Saturday, July 10, 2010

Promising Math Career Cut Short

This is a story of mathematics, a woman, and what could have been. Let me introduce Gioia De Cari who was a third of the way through her doctoral program in mathematics at MIT when she up and left. She became an actress and a playwright and hasn’t thought about research mathematics since.

What happened? Why would a promising female mathematician abandon a stellar program at MIT, a premier mathematical ability, and years of labor in order to start from scratch in the world of theater? Does the term “sell out” seem too harsh? I’m not all that sure.

De Cari’s recent claim to fame is her one woman play Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze where she depicts her experiences in t he MIT math department in the late 1980s. In the play she examines the exhilaration and the grind of research, her sense of alienation in a male dominated department, the supportiveness and remoteness of her professors, her struggle to connect with her fellow students, the sexism that she let grind her down, and her ultimate abandonment of the role of female mathematician.

I find it interesting that she gave up mathematics to write a play about how she gave up mathematics. That seems a bit self-serving to me. It is like, through her acting, she continues to whine about how she simply couldn’t hack it at MIT. I have no doubt she experienced sexism. Mathematics has traditionally been an alpha-male discipline, except for the hardy females who survived their programs to ensure positive change becomes manifest. De Cari could have been one of those trailblazers, opening up the field for other women who had the talent but encountered institutional roadblocks along the way. Instead, De Cari represents yet another female who let “the man” beat her down.

Think of the role model she could have been instead of the example of defeat she now represents. De Cari could have been doing nationwide outreach to thousands of young girls who excel at math but are dissuaded by societal pressure to go into the “arts” instead. She can’t serve in that capacity now. She says she found her “calling” but with Truth Values all she does is perpetuate a sense of defeat and capitulation.

Attention all middle school girls who love math: seek out your true role models, pay a visit to your local college or university, find the faculty directory, and go speak with one of the (few) female professors who persevered many academic obstacles . She is the true hero you seek.


  1. You're kidding, she was on her way to get a PHD in math at MIT no less, and she quit? Just think how hard it was to get to that point. MIT has got to be the toughest place on earth to get into a doctoral program. Then she quits. I guess people got to be happy in life, but she really should have stuck it out to get the degree, IMHO.

    Stu from Acton, MA

  2. r u kidding?MIT phd....she must have been getting the call of her destiny...


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