Research News

New faculty: Nicole Joseph teaches math and advocates for educational opportunity

Nicole Joseph and students were photographed in the Mayborn Building. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Nicole Joseph and students were photographed in the Mayborn Building. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

At an early age, Nicole Joseph was identified for her aptitude in math. The outgoing Seattle native was one of only a handful of black students at her elementary school selected for advanced placement math classes.

“I always got A’s—not because I was a genius, but because I worked really hard,” Joseph said. “And I wasn’t afraid to ask lots and lots of questions.”

At Seattle University, she majored in economics and minored in mathematics, graduating magna cum laude. Again, race and gender put her in the minority of her fields of study, but that didn’t slow her down.

“My grandmother always said, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,’” Joseph recalled. “I wanted those A’s. So I just walked up to my classmates and asked if we could study together. [rquote]I connected with my peers, and our learning benefitted from those collaborations.”[/rquote]

Joseph, a new assistant professor of mathematics education at Peabody College, has made understanding racial minorities’ experiences in mathematics and advocating for their educational needs her life’s mission.

After completing a master’s in human development at Pacific Oaks College Northwest in Seattle, Joseph spent 12 years working as a math teacher and as an instructional coach mainly for white teachers in the Seattle area.

“They would always tell me it was the Hispanic or black students who were struggling with math,” she said. “I would guide them to look at success factors. I would ask them, ‘What part of fractions does (the student) understand? Let’s start there.’”

Joseph also helped her fellow teachers put into context the history the United States has had of not providing black and brown students with equal learning opportunities, particularly in math.

“How does the past impact students today? A lot,” she said. “But we are seeing organizations like the National Science Foundation grant millions of dollars each year to research projects that aim to broaden STEM to include underrepresented minorities.”

Joseph made investigating issues of equity in mathematics the focus of her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. She then spent five years teaching and conducting research at the University of Denver.

“Race and gender are central to the learning process,” she said. “Unfortunately, math research focuses primarily on achievement gaps and positions racial minorities through a deficit lens. Every day I ask myself, ‘How can I disrupt that? How can I dismantle that? How can I address that?’”

A self-described lifelong learner, Joseph is ready for this new chapter. “This is my life’s work. I live and breathe it,” she said. “I would actually do this for free. That’s how I know I’m fulfilling my purpose.”

View the complete list of new university faculty for 2016-17.

View the complete list of new medical faculty for 2016.