Sylvia Bozeman enrolled in Vanderbilt’s graduate program in mathematics in 1968, one year after the program was integrated, and went on to become the first African American woman to earn a master’s degree in math from the university. Today she is a professor, emerita, of Spelman College in Atlanta—a career mathematics professor, and a mentor and advocate for women of color.
In July her tireless efforts to encourage women from underrepresented groups to pursue graduate degrees in mathematics were recognized by President Obama when he appointed her to the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science. The 12-member committee is responsible for identifying nominees for the president’s consideration in selecting recipients for the prestigious award.
“This is a great honor, and it encourages me to help develop the next generation of mathematicians,” Bozeman says.
Yet she’s quick to point out: “The committee has awarded more than 500 medals, but not very many have been awarded to women. We need more development and recognition of women in the sciences.”
Bozeman began teaching at Spelman as an instructor in 1974. After earning a doctorate in mathematics at Emory University in 1980, she was promoted to assistant professor. She rose to full professor and chaired Spelman’s math department from 1982 to 1993.
“I’ve always loved math,” Bozeman says. “But I’m equally passionate about supporting and encouraging women to get advanced degrees in math—especially women of color.”
To further that goal, Bozeman serves as a board member of the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) Foundation. EDGE is a national organization, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, with a mission to help women pursue Ph.D. degrees in the mathematical sciences, with particular inclusion of women from underrepresented groups. Co-founded by Bozeman and Rhonda Hughes of Bryn Mawr College in 1998, the program mentors women from the time they graduate from college through their doctoral studies. EDGE leaders continue to offer support after graduate school, when mentees begin their professional careers in academics or industry.
“This is how my career and my post in the Obama administration intersect,” Bozeman explains. “I want to cultivate the next generation of female leaders and innovators in mathematics—and I want to help the breakthrough work of these women to gain recognition with honors, including the National Medal of Science.”
Bozeman also serves as a member of the National Association of Mathematicians, for which she works to create new pipelines to enable minority students to enter the field of mathematics.
“I retired from Spelman three years ago, after being on the faculty for 39 years,” she says, “but I remain connected and busy.”