Math professor reaches out to minorities

Pursuing a dream has often been equated with reaching for the stars. As a leading expert in stars and gravitation, Arlie Petters, who has gained a reputation as one of the most successful black mathematicians in academia, serves as a model for younger minorities trying to grasp stars of their own.

As the William and Sue Gross associate professor of mathematics, Arlie Petters-the first tenured black professor in Duke's math department-was recently awarded the first Blackwell-Tapia prize for excellence in mathematics and for serving as a role model to minorities underrepresented in math and the sciences.

Born in a small town in Belize, Petters moved to New York City to pursue his dream of studying math and physics to decipher the mystery of the stars, quite different from his original ambitions to be a painter.

"The turning point in my life was staying in the U.S. and pursuing math and physics like I would have pursued my passion in painting [in Belize]," Petters said.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Petters excelled in the U.S. despite racial discrimination-a new experience for him-because he did not allow it to undermine his self-confidence.

"Teachers [in high school] didn't have high expectations of colored students in math and science," he said, adding that he was viewed as an "oddity" when he performed well.

At Hunter College, where Petters earned his bachelors and masters degrees in five years, his professors acted as role models, holding Petters to a high standard in upper-level classes and creating an experience that eased the discrimination he had endured in high school. He went on to excel at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed his doctorate coursework, and Princeton University, where he wrote his thesis.

His research has focused on the effects of gravitation on deflecting star light, for which he has been called the founder of mathematical astronomy.

Inspired by his Hunter professors, Petters began mentoring students himself at a summer program at MIT, where he realized the value of being an intellectual and a high-achiever-two achievements often perceived as uncommon for a minority.

"What gives me the most pleasure [is setting an example of] excellence coupled with helping to train the next generation of African-American students," he said. Those two ingredients made him the first recipient of the Blackwell-Tapia prize, established by Cornell University and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

Petters has also been involved in minority outreach programs both at Duke and Princeton, and across the country. He was integral in establishing the Goldman Sachs minority summer internship opportunity at Duke four years ago and has since seen six students take advantage of that resource.

Looking back over his career, Petters emphasized the need for more black faculty because black students are hesitant to pursue a field where no leaders of the same race have been before.

"You need to see faculty achieving in these fields to go into those fields," Petters said. Currently, he estimated, less than one percent of people studying mathematics are black.

"There needs to be a synergy between [increasing] black faculty and black students... which will generate more and more students," he said, adding that although Duke is at the forefront in hiring more black faculty, the math department has only three or four black undergraduate majors and no black graduate students, a trend that mirrors the national averages.

As the newly-appointed director of the Reginaldo Howard Scholars program, the renowned scholar can act as that role model by serving directly as a mentor for the scholars, helping them map their careers.

Reginaldo Howard Scholar Brandi Dumas, a senior, found the program's network of faculty members and other students was supportive of her.

"As a minority coming to Duke, it's difficult to find your place," she said.

Feben Girma, another scholar and a sophomore, said Petters was a great adviser who connected her with very helpful mentors. However, as a psychology major and chemistry minor, Girma has noticed the dearth of black faculty members in the sciences.

"I wish we had the ability to meet more black science professors," she said.

Petters, at the least, has begun the journey.


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