Staff writer

UNL MATH PROFESSOR Sylvia Wiegand shows off an overhead of equations from her specialty, commutative algebra. Wiegand, who has taught at UNL for the past 26 years, said her family supported her choice to enter mathematics. "I was always encouraged," Wiegand said. "It makes a difference to women if they are encouraged in math."


When Sylvia Wiegand decided to pursue a career in mathematics, she had a lot to live up to.

In 1895, her grandmother was the first woman to earn an official doctoral degree in Germany. The subject was mathematics.

As a high school student, Wiegand tagged along with her father, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and attended many of his college courses.

Today, Wiegand teaches her own classes as a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a few doors down from her husband, Roger, also a professor of mathematics and statistics.

And as the national president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Wiegand speaks around the country with the goal of making women feel more welcome in the field, forwarding the cause her grandmother began when she earned her doctoral degree more than a century ago.

After growing up in England and obtaining her undergraduate degree from Cambridge's all-female Girton college, Wiegand's grandmother, Grace Chisholm Young, left her home for Germany. Her goal was to obtain a doctoral degree in mathematics, and she left her home country because England did not allow women to earn advanced degrees.

After studying in Germany, thanks to an experimental program that allowed women to work toward their doctoral degrees, Wiegand's grandmother received hers.

That was after she was forced to walk to her last examination after the carriage driver who was supposed to pick her up passed by because she was a woman.

The carriage driver just assumed that only a man would be in pursuit of a doctoral degree. When he didn't see one sitting on the curb, he passed Wiegand's grandmother, Wiegand said in a book she helped write about couples in science. Her grandparents' story made up one chapter of the book.

After her grandmother walked to her examination and arrived five minutes late, she passed the exam successfully.

Though Wiegand's pursuit of a doctoral degree was a little less historic than her grandmother's, she still uses her grandmother's experiences to motivate her for her job as president of AWM.

Many of the problems she addresses during her nationwide speeches come from attitudes and misconceptions that still linger despite the progress women have made since her grandmother's feat. These problems cause fewer women to become mathematicians or make them less vocal about being one, she said.

"When AWM started, people realized that women were invisible at math meetings," Wiegand said.

"The goal of the organization was to increase these numbers and encourage women to study mathematics," she said.

Wiegand had no problem following in the footsteps of her grandmother. She took many college math courses in high school and graduated in three years from Bryn Mawr College, a women's school in a Pennsylvania town of the same name.

She went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After being in classes with only women during her undergraduate years, she found a different world from the close, supportive classes at her all-female alma mater.

"When I went to the University of Wisconsin, I felt it wasn't as likely that you'd get support from a coed place," she said.

Wiegand said she found mostly an encouraging environment during her graduate career.

But when seeking a university job after graduation, Wiegand got a taste of what the conditions for women were really like in mathematics in the 1970s.

"Can't your husband support you?" was the University of Wisconsin-Madison math department's response when Wiegand asked for a teaching position.

Despite some inequalities that still exist, Wiegand said, colleges have made strides in encouraging women to study math.

In order to stay in business, Wiegand said, more math departments have realized that women are a necessary component for success.

But, despite the fact that the percentage of women earning doctorates in mathematics is at a record high, attitudes and barriers still need to be overcome to create an environment welcoming to women, she said.

These are the problems that she addresses when she speaks at colleges and universities across the nation.

One of those problems is the attitude among high school girls that taking an interest in math isn't cool, Wiegand said.

After talking with girls at a high school math camp that takes place every summer at UNL, she found that most attendees enjoyed the camp experience, yet felt they couldn't tell their friends they attended because they would be seen as different.

While there seems to be an equal number of jobs for men and women mathematicians with doctorates,Wiegand said, women don't get promoted as often as men do.

For these reasons, Wiegand continues to spread the AWM message in speeches nationwide.

Jean Taylor, a math professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and AWM president-elect, said Wiegand's dedication to speaking to audiences across the nation is one of the qualities that has made her tenure as president different from others.

Though many presidents have focused on one part of the nation, such as the East Coast, Wiegand has made a strong attempt to spread her message everywhere.

"I think that's one of the most striking things about her," Taylor said.

"Just putting a human face on a woman in mathematics is important," she said.

Wiegand doesn't leave her dedication to encouraging women in mathematics behind when she enters the classroom.

Serpil Saydam, a UNL doctoral student in mathematics from Turkey, said Wiegand has helped her overcome the challenges that she has encountered.

She also has promoted the AWM agenda on a smaller level with her graduate students, Saydem said.

Her visibility in promoting women in mathematics has been a benefit to the department, she said.

"She is a leader," Saydam said. "When I came here the first time, she was the person I feltwould be my role model."

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