Gweneth Humphreys Award

2011 Winner: Rhonda Hughes


The award is named for M. Gweneth Humphreys (1911-2006). Professor Humphreys graduated with honors in mathematics from the University of British Columbia in 1932, earning the prestigious Governor General’s Gold Medal at graduation. After receiving her master’s degree from Smith College in 1933, Humphreys earned her Ph.D. at age 23 from the University of Chicago in 1935. She taught mathematics to women for her entire career, first at Mount St. Scholastica College, then for several years at Sophie Newcomb College, and finally for over thirty years at Randolph Macon Woman’s College. This award, funded by contributions from her former students and colleagues at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, recognizes her commitment to and her profound influence on undergraduate students of mathematics.

In recognition of her outstanding mentoring of undergraduate women in mathematics, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) presents the first M. Gweneth Humphreys Award to Rhonda J. Hughes, Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr College.

Hughes’ nomination letters describe success stories arising from her efforts to develop students’ mathematical skills and self -confidence.  She is a dedicated and motivating teacher at all undergraduate levels, from basic calculus to advanced PDEs.   She ably identifies research topics that match the students’ interests and abilities.

The selection committee marveled at the daring of Hughes’ approach.  It is relatively easy—worthwhile but easy— to encourage an undergraduate arriving at college with a solid record of accomplishment in mathematics and with eagerness to learn more. However, our committee took particular note of the risk-taking involved, to say nothing of  the hard work, in Hughes’ encouragement of students whose potential had previously gone unnoticed, even by the students themselves.   The results bear witness to the strength of Hughes’ belief in her students, to the force of her personality, and to the contagious quality of her enthusiasm for mathematics.

Particularly stunning are the accounts of students who began college convinced they were  “bad at mathematics”, but who were charmed by Hughes into taking calculus with her:  the calculus course goes at least ok, so they take more mathematics, still not convinced of their own abilities but warming to the subject. The students end up majoring in mathematics, doing a research project, and proceeding to graduate programs and careers in mathematics.  The overall numbers are striking, and the mathematics program at Bryn Mawr has flourished in the time Hughes has been there, with large increases in majors.

Leslie Cheng, now Hughes’ colleague and departmental chair, gives a striking account of her own odyssey under Hughes’ guidance. Cheng writes:” I was told (in high school) that I would be successful in life as long as I avoided math at all costs.” Fast-forward several years. Cheng writes, “She continues to mentor, support, encourage, inspire, and challenge me, and I am still learning from her.”

Hughes has brought her knowledge concerning the encouragement of young women in mathematics to the national level. She has served AWM in many ways including as President in 1987-88. She has also served often as organizer, panelist and speaker in activities aimed at increasing the participation of women and minorities in mathematics.

After having identified the challenges that some young women face, especially minority women, Hughes began programs to help negotiate crucial transitions, the first one being from undergraduate course work to the math major.  In 1998, she and Professor Sylvia Bozeman of Spelman College created the on-going EDGE program, which addresses with marked success the transition from college to graduate school.

The AWM is pleased to honor Rhonda Hughes for her prodigious achievements and unwavering efforts over decades in the mentoring of undergraduate women in mathematics, in particular in attracting them into the study of mathematics and in guiding them through crucial transitions in their mathematical careers. 

Response from Rhonda Hughes:

I am deeply honored to be the first recipient of the M. Gweneth Humphreys Award for Mentoring given by the AWM.   Dr. Humphreys received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at a time when women mathematicians were far more rare than they are now.  Her work at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College inspired generations of students, and I am humbled to be awarded this honor in her name.   Moreover, AWM has been a vital part of my mathematical life since my early years in graduate school, and it is particularly gratifying to be honored by the organization that has inspired, informed, and supported my career in mathematics.

When I began to teach, I knew I wanted to make students feel good about themselves;  I wanted to convince students that they could succeed in mathematics.   Bryn Mawr College provided me with the ideal environment to do this, and I am delighted and proud of all those students who chose to pursue the field that has given me so much joy.   I wish to thank AWM and the Selection Committee for recognizing me with this great honor.