LatMath 2022: Addressing a Critical Need Through Mentorship, Community-Building, and Celebrating Success

Posted on 3/4/21 in News

On the final night of IPAM’s 2018 Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference (LatMath), Anthony Várilly-Alvarado approached Tatiana Toro, the Craig McKibben & Sarah Merner Professor in Mathematics at the University of Washington, with a promise.

As a member of the IPAM board, Toro was the driving force in starting the triannual conference — a three-day meeting, hosted by IPAM, aiming to encourage young Latinx to pursue careers in the mathematical sciences; promote the advancement of Latinx currently in the discipline; showcase the research of Latinx at the forefront of their fields; and build community around shared academic interests. After proposing the idea, Toro served on the organizing committee for both the inaugural LatMath, in 2015, and the 2018 conference.

And now an energized Várilly-Alvarado, professor of mathematics at Rice University, was volunteering to contribute in whatever way he could to ensure LatMath’s continued success.

“I hadn’t attended in 2015, but experiencing LatMath in 2018, I was blown away by the enthusiasm,” Várilly-Alvarado recalls. “I went up to Tatiana and said, ‘I want to help make the next one happen. This is so important for the community.’ ”

True to his word, Várilly-Alvarado is now working with co-organizers to plan the third LatMath, set to be held at IPAM on the UCLA campus March 3-5, 2022, after a one-year postponement prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. His excitement about the upcoming event is widely shared by other previous attendees. “When I went to the first LatMath in 2015, it felt like returning home for a reunion,” says Pamela E. Harris, associate professor of mathematics at Williams College and a 2022 LatMath co-organizer. “You had speakers who were simultaneously prolific mathematicians, incredible mentors, and people you could see yourself reflected in. And it just felt like you were among friends.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Math-Science Institute Diversity Initiative, LatMath addresses the underrepresentation of Latinx in the mathematical sciences by showcasing the research contributions and achievements of junior and senior members of the Latinx mathematics community, as well as providing mentoring and career advice to Latinx individuals at the high school undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and junior faculty levels. As with the previous two conferences, LatMath 2022 will offer a mix of scientific, mentoring, and community-building activities, including plenary talks by prominent researchers, a panel discussion on diversity in STEM and higher education, scientific sessions with research presentations by both junior and senior mathematicians, and networking and professional development activities. In addition, there will be an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to present their research at a poster session and learn how to effectively communicate their work.

For young Latinx considering careers in the mathematical sciences, attending a conference where they can get to know successful role models is invaluable. Selenne Bañuelos, an associate professor of mathematics at California State University Channel Islands and a member of the LatMath 2022 organizing committee, recalls that as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the mid-2000s, she felt discouraged by the absence of U.S.-born or –trained Latinx tenure-track faculty on the campus at the time. “I had great professors who wanted me to keep studying for a PhD, and I said, ‘That would be great, but would I even get hired anywhere?’ ” Bañuelos recalls.

“If you can see it, you can be it,” Harris adds of the importance of role models. “To address issues of underrepresentation, we have to show people what they can become, and that’s a huge aspect of LatMath.” Harris notes that when she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012, she was one of only 12 U.S.-born Latinas in the nation to earn a PhD in the mathematical sciences. When Bañuelos earned her PhD from the University of Southern California the following year, she was one of five.

Harris worries that the isolation imposed by the pandemic has been a particular setback for young Latinx members of the mathematics community, and is excited for the return of in-person gatherings. “When everyone is together at a conference, you have natural, spontaneous conversations that build bonds and provide support that can have a deep impact on a person’s career,” she says.

Beyond the power of showcasing successful junior and senior Latinx math faculty, the many formal and informal mentoring opportunities at LatMath are designed to assist attendees at all levels. The conference features concurrent panels for early-career professionals to learn about academic, industry, and government positions from established members of the Latinx mathematics community. A math circle led by graduate students engages high school students in mathematics through problem solving and discovery. One-on-one conversations between junior and senior participants impart mentorship advice about career choices, work promotions, research publications, and other relevant advancement information. Embedded within the research presentations and the lunches, Latinx participants discuss what motivated them to become a PhD mathematician and what the experience has been like.

Bañuelos says the first time she attended LatMath she was struck by the intentional ways in which the organizers focused on establishing a sense of community among the attendees, and the 2022 meeting will continue to build on those efforts. “A Conversation With” will bring a mentor on stage for an informal dialogue with attendees. Speakers are being encouraged to include biographical information to humanize their stories. Other possibilities include a storytelling night, designed to tap into the similarities that cut across Latinx cultures; and a dance party. “The Latinx mathematics community is very diffuse throughout the U.S.,” says Várilly-Alvarado. “The experience of everyone coming together in one place is really special.”

Building community and showing young Latinx the path to success in mathematics were what Tatiana Toro hoped to achieve when she approached IPAM about the concept of a LatMath conference nearly a decade ago. She knew that goal had been achieved, Toro says, when she was approached during the first LatMath by so many Latinx who told her, “I never knew there were so many people like me who did math.”

Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference 2022