, combined with the understanding that math provides a path to many careers" led her to form the IPC after completing a doctorate in biostatistics from UC-Berkeley.

It appears that initiatives such as the IPC are needed now more than ever. A 2015 statistical study by the National Science Foundation shows that representation of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans in math-intensive fields is lower than in other STEM fields. In 2012, only 5.4% of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics were awarded to underrepresented minority women.

"We are committed to supporting and enhancing diversity in mathematics and science at OSU."

"I am thrilled to welcome the IPC to campus, which has done so much in the last decade to mentor, empower and increase participation of minority women in the mathematical and statistical sciences," said Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Science. "It is truly a pleasure to celebrate the successes of women of color in mathematical and statistical sciences at OSU."

Pantula, who successfully lobbied to bring the IPC to Oregon State this year, also helped host the 2007 IPC at North Carolina State University when he was chair of its statistics department. IPC 2015 presents a unique opportunity to female students in mathematics and statistics at OSU.

“There is a remarkable enthusiasm about the Infinite Possibilities Conference among the OSU students I know who attended the conference. It is rewarding to contribute to the organization of a conference driven by such enthusiasm,” says Mina Ossiander, mathematics professor and co-chair of the local IPC organizing committee with Lan Xue, a statistics professor.

Numerous studies have shown that a lack of peers, professors and role models who look like them discourage minorities from enrolling in mathematics and science programs. In order to give opportunities to learn from role models and encourage networking, the IPC brought together undergraduates, graduates and high school students as well as an impressive cohort of high-achieving women of color statisticians and mathematicians working across the country in academia, industry and top-level scientific bodies.

You never see anything quite like it. In general, because women of color are under-represented in mathematical fields, until everyone comes together, we may not even know we are there for each other,” says Lily Khadjavi, mathematics professor at Loyola Marymount University and a member of the IPC Advisory Board. “For students—frankly for everyone, at every stage of one’s career—a lack of mentors and role models can be a particular issue.”

IPC 2015 offered a short course on biostatistics for conference participants on March 1. The conference included a rich mix of research talks on mathematics, professional development workshops and panels on race/gender in the context of mathematics. IPC aims to spark interest among high school students in careers in the mathematical sciences as well as instill greater awareness in undergraduate and graduate students about issues uniquely faced by women of color in STEM disciplines.