#WCWinSTEM: Pamela E. Harris, Ph.D.
“From undocumented dreamer to a mathematics professor, I am eager to create opportunities for my Latinx community in STEM.”
-Dr. Pamela E. Harris
As compiled by Léolène Carrington, Ph.D.
We are honored to have Dr. Pamela E. Harris tell us her story as this week’s #WCWinSTEM! Dr. Harris is an assistant professor of Mathematics whose research interests are in algebra and combinatorics. Dr. Harris work diligently to create opportunities for underrepresented students in mathematics.
Responses may be edited for content and brevity.
Where/when did you go to school?
- Associate in Arts and Associate in Science, Milwaukee Area Technical College
- B.S. Mathematics, Marquette University
- M.S. Mathematics, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
- Ph.D. Mathematics, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
After her Ph.D., Dr. Harris was a teaching postdoc at the United States Military Academy (USMA) and a year later, she became a Davies Research Postdoctoral Fellow at USMA and the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, through an award from the National Research Council.
What do you do right now?
I am currently an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Williams College. My research is in the field of algebraic combinatorics. This research exploits a symbiotic relationship between algebra and combinatorics. On the one side, I use combinatorial arguments and techniques to analyze and uncover new behavior and symmetries in abstract algebraic structures, while on the other, I study combinatorial questions by using methods and tools from abstract algebra. In particular, I am interested in using combinatorics to study the representation theory of finite-dimensional Lie algebras. My recent research on vector partition functions and projects in graph theory have been supported through awards from the National Science Foundation and the Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics.
What made you choose your STEM discipline in the first place?
As a kid, my dad taught me about space and the concept of infinity. His stories helped me develop a love for mathematics at an young age. One of my early obsessions was trying to visualize the size of the universe. I would begin by imagining that I was holding a grain of sand between my thumb and index finger, then I would imagine it growing slowly to the size of a grape, to a tennis ball, to a basketball, and so on, until the grain of sand was so large it blocked the sky! I remember getting headaches trying to imagine it getting bigger and bigger and knowing it was still finite in size. When I was 8, my family immigrated from Mexico to the US and my desire to learn mathematics never ceased. Unfortunately, there were not many educational opportunities for me due to my undocumented immigrant status. So, during high school, I lost my passion for STEM and began focusing instead on becoming a high school teacher. When I attended a local community college, I had to start from the bottom (intermediate algebra) and I worked my way through to the calculus sequence. In this process, I rediscovered my love for math and here I am now: an Assistant Professor at Williams College spending many hours teaching and working on mathematical research with my colleagues and students.
Any piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
You do not need to be “the” best, you only need to be “your” best. Your best is good enough!
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
Erika Camacho, a professor of mathematics in Arizona State University, is one of my sheros. Her mentoring have helped me develop as a mathematician and her work and passion motivate me to strive for more.
What else are you passionate about?
I love jiu jitsu. During graduate school, I competed in a few jiu jitsu competitions and at one point was ranked 10th in the state of Wisconsin for amateur women in jiu jitsu.
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
The first time I met a woman of color who had a PhD in Mathematics was in 2011, one year before I graduated with my PhD. I had spent a long time thinking I was the only Mexican woman working in mathematics and the hurt of not seeing/knowing people like me until that late in my education meant I felt isolated and doubted my abilities to succeed in math. Of course this is silly! I could have done some research and could have found out about women like Dr. Ruth Gonzalez, the first U.S.-born Hispanic woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics. But that’s the problem: Women of color in STEM are invisible.
There are very few platforms which feature our work, research, and passions. This robs young people of role models that look like them, which would help them believe they too can be scientists.
This needs to change and it needs to change now. The only way to do this is by prominently featuring women of color in STEM in every way possible. I’ve made it my service mission to feature the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic mathematicians and I am very proud of having recently co-founded the website www.lathisms.org, which I encourage everyone to check out!
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you would like to give a shoutout?
Lathisms.org is a website I helped co-found with three other Latinx PhD mathematicians. This website’s mission is to provide an accessible platform that features, prominently, the extent of the research and mentoring contributions of Latin@s and Hispanics in different areas of the Mathematical Sciences. Another organization that I belong to and contribute to is the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
I was an undocumented immigrant who was lucky to have found a break and an opportunity to attend college. I worked diligently to earn my mathematics PhD and work even harder to create opportunities for underrepresented students in mathematics.
Thank you Dr. Harris for your hard work and highlighting the paths of the Latinx community in STEM! We’re honored to have you in our #VanguardSTEM squad!