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Interview with Mary Gray

1 September 2016 228 views No Comment
Nawar M. Shara, associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University, interviewed her mentor, Mary Gray, professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at American University.
Mary Gray

Mary Gray

Nawar: Where did you go to school, and how did you become interested in statistics?

Mary: I earned my undergraduate from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska—my hometown. A small town by anybody else’s standards, but a large town by Nebraska standards. Between undergraduate school and graduate school, I received a Fulbright grant to spend a year in Germany. This really changed my life, producing an international perspective that had not existed before. After my graduate study in Germany, I earned a PhD from the University of Kansas and got married.

My husband had earned a PhD two months earlier, also in mathematics, but from the University of California at Los Angeles. When we moved to Berkeley, where he was offered an appointment at the University of California, I had to look for a job in the vicinity. This was 1964, when women looked for jobs in the vicinity of their husbands—back then, you wouldn’t consider making it the other way around. So, I taught at what was called Cal State Hayward at the time and then became Cali State East Bay.

Up until that time, I had never thought of there being much discrimination against woman or thought women needed any special help. It is true, the first day I walked into a graduate topology class, the instructor said, “What are you doing here? You are taking a position that could be available to a man.” But, all that did was convince me to do really well in topology.

When I was looking for a job in California, I never realized how much discrimination there was; I just thought I would be hired to be a mathematician. Then I met two women mathematicians at the University of California at Berkeley: Julia Robinson and Emma Lehman. Both were faculty wives whose husbands had appointments at Berkeley, but they could not get jobs there or go into the faculty club because there was an anti-nepotism rule.

Robinson was finally given a regular appointment at the University of California at Berkeley, but only after she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). That showed me there was a real issue concerning discrimination, and I knew then that people would need encouragement. That is how I became interested in solving possible discrimination problems—particularly for women and minorities in the sciences.

Soon it became obvious that it was not only a problem of respecting women, but there was also a substantial problem respecting minorities, so the first thing I did after moving to DC was establish a program—funded by the Sloan Foundation—that would help women and minorities earn PhDs in math. Many of those who participated in this program came from historically black colleges and universities, but also from smaller schools where there was no assistance for going onto graduate school. We needed to see where they were in their background and design a program to get them where they needed to be in order to benefit from the PhD programs they were in. My first experience was establishing this program.

I also observed there were few women when I went to national meetings of the math societies. Now, this had its advantages. For instance, you did not have to wait in a queue for the rest room. But I decided we really needed to do something about this and that it was the responsibility of the profession as a whole to encourage woman and minorities. So I went to a council meeting of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) to point this out. The president of the society said, “There is a gentlemen’s agreement that only members of the council could get in.” I replied, “I’m not a gentleman,” and got into the meeting. There, I pointed out that all the mathematical professions needed to encourage women and minorities.

So I started my own organization with the help of six women and a few men—The Association for Women in Mathematics. I ran that for several years off a card table in my office, in my bedroom, with some help from my husband.

So the idea was trying to get a valuable organization going with enough women so you did not feel like you were the only person. Eventually, I was elected as the vice president of the AMS because many people were dissatisfied with their efforts to promote women and minorities and to work on general issues of social concern—from anti-war to poverty. I decided after that I had done about all I could do with the society and that too many mathematicians simply did not understand the issues. They had a self-satisfied sort of notion that only people like them could be mathematicians.

That is when I got interested in doing statistics.

I was asked to do some work on issues of the race and gender composition of people who had been selected as White House Fellows. That work made me interested in using statistics to actually try to improve situations for people. In other words, I found that when you use statistics, it can have an immediate effect. As a mathematician, I’d always felt that while the theorems might be beautiful, it would be 300 years before they had any effect on society, whereas one could improve society by working in statistics. So I got involved in a series of human rights cases for Amnesty International and other organizations within the scientific community to help get mathematicians and other scientists around the world out of prisons.

I continued to work with the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), which became a successful organization and helps women with scholarships and travel grants. One such event we helped with is called Sonya Kovalevskaya Day. Sonya was the first major Russian female mathematician, and we celebrate her day by supporting events that help introduce high-school girls to mathematics and statistics as a community. We have Sonya Day events at American University.

Her day is also celebrated throughout the country. Local students, sometimes girls only, spend the day on the college campus doing mathematics, listening to talks, engaging in activities, and so forth. It is an effort to reach girls at the age they are sometimes driven away from mathematics because they perceive it as something that is not feminine or is isolating, or that girls are not supposed to be good at. All those things that one has to keep working at constantly, providing encouragement, being there with somebody who needs to talk or designing activities. I think being there and being willing to talk is the biggest contribution I or most anybody else can make to young girls who need help. This in particular is true, not only to a women, but minorities as well.

Many of my students who earned PhDs with me are minorities who ended up with successful careers. Some of them are retired now, but they all studied mathematics or statistics. Every now and then, I get a message from one of them asking for advice about this or that or telling me they are going to be in Washington and want to talk. Sometimes, they are considering changing their career emphasis; sometimes they are seeking tenure or advancement. Since I came to American University in 1968, I have a group of students who keep coming back. They are good friends, but also people I can share ideas with. A few of them I have actually published things with.

But still, statistics seemed more productive—from a changing society point of view—than mathematics seemed. I worked with the Caucus for Women in Statistics, and it is the same sort of thing as the AWM. The difference between mathematics and statistics, though, in my opinion, is the statistics community as a whole is much more welcoming to women. There is also a much higher percentage of women with PhDs in statistics than there is in mathematics. It is probably because the job opportunities for woman in statistics are so much broader—in government and in industry, as well as in academia. Academia is probably one of the worst places for sex discrimination and probably race discrimination, although I cannot speak for having experienced either.

In professional groups, whenever we have a big meeting, we always manage to have some activities that focus on careers for women and balancing one’s lifestyle commitments or techniques to reach goals. It is an ongoing problem, not only in the United States but also abroad. So I also help international students, as well as minority students. It has been very rewarding because the students I have had have all been very hard working, very dedicated, and very, very bright and very, very productive. It has been a pleasure to work with those who care and who are willing to put in the effort to achieve their goals.

Nawar: How important is the role of a mentor in someone’s early decisions in life?

Mary: I think, from what I know from other people, it is essential because people do not always have their own resources to fall back on. Some are able to achieve without any external help, but for many, it is a feeling or a sense of isolation and a lack of willingness for people to judge them on merits. If people are being judged on their race or sex, it can be very disheartening and they really need a mentor to help them realize their own worth. But the main thing a mentor needs to do is help a person see what they can do on their own.

Nawar: What are some of the challenges mentors and mentees face along the way?

Mary: It is a big responsibility. I had a student who was an undergraduate come back to see me this summer and the first thing he said was I changed his life. It is not the first time I have heard that. I had to think what a terrific responsibility it is to have someone say that to you. It has an effect and all you can do is hope the effect is positive, because you are probably not going to hear if it is not. Frequently, we hear that it is and, as I said, I feel that is a great responsibility. People achieve things on their own, but if I am able to help encourage them do so, it is a great feeling. But there is a sense that you need to help people understand what they are able to do themselves and see that they achieve as best as they want to.

Nawar: Well, I can repeat that you did change my life, Dr. Gray, for the better of course. As a statistician and a lawyer, how would you say those two disciplines helped you become the mentor you are?

Mary: What we talk about is a two-sided brain. I do not really think there is a two-sided brain, but unfortunately, people operate as if there were a two-sided brain. I mean there is a two-sided brain, obviously, but functionally you cannot separate your actions into reason and emotion. It does not work that way. You have to be able to see problems in a broad perspective so you can see solutions in a broad perspective.

That is the reason I like looking at both statistics and the law, because you do have to take a broad point of view and you do have to resolve conflicting ways of going about things to try to come up with a resolution that works both statistically and legally. I think it is a great help in helping people solve problems, but also in thinking of new ways to use their skills so they are not stuck in the traditional line as a lawyer and traditional line as a statistician.

For instance, you might end up working in something like public health or human rights, or something like prison reform. There are all sorts of things that, once you have looked at the numbers and once you have looked at the law, come together.

Nawar: You are the founder of the Association for Women in Mathematics and a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Mentoring. You also earned honorary degrees. How would you say mentoring helped fulfill your passion and mission?

Mary: Well there are people who can do things totally on their own, but I cannot. I rely on interacting with people to feel good about what I am doing. It is very important to have a productive relationship with other people so you can share ideas and perspectives and get somewhere with it so you can see actual solutions. I played a very substantial role in pension reform, and that was achieved because I saw the problems people were having from a very different perspective and was able to apply both statistics and law to make a major breakthrough. I think the contacts you have and the empathy you develop for other people leads you to work on problems you might not otherwise work on.

Nawar: Are the issues you have encountered in mentoring women 20 years ago different than the issues you face now?

Mary: Well there are certainly differences from the legal point of view; women have more legal rights now, but it is harder to exercise the legal rights they have, I think, than it was previously. Partly because the expectations are higher. When I was starting out, you would find women who gave up easily because women were not really expected to get a PhD—so women would drop out of a program. Once you remove some of the different expectations, then you would look at men and women in much the same way when you are talking about careers.

Responsibilities like child care and the difficulties of maintaining a home life as well as a career should be the same for women and men, but society does not make it the same. We are making progress legally, but the legal progress will not do any good unless you have along with it a societal belief. Women and men share the same range of abilities—some are great, some are not so great. Both men and women share a range of expectations, a range of skills. What distinguishes men and women is not that women are more compassionate or men are more self-confident, but rather that individuals have different viewpoints and talents.

Nawar: How would you describe yourself as a mentor? I hear from others how you are a mentor (including from my husband). How would you describe yourself as a mentor?

Mary: Well, I am certain that the description from people I have mentored varies greatly from one person to another. It depends on the stage of their career and where I have encountered people. I don’t know that I can make any general statements, but I think of myself as trying to have people see a broad range of perspectives for themselves and to help them make the choice that’s going to be the best for them. If that means working harder, then I think it is important to tell them that.

Nawar:So can I say how I see you as a mentor?

Mary: Sure!

Nawar: I think you come across as very tough, but at the same time, you care a lot and you are very invested in the success of your mentees. You do not give a fish; you teach how to fish. That is an English proverb I learned at a very young age. It is much easier for mentors to give the fish at some point, and mentees prefer that, especially when they are struggling. But in the long run, I think it’s much more rewarding if you teach your mentees to work harder early on, because it gets easier later on in life.

Mary: That is probably why you are a good mentor yourself.

Nawar: What are the most important skills you tried to develop in your mentees as part of your mentorship plan, if any?

Mary: Well, I think recognizing a mentee’s possibilities and what it will take to realize a mentee’s possibilities is what a mentee is looking for. So, instituting some realistic appraisal and being willing to work hard to achieve it.

I think, with respect to you, the first challenge was finding you. I had been looking to find someone from Syria who would be a good candidate for a program I was in charge of and I saw a number of people who would have loved to come and have an opportunity to do what you eventually did. But, it was clear they did not have the persistence, ability, or willingness to make sacrifices that might be necessary. So it was a challenge to find you, and once I did, it was a challenge to be sure you did not get discouraged every time things did not go as wonderfully as they might have. I think that is what it is really about. With you, I knew you would be able to respond to whatever the challenge was.

Nawar: You were awarded the 1994 mentor award for lifetime achievement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Can you tell me what that meant to you?

Mary: That was early encouragement, before some of the other recognition that I eventually achieved, but I think the important part about that was that AAAS put mentoring among the category of things they thought were important for scientists. It was not something that was just sort of in the back, that they did not bother to talk about. Instead, they made a big thing about mentoring and nurturing and how they are an important aspect of being a scientist. I think that’s the encouragement needed to keep at it. If a professional society gives you recognition, it is in a sense telling you that what you have been doing is important, so you are right to keep on doing it.

It is important to know that white males need mentoring, as well, and I consider that not only an obligation, but a joy. You know, I could think of a number of people who are very proud because of what they have done, and I hope that I helped with their achievements. When I see all the people I am still in contact with in both this country and around the world … I hope to get other scientists to think about human rights issues, so, for example, I have worked with scientists extensively in Brazil on human rights issues and in other countries. I think that is important, you know, mentoring is universal.

Nawar: Mentoring is universal.

Mary: Maintaining contacts is essential. Establishing an Association for Women in Mathematics is an example. At one time just recently, we were talking about recruiting students for a master’s degree program and I could think of four or five colleges where ex-students serve as either a department chair or dean or head of National Science Foundation–funded programs about mentoring. In that collection of people, there were white males, there were minorities, and there were women. And they were all mentoring themselves.

Nawar: Do you think mentoring is for certain people, and not for everybody?

Mary: Well, I think it’s for everyone to give it a try, but I think it’s also important for people to realize that, in some cases, if it’s not something they should be doing, it’s probably not good for either of them or the people who they are trying to mentor. Either because they are too prescriptive, which I have seen happen, or they want too much to tell people what they should be doing, or because they do not care enough, or they do not invest themselves in the process. You cannot be a very good mentor on either end of the spectrum. If it turns out that is not one of your strengths, you should get out of it.

Nawar: So, in your opinion, what is a measure of success of a mentor/mentee relationship?

Mary: I don’t think you will ever know because, you know, it is a lifetime thing and the immediate measure of success is where the mentor feels good about it and the mentee feels good about it, but also as they achieve at least the major portion of his or her goals. It could be something in much longer terms, so it is hard to say in any given period whether mentoring has been successful.

Nawar: Would you say mentoring young women in science is always different than mentoring young men? If so, why?

Mary: Well, it is different because their problems are different. With men, you sometimes see a lack of self-assurance, but it is not very common, whereas, with women, a lack of self-confidence often makes them limit the potential they can see for themselves. So, again, it is not women have it and men do not; however, a lack of self-confidence is more predominant among women than among men. The sense of responsibility for other people also is different. It exists in some men and in some women, but not in all men and all women, but I think generally a woman thinks more about how to impact others, but again there is a vast overlap.

More about Mary’s life can be viewed at the college of arts and sciences page at the American University website, or her Wikipedia page.

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