The Need for Belonging in Math and Science

By Scott Barry Kaufman for Beautiful Minds, Scientific American’s blog for Insights into intelligence, creativity, and the mind.

From her earliest memories, Catherine Good was good at math. By second grade she was performing at the fourth grade level, sometimes even helping the teacher grade other students’ work. She was praised constantly for her “gift”, often overhearing her mother tell anyone who would listen that she was a “sponge” for anything mathematical.

By high school, Good’s identity as a “gifted mathematician” was so heavily tied up with her math abilities that she decided to pursue a math major in college. However, she felt as though she was making the choice more out of obligation than passion:

selecting mathematics as my major was not as much driven by my intrinsic interest and love of mathematics as by my long history of being labeled, praised, and reinforced for my math skills.”

She felt even greater pressure to pursue math since she was a woman. There appeared to be a dearth of  women in mathematics, so she felt a great burden to increase the female representation and prove that women are capable of achieving in mathematics.

Achieve she did. Good did so well as an undergraduate, that she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. Again, she wasn’t driven by the sheer joy, but by other forces:

My counter-stereotypical achievement, coupled with my belief that those successes were rooted in an innate gift, not only fueled my academic pursuits, but also formed the basis for my academic identity.”

For awhile, Good performed as usual in her graduate program. But then something happened that would change the course of her career: her identity became threatened. As Good puts it, “the identity as a mathematician that I thought was so well-entrenched and established came crashing down, leaving me in a professional crisis.”

Despite her good grades, a flood of self-doubt crept in. She suddenly wondered: Was I simply no longer inspired by the level of rigor and originality necessary for graduate level mathematics? Was it the fact that for the first time in my academic life, I had to work, really work, at my studies?

For the first time, she also questioned whether she was ever “truly” gifted. The belief in the innate nature of math ability is particularly prominent in the mathematics community, which relies heavily on a “talent-driven approach to math.” The mathematics students that are encouraged and nurtured are the ones who appear to produce elegant solutions with ease, presumably due to an underlying natural gift.

Good wondered, Had this culture of talent led me to believe that I had reached the pinnacle of my abilities because I had to now work at my studies? Or was the counter-stereotypical identity as “gifted female mathematician” now responsible for my mathematical-undoing?

Whatever the cause(s), one thing was certain: she no longer felt a sense of belonging in mathematics. As a result, she left mathematics.

Continue reading Catherine’s story here.

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