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PhD Student Credits Math Alliance with Success

1 May 2017 216 views No Comment
Widad Abdalla, Math Alliance Doctoral Scholar
    The National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences is a program with a goal of ensuring that every under-represented or under-served American student with talent and ambition has the opportunity to earn a doctoral degree in a mathematical science. There are many ways to become involved with the Math Alliance, whether you are an undergraduate student, a graduate student, or a faculty member.

      In May of 2011, I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico – Cayey with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a minor in accounting, and a certification from the Honors Studies Program. Then, in 2013, I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez with a master’s degree in applied mathematics. My professional goal is to earn a doctorate and contribute to strengthening research in Puerto Rico through my work.

      When I started college, I was pursuing a degree in chemistry because my goal was to go to medical or dentistry school. However, for as long as I can remember, mathematics has been my favorite subject. The only reason I did not contemplate a career in mathematics was because I did not know what I could do with a mathematics degree. So, for me, studying mathematics was never an option. It was only when I started to get into more advanced mathematics classes that I decided to switch my major. My thought was that I was going to earn a bachelor’s degree in something I am truly passionate about, even if I wouldn’t practice anything related to my degree after graduating.

      In 2008, Errol Montes-Pizarro (a Math Alliance mentor) recommended I attend the second annual Field of Dreams Conference. I still remember how enlightened I felt after returning home from that conference. Participants talked about possible career paths, undergraduate research experiences, graduate school, and financial aid, among other things.

      It was also through the Math Alliance that I was able to get my first research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the University of Iowa. Throughout my undergraduate years, I had the privilege of completing five internships at various universities and research institutes. From these experiences, I gained valuable skills and life experience that prepared me for graduate school.

      During my undergraduate research internship at the University of Iowa, I was able to write a grant proposal about anything related to mathematics and graduate school. Students used grant funds to travel to various conferences in prior years, but since I had already traveled to many conferences, I decided to seize that opportunity and organize a conference in Puerto Rico so all the math major students on the island could benefit. The Math Alliance accepted my proposal and the conference was held at the University of Puerto Rico – Cayey on November 13, 2010. The conference was modeled after the Field of Dreams Conference, and I organized it under the mentorship of Math Alliance Director Phil Kutzko.

      After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I decided to stay in Puerto Rico to pursue a master’s degree in applied mathematics. I was unsure of what I wanted to get my degree in at first, which is one reason I stayed. But, when I started my master’s degree, I got a teaching assistantship to fund my studies. It was then I discovered my passion for teaching mathematics and knew I wanted to work toward a PhD related to education.

      Toward the end of my master’s, my adviser and Math Alliance mentor Juan Ariel Ortiz recommended I again attend the annual Field of Dreams Conference. The Math Alliance was starting a uniform admission process (now called the Facilitated Graduate Admissions Program, F-GAP) that year, which consisted of pairing each aspiring PhD student with a mentor who evaluated their admission packets, including their personal statements and résumés. The mentor would provide recommendations for improving their admission profiles. After that, students would select the Math Alliance graduate program they wanted to apply to and send their materials all at once. As part of the process, all the programs I selected waived the admission fee. I also applied to several schools outside the Math Alliance, so I know the hardships that come with applying to PhD programs and can affirm how smooth the Math Alliance made that process for me.

      I am currently working toward a PhD in educational measurements and statistics, a program I learned about through the Math Alliance and Field of Dreams Conference. When I went to the booth for educational measurements and statistics, their first question was, “Are you interested in education?” This really caught my attention. I must admit this program intimidated me at first, because its entire foundation is statistics and I had never done statistics before. Although it was a program that was far outside my comfort zone, it was so interesting to me that I applied anyway.

      Part of the admission process was an interview with the program director and chair of the department. It turns out both came from a mathematics background, just like me. They explained that the program consists of three areas: educational measurements, applied statistics, and an area of my choice, which could be applied mathematics, mathematics education, or mathematical statistics, among others.

      After the interview, I felt inspired and was confident this program was a good fit for me. It turned out I was able to combine my passions for mathematics, education, and now statistics into one degree. It’s remarkable to see how I get to apply all my mathematics skills to this amazing area. It’s been three years since I started my PhD, and I don’t think I could be happier in another program.

      I became a doctoral scholar for the Math Alliance when I started my PhD and travel every year to the annual Field of Dreams Conference to help recruit minority students. Also, I am one of the main contacts for the University of Puerto Rico (Cayey and Mayaguez campuses) for mathematics students who wish to pursue graduate studies in the mathematics education field.

      The mentorship I received from the Math Alliance has allowed me to grow in various ways as an under-represented minority in the mathematical sciences. I know firsthand the value of these experiences, and I know the value of helping others. So, after I graduate with my PhD, I intend to become a Math Alliance mentor to help guide and recruit minority students interested in mathematical science fields. I have been a member of the Math Alliance for almost 10 years now, and I am a witness to how much the alliance has grown. I can honestly say I am where I am today, achieving my life-long dream of earning a doctoral degree, thanks to the Math Alliance.

      Math Alliance at JSM!

      The Math Alliance Statistical Initiative will be meeting during the Joint Statistical Meetings in Baltimore.

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