Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor, 2016-2017
Research: Partial Differential Equations
The following piece by Ryan Hynd is one of four "STEM Stories" (27 Oct 2014) included in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Diversity in Academe: Black Men on Campus" special report.
I was born in Jamaica and grew up in the West Palm Beach area in Florida. My mother is Jamaican, and my father is a white guy from England. He wasn’t really around. My mom wanted better opportunities for us, so we came to America when I was 5 and she raised me up by herself. We didn’t have much, and we lived on the low end of things. Our existence was paycheck-to-paycheck.
My mother was insistent that I was bound to do something great with my life. As a young student I wasn’t really into school. I played basketball and baseball, but I wasn’t really into math or science. My mom had to work, so she couldn’t really sit down and go to parent-teacher meetings. She only came to school when I got into trouble. The schools I went to were reasonable. You could get a good education, but if you just wanted to hang around and shoot ball, you could. It wasn’t until I went to junior college that I became a real student.
When I got to Palm Beach Community College [now Palm Beach State College], my interest in math developed gradually. I took the prerequisite basic math courses just to get them out of the way. It was hard, and I needed a tutor. As I took more courses, I started to like math. When I transferred to Georgia Tech, two years later, math continued to be a creative pursuit for me. I came in with an open mind, and I wanted to solve problems. There is a program called the Berkeley Edge that recruits underrepresented groups to the STEM fields. I applied at the end of my junior year, and they brought me in, polished me up, introduced me to some professors, and gave me pointers on the graduate-school application process. It showed me that I had a chance to go to a top graduate school like Berkeley.
In grad school, there were no black males in my classes. I came across extremely few blacks in the sciences, especially black Americans. The ones I saw were mainly from Africa or the West Indies. But there are few Americans in math in general. It’s so international. You have students from Russia, Romania, Italy, and Argentina. Given the size of our country, you’d think there’d be more minorities in math.
We have to show young minorities how math can be attractive. A lot of black males don’t really have the people to look up to in STEM. They need examples of people who look like them who are successful and doing positive things. Kids might not be aware of the big things that are happening in math. Facebook was started by people with serious math backgrounds. We are living in the information-and-technology age, and so we have to make math attractive to kids.
As a black man in STEM, I’ve encountered some awkwardness, and I’ve had a few rough moments over the years. But I could have worked at the post office and encountered even more. It didn’t bother me that I was the only one. I was just happy I had an opportunity.