First Woman Department Chair for Mathematics and Statistics at Wake Forest University
Dr. Sarah Raynor is the chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Wake Forest University. Dr. Raynor graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1998 with a B.S. Mathematics and Physics with exceptional distinction in mathematics and distinction in physics. Following graduation, she pursued graduate studies in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she obtained her Ph.D. in 2003, she was a postdoctoral fellow at The Fields Institute for Research in the Mathematical Sciences and The University of Toronto. Dr. Raynor joined Wake Forest in 2004 and has been there ever since. Her research interests are in elliptic and dispersive partial differential equations, a research area which straddles pure and applied mathematics. Dr. Raynor became the first woman to chair the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in Fall Semester 2018. To her, becoming the first women to hold this job shows the great strides the University has made in creating a culture of inclusivity, and reinforces the positive atmosphere at Wake Forest. Not only is it a feat to cross this gender barrier, but it is important to note how supportive the department has been in her appointment.
One of Dr. Raynor’s passions is increasing the number of women in mathematics, as well as improving the environment for young women faculty. Women earn around 46 percent of doctoral degrees in the United States and this number drops to roughly 30 percent who earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. In talking to Professor Raynor, I was able to gain her unique perspective on being a part of this minority. She stated that being a woman in this subject has had its advantages and disadvantages, and she recognizes the stigma in this field and in many other high-level careers in the United States. Despite the stories that many women in America share about being mistreated or not hired because of their gender, she prefers to look at the positives it has brought into her career. A positive, for example, includes how women can contribute soft skills to a collaboration. She also notes how women contribute to the atmosphere at Wake Forest University, and make the department a very supportive environment to work in.
Dr. Raynor is very invested in the success women obtain in graduate mathematics programs. For Professor Raynor, one of the most important traits that allowed her to get where she is today is her ability to not easily become discouraged. For jobs, graduate programs, and everyday life, there are setbacks and disappointments, and, in her view, this is one of the reasons women do not proceed in this career. She believes the culture of math makes women feel as if they are the problem, even though having difficulties is a normal part of graduate studies. Professor Raynor also recommends having a life outside of the program because it is important to not to get lost in an overwhelming environment. Moreover, graduate programs are an intense 4 to 6 years and it takes moxy in order to remain focused for that long. It is not that the work is unmanageable or too difficult but staying committed can be daunting. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you are you going to get a Ph.D. you need to really want a Ph.D.
Finally, the research she has been a part of would not have happened if she had not gone against the grain to become a woman mathematician. Her favorite research that she has produced was in collaboration with Brian Pigott. This work was on a project called Long-Term Stability for KDV solutions in Weighted Hs Spaces. This project mixed abstract math with the potential to apply it to the real world. Her favorite student project was on the growth of city boundaries with fractal analysis. Similarly, this project also allows Professor Raynor to work with both pure and applied math. These two projects only scrape the surface of the research she has done. Additionally, one of her proudest achievements in her career is the ability to support younger women entering the field either through official or unofficial mentoring. In the words of Doctor Raynor, “it is important that women or members of any underrepresented group have the opportunity to talk to someone who has been through those struggles and for me I know it means a lot to help.”