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To Diversify the Math World, AAAS Member Ron Buckmire Gets Meta With Data

headshot of AAAS Member Ron Buckmire
AAAS Member Ron Buckmire, Ph.D. Photo credit: Aaron Fagerstrom.

What makes a movie a hit at the box office? How can we build better, more aerodynamic airplane wings? And what’s the deal with “summer melt”—why some students don’t end up attending colleges they’ve already put a deposit down for?

These are all questions that mathematician Ron Buckmire, Ph.D., has used applied mathematics to answer over the course of his career. Applied mathematics, which draws on the power of modeling to predict real world outcomes, has the capability to answer some of humanity’s most burning and interesting questions. It also has the power, says the AAAS Member, to have a positive impact on social justice. Only in the last 10 years have conversations about social justice, particularly diversity, equity, and inclusion, earned a seat at the discussion table, says Buckmire, meaning that a lot of work still needs to be done to convince the larger community of the importance of diversifying the math pool.

“There are people in the mathematics community that have the view that mathematics is just this thing separate from the world, and therefore it ‘doesn't matter who does the math, math just is,’” explains Buckmire. “But math is done, created, taught, and learned by people, and therefore, it should be self-evident that it matters who the people are that do it.”

Diversifying the mathematics community is the focus of his latest project, called #Metamath, a quantitative justice project coming out of the ICERM Data Science & Social Justice Program. The collaborative effort looks at big data sources to “analyze them and…tease out the math.” Buckmire and his colleagues are then using this information to draw conclusions on who’s getting left out of the field.

During the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting earlier this month, Buckmire presented his research alongside Carrie Diaz Eaton, Ph.D., of Bates College and 2023 AAAS Fellow Talitha Washington, Ph.D., of Clark Atlanta University as part of the session “Developing Capacity to Promote Social Justice Using Data Science and Mathematics.” Their talk showcased how mathematicians are using their skills to benefit humanity and study inequities in the field. Some scientists, he says, are charting ‘genealogical trees’ of Ph.D. students and their advisors to model gender representation in mathematics Ph.D. production over time, while others are working to quantify the underrepresentation of women on the faculty of research-intensive Ph.D.-granting mathematics departments versus those graduating with doctorate degrees in the subject.

“The point of using math to analyze math is to quantify and document the inequities that are occurring in the math community,” says Buckmire. “The hope is by highlighting them, it will encourage people to do something about it and lead to positive change.”

In the same year that he earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics, Buckmire joined the faculty at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he has served as chair of the mathematics department, associate dean for curricular affairs, and director of the Core Program. Throughout Buckmire’s more than 30-year scientific career, social justice in STEM, particularly mathematics, has been a cause for which he has advocated passionately. During his time as a federal employee of the National Science Foundation, the mathematician led a team that awarded more than $200 million to colleges and universities to support low-income, academically talented STEM majors in earning degrees. In 2021, he became the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ first vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Buckmire is a co-founder and board member of Spectra, an association supporting LGBTQ+ mathematicians and their allies. He’s also working on his first book, “Squaring the Rainbow,” that will highlight the work and lived experiences of contemporary LGBTQ+ mathematicians.

In the education space, Buckmire, who teaches both mathematics courses and first-year liberal arts seminars, is a proponent of offering students a well-rounded education that bridges the gap between the sciences and liberal arts.

“If you're teaching a statistics class, why not look at the statistics of who the LAPD is pulling over, and does that fit a normal distribution?” asks Buckmire. “Is that what you'd be likely to see if there was nothing, if there was no thumb on the scale?”

Buckmire adds that furthering social justice in the math world is an active practice. Keeping an eye out for announcements regarding opportunities to collaborate on social justice projects from groups like the American Mathematical Society and the national math research institutes is a great place to start for mathematicians and other scientists who want to start using their quantitative skills to further social justice.

“Whenever you're teaching and thinking about mathematics, you often put it in some other context and you can select that context to be directly relatable to the real world, and directly relatable to the real world in a way that highlights and quantifies injustice or inequity.”

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