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I enjoy talking about Pythagoras when I teach the Pythagorean theorem. I sometimes mention Descartes when introducing Cartesian coordinates. And Leibniz and Newton are mentioned in many calculus classes. But all of these famous mathematicians accessible to high school students are male.

What female mathematician can I introduce to my high school students? And what mathematical concept did she work with?

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    $\begingroup$ See the book Women in Mathematics by Lynn M. Osen for several good examples. $\endgroup$ – Jim Belk Apr 20 '14 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ What do you say about Pythagoras? I'd want to emphasize that stories about him are less reliable than stories about Johnny Appleseed. $\endgroup$ – user173 Apr 21 '14 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ Ada Lovelace and Vi Hart $\endgroup$ – Chloe Apr 21 '14 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ Few if any of the results that high school students will rely on are attributable to women. You can't much work around that because it's a feature of the syllabus, the difficulty of modern mathematics, and the small number of pre-modern female mathematicians. I can't think of an example not of the form, "here is an impressive female mathematician, here is why her work was important, but you won't be using that". AP classes might get near, but for example Emmy Noether's work starts after an average undergraduate algebra syllabus stops. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Apr 21 '14 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Also there was no Fields medal when Noether was under 40. You don't need to manufacture a female Fields medalist, as Noether was clearly a more important mathematician than the average Fields medalist. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Apr 21 '14 at 16:19

35 Answers 35

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Christine Ladd-Franklin was involved in the early development of a community of American Mathematical research. She was the first female student and Johns Hopkins (though unofficially enrolled) and produced results in algebraic logic.

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Karen Uhlenbeck ought to be mentioned. She made deep contributions in the theory of minimal immersions (more generally, harmonic maps), gauge theory of Yang Mills equations (the work of Taubes and Donaldson on four manifolds uses her work), wave maps, integrable systems (e.g. solitons, instantons), etc. She is one of the most important researchers in geometrically and physically motivated partial differential equations of her generation. Although her work as such is probably almost completely inaccessible to any but the most exceptional high school students, the study of soap films and minimal surfaces can be presented to high school students, and some part of her work treats themes that can be seen (in some distant way) as emerging from that source. Maybe something could also be said about solitons, which have applications in telecommunications (although Uhlenbeck's work is not oriented towards applications).

Although her mathematics is not the most accessible, she is a model example of a contemporary woman mathematician of the highest level intellectually and professionally. She has also been active in promoting the participation of women in mathematics.

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Mary Kenneth Keller, also more of a computer scientist than a mathematician, but still.

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The "classic" female mathematician of the past century was Marie curie.

She was also a great chemist and physicist.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you add an example of her mathematical work? (I never heard her being referred to as a mathematician.) $\endgroup$ – quid Jun 15 '14 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ quid: She graduated the Sorbonne with a "double major" in physics and math. "Chemistry" actually came later when she met (and married) Pierre. But maybe I was stretching a point because math came third after physics and chemistry. $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Jun 15 '14 at 19:08
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Since you are referring to High School students, I suggest a different approach. The women mentioned so far probably appeal to girls who are already interested in Math, but not to the masses. If you want to change the perception is that Math is "nerdy" and "uncool", here are some women (not Math necessarily, but technology) who are alive, cool, possibly even "hot" (A role model for teenage girls?)

  • Limor "Ladyada" Fried She founded the Electronics company in 2005 and appeared on a hangout with president Obama in 2013

  • Nixie Pixel (not sure about her real name) She makes Linux tutorials on Youtube

  • Veronica Belmont A technology host for Revision3.com

Proof that a woman can be smart and "cute" at the same time!

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    $\begingroup$ The question asks for female mathematicians; you post about women in technology, and suggest them for also being "hot" and "cute." $-1$. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Apr 22 '14 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ So what is your explanation for the relatively low participation of women in Mathematics, technology, and Engineering? What would you suggest to encourage women to participate more? Or are you comfortable with the status quo? $\endgroup$ – atmelino Apr 27 '14 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not advocating for this answer since it is poorly constructed, but I do think something needs to be said about the stereotype of women in mathematics (and the other sciences) being "frumpy." The assumption can go another way, too: STEM Academics sometimes consider a woman who cares about her appearance to be diverting attention from her work. $\endgroup$ – Opal E Aug 18 '14 at 6:37

protected by quid Apr 22 '14 at 20:54

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