Professor of Mathematics Edray Goins is on a mission to make Pomona College’s Math Department a national hub of underrepresented students doing mathematics. He has already taken the first steps to make his vision a reality.
Goins was recently awarded a $124,454 grant from the National Security Agency (NSA) to run an eight-week remote summer program in mathematics at Pomona College. The research experience for undergraduates (REU) program is called the Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience (PRiME) and will host 12 students virtually from across the United States this coming summer.
The PRiME program is part of Goins’ mission: To expose underrepresented students to mathematics culture.
“I want them to understand what math culture is like and what it has to offer,” he says.
Goins started doing REUs at Purdue University in 2012. He began to receive federal funding for them in 2016 with two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for $328,244 to run the program for three years. Goins decided to extend the grant to Pomona College when he arrived at Claremont in 2018. He ran his first Pomona College REU in summer of 2019.
Math Theory for Underrepresented Students
The 2021 PRiME program will introduce students to advanced topics including group theory, differential geometry, elliptic curves, modular curves, Belyi maps and Dessins d’Enfants. The 12 students will be grouped in three cohorts working independently on research projects under the guidance of Goins; Alex Barrios, visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Carleton College; and Rachel Davis, honorary fellow in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Participants receive a $4,000 stipend throughout the program, an iPad Pro and a $1,5000 travel allowance to a future conference.
Participants will be chosen based on a set of considerations that Goins has developed over the years. The first and foremost being that this would be a student’s first summer REU.
“A lot of faculty place barriers. They prefer students who have had experience doing research or are close to finishing high-level courses. I’m looking for students from around the country who haven’t had the opportunity yet and have never done an REU before,” says Goins, who plans to present students with graduate-level mathematics.
“Another important thing is having students from diverse backgrounds. For me, diversity goes along various axes. For race and ethnicity, the group must be two-thirds minority. I don’t like the concept of having 12 students and only one Black student who feels isolated and tokenized. It’s important to have a strong sense of community,” explains Goins. “And then there’s the axis of gender. My program must be at least 50% women.”
A third important consideration for Goins is scholastic diversity: what institutions are these students attending? “I’m looking at the schools that are very much overlooked by programs like these.”
“I’ve been really fortunate over the years; I’ve had really great Black students from Research I universities and some Latinx students from liberal arts colleges. Some decide to continue mathematics and get a Ph.D., and some decide to do something different—that math is not for them. My goal is to expose them to math culture. That’s always been my goal from day one,” he says.
Last summer, with the last of the NSF grant money, Goins ran a smaller, remote program with a focus on math history. With eight students, Goins worked on a database of Black mathematicians, researching more than 400 individuals.
The database was started by a friend, Scott Williams in the late 1990s, with Goins taking it up in the past five years to “breathe new life into the project.” Goins has recently received additional funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics (CURM) to continue the project into the next academic year 2021-22.
Turning Pomona Into a National Math Hub
Goins admits he applied for the NSA grant as a backup. “The big plan is actually an $850,000 grant from the NSF that I’ve been working on for the past six-to-eight months,” says Goins. He’s gotten a lot of people involved in the process and hopes to hear from the NSF in the coming months.
“In the future when we get this grant, we’ll bring 40 students to Pomona’s campus—mostly from outside Pomona—although we also want Pomona students to be involved. We’ll have faculty who are experts from all over the country, we’ll have field trips, there will be research opportunities not just for undergraduates but also for graduate students and mentor training for faculty and dinners at the Village,” explains Goins. It’s a vision he’s had for the last decade.
“The reason why I’m doing this is because I want to train the next generation of underrepresented minorities doing high-level mathematics. I figure there isn’t a better place to do that than Pomona College,” says Goins.
Pomona is the ideal location, says Goins for a few reasons. “When I first visited Pomona, maybe four years ago, Stephan Garcia in the Math Department was great in introducing me to the campus and its people. He convinced me that math was the most popular major at the time. Why should it be true that a liberal arts college would have math as one of its most popular majors? I was really intrigued.”
Goins was drawn to the department that held math lunches every Friday where students and faculty could talk about anything math related.
He also connected with the students at Pomona College. “I care a lot about social justice issues, and I don’t view myself as a mathematician first and someone who cares about social justice issues second. To me they’re one and the same. Doing social justice work is to do math and it motivates me to do math, and I see that in the students here. They fundamentally care about social justice.”