When Arlie Petters learned that there are only about a dozen black tenured faculty across the nation’s top 50 math departments, he was not surprised.

Petters, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College and Benjamin Powell professor of mathematics, has read the profile in the New York Times about Edray Goins, a professor of mathematics at Pomona College. Goins is one of about a dozen tenured black mathematicians among 1,769 tenured faculty in the top 50 math departments in the United States, according to the New York Times—and so is Petters.

Before I spoke to Petters in person, we corresponded via email. I asked whether Goins’ experience of being an African American mathematician compared to Petters’ own experiences as one of the few underrepresented mathematicians at Duke and across the country.

“I still battle racial microaggression, patronizing behavior, a foolish sense of intellectual superiority towards underrepresented minorities and a lack of belonging,” he wrote in an email. “In balance, there is a subset who treat me with high respect intellectually and positively engage with me as a fellow human being.”

Petters also sent me an article he wrote for the American Mathematical Society. In one part of the essay, he recounts an experience he had as a new graduate student. When he asked a fourth-year student directions to the main math office, the student gave him directions, but added that Petters “could tie a rope to the ceiling and swing over to the other side.”

Petters responded that he saw the student was going to be an asshole, and walked away.

“I wish I could tell you that my experience was an anomaly. Over the years I have mentored a host of underrepresented minority students and listened to their experiences,” Petters wrote in the article. 

These experiences ranged from microaggression to more overt examples of exclusion.

Chief among these experiences can be loneliness. In a blog for the American Mathematical Society, Goins explained why he left a full professor position at Purdue University—a top research university—for another at a liberal arts college. 

One reason was that he was “tired of being the only one.”

“African Americans make up roughly 12% of the general population. This means on average one out of every eight people you pass on the street will be African American,” Goins wrote in the blog. “In my College of Science, that average drops to one out of every 100 faculty you meet on our campus. To say that I feel isolated is an understatement.”

In Petters’ first few years of graduate school training at Princeton, there was one other black student. During his later time at Princeton, he was the only black student. He was the only black instructor when he was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And then when he came to Duke, he was the only black faculty member in mathematics.

Petters described it to me as a “lonely journey.”

A life under the stars

Petters spent his childhood in Dangriga, Belize, born to a black mother and a Mestizo father. He said he remembers the natural beauty of the country, but he doesn’t forget the poverty. He remembers standing in line to receive cornmeal and powdered milk from aid workers. He remembers studying under kerosene lamps and studying the night sky.

In Belize, he explained, the night sky has millions of stars visible to the naked eye. Observing the stars as a child, he became fascinated by astronomy. Combined with his interests in art, Petters’ passion for mathematics emerged.

“Experiencing the beauty and mystery of mathematics in a cosmic setting invoked feelings similar to what I had when drawing and painting,” Petters wrote in an email prior to our meeting.

After spending his last two years of high school in Brooklyn, Petters went to the City University of New York—Hunter College, graduating with a math and physics double major and a philosophy minor. He then went to graduate school at MIT, where he participated in a program that let him also receive graduate training at Princeton. 

After an instructorship at MIT and an assistant professorship at Princeton, Duke recruited Petters. He was the first African American in the mathematics department to earn tenure at the University.

Petters’ work focuses on how gravity acts on light. 

One of his contributions to the field is his development of a mathematical theory of gravitational lensing, whose applications he pioneered in physics. Gravitational lensing is the effect created by matter that’s between a light source and an observer and that bends the light as it travels to the observer. It was one of the predictions from Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Currently, Petters researches how the gravity of microscopic black holes acts on light. This adds to research on the foundational question of whether there is a fifth macro dimension—a spatial dimension in addition to length, width and height, he explained.

“Evidence of an extra dimension would create a paradigm shift analogous perhaps to when we once thought that the world was flat,” he wrote.

Even with his many research interests and duties as a dean and associate vice provost and professorships in mathematics, physics and economics, Petters finds time for personal pursuits.

He created the Petters Research Institute in his native Belize for children from all over the country to study math and science. The Institute was featured in a segment on NOVA scienceNOW, in which Petters’ old friend Neil DeGrasse Tyson profiled him.

Petters has received an array of honors, ranging from being recognized as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the British empire to being honored with a street in his name in Belize. He was also appointed as the inaugural chairman of the Council of Science Advisers to the prime minister of Belize.

Petters is currently writing a science-fiction novel, which shares his observations on the human condition, “especially as it touches on human suffering,” he explained. There will be a diversity of backgrounds featured in the novel, including his own Caribbean heritage.

The decorations in Petters office hearken to the diversity of this world he admires. Behind Petters’ desk, there is a triptych of a world map. Around his office, he has decorations which he explains to me one by one—Quinceañera and a Ukrainian bride, as well as a Peruvian flutist in traditional attire and a framed piece of embroidery from China.

Perhaps most important is the framed photograph in the corner of his office. Petters explained that the photograph is from when Einstein visited Lincoln University in 1946. In the picture, young African American students gather around as Einstein lectures on relativity. Petters received permission to print the photograph, he said, and now it hangs both in this office and another one of his offices.

The visit is not very well known. The Harvard Gazette wrote that only black press covered this event extensively, and the visit is not mentioned in any one of Einstein’s major biographies or archives.

‘Incremental improvement,’ but ‘a long way to go’

At Duke, Petters looked for community and found it in the humanities, which had more underrepresented minorities than the sciences. However, he has carved a path for minority students in mathematics.

Black Americans have received 1 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in mathematics in the last decade. Petters explained that at each stage of his career, he has been part of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in STEM.

“I was part of bringing in the first underrepresented minority graduate student in math at Princeton and the second and third ones in math at Duke,” he wrote.

Today, Duke’s math department has an African American assistant professor and a Hispanic postdoctoral fellow, whom Petters said he met at a conference and encouraged to apply.

Jonathan Mattingly, chair of the department of mathematics, wrote in an email that there are two underrepresented minority graduate students in addition to the one underrepresented postdoc. Additionally, there are two African American faculty members. One is tenured—Petters—and one is tenure track, Mattingly wrote.

Petters mentors underrepresented minority students and faculty and is involved in conferences designed for these cohorts. Additionally, he wrote that he started the SPIRE Fellows program at Duke. The program is designed for “high-achieving undergraduates from diverse backgrounds” interested in pursuing STEM, according to the website.

Such mentorship reflects the fact that Petters himself was inspired to go into academia by role models from underrepresented backgrounds.

“There has surely been incremental improvement, but there is still a long way to go,” Petters wrote.

Petters did not find statistics on black tenured professors unexpected.

“The tenured ranks is where the power sits in departments and is the ultimate environment to penetrate,” he wrote.

The importance of belonging

This past January, Goins gave an address at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, entitled “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics.” In the latter half, he briefly highlighted the research of Petters, whom he described as an “extremely good friend” and “one of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet.” 

Goins highlighted Petters in his talk because he is one of the few black mathematicians. Goins cites a statistic in his talk that in the last 50 years, the percentage of “blacks receiving doctorates in the mathematical sciences has doubled in the last 50 years.” It has doubled from 0.93% to 1.97%—much lower than the 12% of black Americans.

The challenges are persistent.

I always felt a challenge to my identity in many dimensions, particularly as it intertwines with a sense of belonging,” Petters wrote in an email.

In a tweet, Amy Harmon, the New York Times journalist who wrote the Goins profile, wrote that Petters was “one of several other black mathematicians” that she reached out to other than Goins. Petters also sent Harmon his essay on “belonging.”

In his essay, Petters says that belonging is a perpetual challenge for women and underrepresented minorities in mathematics. The onus is on mathematicians to ensure that belonging is nurtured, he wrote.

“I believe that an integral part of keeping our field vibrant and relevant is for its participants to welcome everyone, knowing that anyone can get better at mathematics through an ample commitment of time and energy by teacher and student,” he wrote.