Brazil's Stellar Female Mathletes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we can’t wait for a Brazilian Grace Hopper.
By Catherine Osborn
Chomping down hamburgers and chicken nuggets at a Rio de Janeiro mall, 17-year-old Julia Saltiel and three male friends discuss missing this year’s Carnival due to college test prep. This is their only social activity this week.
In the company of their female friend — who towers above them intellectually — the boys are untroubled. “Honestly, the one who should be least worried about college admission is Julia,” said Breno Cabral. “We’re dedicated, but she is a myth.” Renan Moura, 17, added later, “It’s become pretty clear that Brazil is run by old, sexist men, but this generation has a different attitude.”
That’s epitomized by Saltiel, a competitive mathlete, and her teammates Jamile Rebouças, Juliana Carvalho and Mariana Groff. In April, the women will become Brazil’s first team to compete at the annual female math Olympics, the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO), in Switzerland. Brazil was invited to participate in the event, which was founded to increase women’s participation in math; later this year, Brazil will compete in the world’s biggest coed math Olympiad on its home turf with a team that may include some of these girls. Here, in the nation of 200 million, these women are converging conversations about gender and poor preparedness in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Between 2012 and 2015, Brazil’s score fell 14 points in math and 4 points in science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.
But some corners of Brazil’s math system are thriving, like the Olympics program, which reaches rural outposts, including the northern hometown of 14-year-old Rebouças. A cheery girl sporting red spectacles, Rebouças is known for hunting the Internet for good math jokes. Wisecracking Carvalho, 17, signed up from Brazil’s southeast, as did Saltiel and 15-year-old Groff, who’s often spotted at extracurricular events in her military-school uniform. The women have repeatedly beaten tens of thousands of men in recent years to medal in Brazil’s math Olympic finals; at a January competition, they won travel to Switzerland sponsored by one of Brazil’s premier mathematical institutions, the National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA).
On International Women’s Day, Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, praised women for their skills calculating prices at the supermarket.
Saltiel, who hopes to become a math professor, fell for the subject as a child, when her mother, an elementary schoolteacher, encouraged her to play with building blocks. She loves combinatorials — problems like those that determine and compare the different routes between two points, the stuff that forms the basis for traffic apps like Google Maps and Waze. For Carvalho, who was raised by a single mother working as a bus-fare operator, a love of math was awoken by public schoolteachers, who directed her toward the math Olympics after she earned high grades in the subject. Carvalho is happiest solving number-theory problems, such as those at the heart of cryptography.
These two math categories plus algebra and geometry form the umbrellas for the six proof-based questions that will appear at the two-day competition in Switzerland, presenting “intellectual problems that are microcosms of more complex research in pure math,” says Edmilson Motta, who is coaching the girls. Cramming won’t cut it: Even if contestants memorize the more than 100 theorems necessary to approach the problems, success depends on their ability to use the right tactic at the right time, a mathematical athleticism possible only through practice. After competitions, students will relax together on boat excursions and hiking trips in the Swiss Alps — STEM diplomacy at its finest.
In the elite halls of Rio’s IMPA, Carolina Araújo, the only woman among 50 researchers, beams with pride at the teenagers. They’re part of an “inevitable, necessary battle,” she says, citing debates about harassment in the departments that could produce top-rate female mathematicians and scientists. Economist Tassia Cruz, who recently wrote an op-ed on the topic, recounts a friend’s experience at an elite economics department. “Her male supervisors told her, ‘Now that you’re pregnant, you need to be extra careful not to become stupid.’” And on International Women’s Day, Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, praised women for their skills calculating prices at the supermarket.
Some critics believe that separating young female mathematicians into their own tournament won’t help field more girls for the hallowed coed Olympic teams, the bellwethers of math success. But the girls’ supporters at IMPA point to the importance of seeing role models and peers succeed in a field. If any critique can be made about the excitement surrounding the EGMO, said professor Theresa Adrião of the University of Campinas’ education department, it’s that access to such opportunities remains limited, with contestants coming mostly from private schools and public magnet schools. It’s a microcosm of the inequality that manifests later in higher ed: By the time Brazilian students reach university level, Black women represent recipients of less than half the amount of scholarship and research funding than will white women, according to a 2015 study, despite the fact that 53 percent of Brazilians identify as Black. One among the four contestants, Rebouças, does.
But for now, the close-up of the young women is cause for optimism. Groff, who told me she sees a kind of workplace discrimination in the narrative of women as humanities-driven, plans to focus on something outside the hard sciences, followed by a career in education. Wide-eyed Rebouças hasn’t made up her mind just yet. Saltiel plans to major in math in college; so does Carvalho, who dreams of engineering a computer program that could guide a spacecraft around the world and a software program to teach students in remote areas. “I’m going to spend my life inventing things,” she says, “and it’s talking with friends” — other curious young female inventors, perhaps — “that helps me determine what.”