2020 Student Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

A Lonely Road to Loving Math

by Lu Paris (Head-Royce School)

Interviewee: Marissa Kawehi Loving (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Dr. Marissa Kawehi Loving studies the topology of surfaces, and, in her own words, “the properties of naturally associated groups”, but, growing up, she never had to question whether she belonged to the groups around her. Homeschooled with her family and then studying as an undergraduate at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo, Dr. Loving had always felt like she was welcome among her peers. “Hawai`i is often called the minority majority state,” she chuckles, “and so, growing up and in college, I never felt ‘othered’. There were always lots of brown women, always lots of brown people”.
She was quickly recruited and floated off to the PhD program in mathematics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a bubble of optimism and success, buoyed by having earned a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship. But as soon as she arrived at the largely white campus, people made it clear she was less than welcome. Her classmates were incredulous and derisive about her presence and grant, claiming her race and gender, not her talent, had gotten her where she was. And it wasn’t just classmates. When she told a trusted professor she wanted to pursue a career in research, he scoffed at her. “He said that he didn’t think I had it in me to write a thesis good enough to do research,” Dr. Loving admits. “I believed him,” she states somberly. In this new realm, faculty and fellow grad students alike questioned her, belittled her, and worst of all, ignored her.
Plagued by feelings of shame and illegitimacy and feeling like she did not belong there, she turned to her department’s chapter of the AWM for support, but discovered that the white women who dominated the club didn’t want to hear about issues exacerbated by racial prejudice. “There was no room to talk about the intersection of my identities,” Dr. Loving states, and she left the club feeling more isolated than ever.
But then, at a conference one day, a voice reached through the isolation that surrounded her. Dr. Piper H, a black, female mathematician, gave a talk about mathematics and racism, and for the first time, Dr. Loving felt heard. “I was just seeing all of these events as indicating how terrible I was, and how bad I was at math,” she confesses. “[The talk] gave the experiences I was having names and made visible to me the underlying structures that were manifesting all these things that I just assumed were isolated incidents happening to me. It just felt like a relief.”
Dr. Loving had realized she was not alone, but she still struggled. She tried to make progress on her thesis, but the critical voice of her professor echoed in her head, and she found herself unable to open up to her thesis advisor and get real work done. The self-doubt and stymied progress were overwhelming, and she left for winter break unsure if she was coming back. She might not have, if it weren’t for what her department’s graduate director sent out on Martin Luther King Day: a speech originally written and delivered by Francis Su, entitled “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”. As soon as she got back to campus,
Dr. Loving burst into her thesis advisor’s office. “I need to read you something,” she said, dizzy with hope and fear. She read him this excerpt from Su’s speech:
“Because we are not mathematical machines. We live, we breathe, we feel, we bleed. If your students are struggling, and you don’t acknowledge it, their education becomes disconnected and irrelevant. Why should anyone care about mathematics if it doesn’t connect deeply to some human desire: to play, seek truth, pursue beauty, fight for justice? You can be that connection.”
With those words, the barrier broke. She told him about all the prejudice she’d faced from other students and about the near-shattering blow to her confidence delivered by her professor’s dismissive comment. He believed her. He refuted the crushing comments, telling her, “No one can tell what kind of mathematician you can be until you become it.”
The prejudice and harm Dr. Loving and other women of color face did not end that day. But a new chapter opened for Dr. Loving. With a newfound feeling of belonging as a mathematician, she completed her thesis and was awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to work at Georgia Tech. Now, she doesn’t just limit group theory to her research. Instead, she works with Justin Lanier on SUBgroups, online support groups that connect first-year math graduate students in order to help them break through the same feelings of inadequacy and isolation Dr. Loving suffered. “Mathematics is based on the connections you have with other people,” Dr. Loving states. “Almost all math today is done collaboratively. I’m a Native Hawaiian woman. I’m the first Native Hawaiian woman to get a PhD in mathematics. A big value of mine, as a Hawaiian, is community, and so I see this very much as a coming together of my values as a person and as a mathematician.”
“The idea of rehumanizing mathematics in every way encompasses what I want to be… and what I want my community to look like.” Dr. Loving’s journey shows one way to do just that: embrace groups, but don’t let anyone define you by them. Wherever you can find connection, you can belong.