December 08, 2022

By Alaina Uricheck ’23

This is the second story in our series on Women in STEM.

As a child, Alathea Jensen always enjoyed playing with patterns, solving puzzles and using logic. So logically, math became her passion. Math was also her father’s best subject and he encouraged her to try as hard as she could. Jensen sees a pattern in that too.

“That’s something a lot of female mathematicians have in common – our dads encouraged us,” Jensen, assistant professor of mathematics at Susquehanna University, said. She also speculates that the solitary nature of mathematics drew her to the field.

“Math has traditionally been a subject where people could be successful working alone, for the simple reason that it doesn’t cost any money to do,” she explained. “All you need is paper and pencil. That’s also the reason why there were always a few successful female mathematicians even in past centuries. It’s the kind of thing you can do while sitting sedately in your parlor.”

Today, Jensen mentors her own female students. “It’s really important to feel a sense of belonging and community, because without that, students won’t want to finish the major or enter the field professionally, and why should they?” she said. “That’s what’s so difficult about fields where one group of people is underrepresented. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.”

Jensen’s female students are fortunate to have a mentor guiding them, something Jensen did not always have. In high school, she described having teachers who supported and encouraged her. Unfortunately, when she went to a big college, she felt she “just kind of disappeared in the crowd.” After college, Jensen taught high school math, where her principal was a role model for her.

“She demonstrated the idea that women can be authoritative, self-confident, a little bit terrifying, and also compassionate and kind at the same time,” Jensen said. “These things are not mutually exclusive.”

Currently, 10 out of her 22 advisees are women and 18 of the 35 math majors at SU are women.

However, not all environments are as welcoming and inclusive as SU, something Jensen tries to prepare her female students for.

“I try to build up their confidence and help them understand that it’s normal not to be able to do everything perfectly,” Jensen explained. “Being aware of what you don’t know is a sign of intelligence. The most important thing is to pay attention and ask questions so that you can pick up the needed skills quickly. If you have confidence in your ability to learn, then you can do anything.”

Not One To Be Underestimated

Despite the progress society has made in making math a more inclusive field for women, Jensen still faces assumptions about her level of expertise and competence.

“Once, a computer programmer I know mentioned that I should learn to program computers,” Jensen said. “I replied that I had been programming computers since I was 16 and reeled off about a dozen programming languages that I know.

“Another time, after a talk I attended on the topic of radio interference, some attendees were speculating about how walkie-talkies work,” Jensen said. She explained the answer to their question, drawing on personal experiences. “Everyone stared at me for a few seconds like I was crazy, and then continued to discuss how walkie-talkies might possibly work as if my voice was just the sound of the wind in the trees,” she explained.

Jensen thinks the reputation of mathematicians as loners is getting to be less true today.

“There is a lot more collaboration than there used to be,” she explained. “I attended a summer research program this summer where I collaborated with eight other mathematicians all across the country, and we’re writing some papers together now. There are a lot of programs like that to bring people together.”

Excitingly, in those current research collaborations, about half of the members are women.