As the Department of Mathematics’ first female chair, Sun-Yung Alice Chang has taken a personal interest and central role in attracting more women to the field. Chang, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics, served as chair of the department from July 2009 to July 2012, and shared her vision of the future of mathematics at Princeton.
What particular fields do Princeton’s mathematics faculty focus on and excel in? Many of our faculty members are leaders in their fields. We have strengths in analytic and algebraic number theory, algebraic and differential geometry, applied mathematics, dynamical systems, fluid dynamics, geometric partial differential equations, general relativity, and topology. In the early 1970s, our department was the world center for topology. Gradually, we became a center for analysis and lately the department, together with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), is very strong in number theory and partial differential equations. Number theory is developing rapidly because of its close relationship to probability and computer science.
How do mathematicians contribute to work in other fields? There is a lot of interplay between math and other departments. It used to be that people would wonder about mathematical theories — “Why is this useful?” or “Why is this relevant?” — but now more and more mathematical theories are applied to other sciences. For example, I am a geometric analyst. I use analytic techniques to study problems in geometry, but the types of problems I study are related to problems in physics.
The scarcity of women in mathematics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields has received a lot of attention in recent years. Do you think that women are still underrepresented and is the situation improving? There’s a continuous effort being made by the department and faculty to increase that number, but it’s a long-term problem. In 2011, we had 83 math majors, but among those, only 13 were women. There used to be an impression that women cannot do mathematics, and that the analytical ability of men is stronger. Most people would agree that this simply is not true. I definitely feel that given the right environment to develop women can do as well as men in mathematics.
What outreach does Princeton provide to draw more women to mathematics and help them excel? We have the Program for Women and Mathematics organized with IAS. We offer two weeks of intensive classes each summer, with each year focusing on a different topic. Women students from around the country at the advanced and undergraduate levels are selected to participate in this program. The lecturers and teaching assistants are usually female faculty from other top universities around the world.
Students in our department also formed the Noetherian Ring club, named after the famous woman mathematician, Emmy Noether. This club provides a chance for women students and faculty to meet each other, and for each female math student to find a mentor.