Headshot of Omayra Ortega standing in front of blackboard.

Omayra Ortega ’01, visiting assistant professor of mathematics, has returned to campus after almost two decades – this time as a faculty member alongside her mentors. Ortega is the main force behind Pomona College’s inaugural Sonia Kovalevsky Mathematics Day, a day that will bring middle- and high-schoolers to campus for mentoring and to learn about the history of women in mathematics on Saturday, February 10.

Designed to encourage young women to enter the field of mathematics, the free event has already “sold out,” says Ortega who is working with other faculty to help organize the event. Initially hoping to get at least 40 students and their teachers, the event has now grown to 250 registrants.

“We have gotten such an unprecedented response,” says Ortega who explains they first hoped to fill a 50-person classroom in Millikan Hall, but when they saw how many people were registering, they moved it to Argue Auditorium, which fits 80 people. “We kept looking for bigger venues until we stopped at Seaver North auditorium, because that’s the biggest classroom.” The Seaver North auditorium holds 220 people.

That’s good news even if it means figuring out last-minute logistics, like finding an overflow room to livestream the program which will include a keynote lecture by Pitzer College Professor Jemma Lorenat, a hands-on math activity and a career panel.

“We want young women to recognize there are hundreds of them interested in math,” says Ortega, who was a math and music double major at Pomona College in the late 1990s.

Sonia Kovalevsky

Sonia Kovalevsky.

With the theme “Making History with Mathematics,” the event will encourage young women to be brave and courageous with their pursuit in mathematics, explains Ortega.

The event, which is open to all local middle- and high-schoolers, including their teachers and parents, will provide history lessons on pioneering women mathematicians, like Sonia Kovalevsky, who was the first woman to join the Russian Academy of the Sciences and the first modern European woman to become a professor.

“As a woman in math or in the sciences or engineering, you might be the only female in the class, but events like these let you know that you’re not alone: there’s hundreds of women interested in mathematics—maybe not in your school, but in your grade or town. That’s the biggest value of these types of events.”

Once young women reach college, explains Ortega, they have “already established their mathematical identity: ‘I’m good at math or I’m bad at math.’”

That’s why she says, “You have to reach them when they’re younger and research shows the critical ages are in middle school when female students who excelled at mathematics in elementary school start to think ‘maybe I’m not so good’ or ‘maybe it’s not good for woman to appear good in mathematics because you have less friends or are less desirable.’”

Ortega was inspired to organize Pomona’s first Sonia Kovalevsky Day for these reasons, but also because she felt it would be fitting for Pomona to hold such an event, given that Professor of Mathematics Ami Radunskaya is the president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM).

Radunskaya is also one of Ortega’s longtime mentors. “I took classes with half of this department when I was a student here,” she says, adding that Lingurn H. Burkhead Professor of Mathematics Erica Flapan and William Polk Russell Professor of Mathematics Shahriar Shahriari “influenced my teaching… I model my scholarship and teaching after them.”

This is the ninth Sonia Kovalevsky Day Ortega has organized during her career as a mathematician. The first was during her last year as a graduate student at the University of Iowa thanks to the AWM, which provided funding for these annual events across the country.

After graduating from the University of Iowa, Ortega joined the faculty at Arizona State University in Phoenix where she continued to organize an annual Sonia Kovalevsky Day. Both the University of Iowa and Arizona State University still continue to hold Sonia Kovalevsky days.

Ortega hopes Pomona College, which has partnered with Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona for this event, will continue to hold the Sonia Kovalevsky Day on an annual basis and draw even more young women to math.