and Science Professor
By Lango Deen
"...That, in many ways, is her legacy: thousands of
young women, and daughters of those women, who will believe they
can do math..." Spelman grad Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith,
assoc. dean and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health
At an awards
ceremony in 1995 held by the Association for Women in
Mathematics, Etta Zuber Falconer, Ph.D. spoke the words that
probably describe her life's work best. Addressing the audience
at this celebration of outstanding achievements in mathematics
education, Dr. Falconer said her entire career had been
"devoted...to increasing the number of highly qualified
African Americans in mathematics and mathematics-related
Falconer, one of the first 20 Black women in the U.S. to earn a
Ph.D. in math, died of pancreatic cancer in September. She had
spent nearly four decades at Spelman College -- the historically
Black college for women, located in Georgia -- holding a
succession of positions: professor of mathematics and head of
the mathematics department (1972); head of the division of
natural sciences (1982); and Fuller E. Calloway Professor of
Mathematics and associate provost for science programs and
policy (1990), a position she held until May 2002, when she
retired. Her tenure permitted her to impact positively the lives
of hundreds of young women in mathematics and the sciences, as
well as scores of faculty, as she worked with major
organizations to develop one of the most productive science
programs at a liberal arts college in the U.S.
Thompson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and director of
Spelman's NASA-sponsored Model Institutions for Excellence (MIE)
Program, says the fact that Spelman still was seen by some in
the 1970s as a place where women train only in teaching and
social sciences was the result of preconceived notions.
Dual Degree Engineering Program started in the 1970s and now has
12 [participating engineering] schools," says Dr. Thompson.
"The American Association for Medical Colleges recently
ranked Spelman College #2, after Xavier, for sending
African-American females to medical school."
Program enhances Spelman's impressive track record of preparing
women for science, engineering, and mathematics (SEM) careers.
colleague of Dr. Falconer, Dr. Thompson was part of a revolving
team of investigators who wrote grant proposals for many Spelman
programs and processes initiated by her, to increase the number
of underrepresented minority students in the study of
mathematics and science. He says Dr. Falconer had a knack for
getting everybody involved.
was very difficult to tell her no," Dr. Thompson says.
Falconer worked with people in collaboration to get things
done," says Dr. Silvia Bozeman, who has been a math
professor at Spelman for the past 28 years. "Under her
leadership, we created an array of special programs to support
student development, curriculum development, and strengthen the
infrastructure in the sciences."
Falconer's other initiatives: a Summer Science Program for
pre-freshmen; an annual spring Science Day; a NASA Women in
Science and Engineering Program and NASA's Undergraduate Science
Research Program; the College Honors Program; and proposals that
resulted in Spelman's being selected by the National Science
Foundation and NASA as a "Model Institution for
Excellence" and receiving a $9-million grant that provides
funding for scholarships, curriculum development, equipment,
infrastructure, and building renovations.
new science facility is named after her. Olivia Scriven,
director of sponsored programs at Spelman, who is writing her
dissertation on "The Growth of the Spelman Science
Program," says Dr. Falconer believed her school could not
attract students to the sciences with a dark and uninviting
northeast Mississippi in 1933, Dr. Falconer grew up in Tupelo,
Miss. Her parents, Walter A. Zuber, a medical doctor, and Zadie
L. Montgomery Zuber, a musician who attended Spelman College,
were perhaps her greatest inspirations. Dr. Falconer was
graduated from high school in 1949, then entered Fisk University
in Nashville, Tenn., where she received a B.A. in math with a
minor in chemistry. Her first career role model, Evelyn Boyd
Granville, one of the first two Black women to be awarded a
Ph.D. in mathematics in the U.S., taught Dr. Falconer during
those undergraduate years. Recalling a conversation he had with
Dr. Falconer, Dr. Thompson says she once described Granville as
being "a tough critic" during her undergraduate years.
underwent "a major culture shock," as she put it, when
she went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in 1953, to
undertake an M.Sc. in mathematics. The social environment was so
uncomfortable for her that she returned home after getting her
master's degree, without undertaking research for a doctorate.
Scriven says Dr. Falconer spoke of her own driving passion for
minority students to have what she didn't when she was an
public demeanor really belied the strength behind her,"
Scriven says. "She looked like someone you might meet in
church on Sunday."
teaching at the junior college and four-year college level in
Mississippi and at a high school in Tennessee, Falconer married
Dolan Falconer, a basketball coach, in 1954. They had three
family moved to Atlanta in 1965, Dr. Falconer got a job as an
instructor at Spelman. In 1969, Dr. Falconer became the 11th
African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, earning
her degree from Emory University. By 1971, when her husband took
a coaching appointment in Virginia, Dr. Falconer took a job with
the math department at Norfolk State University but returned to
Spelman after the family went back to Atlanta. Dr. Falconer
became a pillar of Spelman's academic community, promoting
careers in science and engineering for a total of 37 years.
the American Association for the Advancement of Science
presented Dr. Falconer with its Mentor Award for Lifetime
B. Prothrow-Stith, a math major at Spelman between 1971 and
1975, is now a nationally recognized public health leader and
associate dean and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. She
spoke about the tremendous influence Dr. Falconer had on her.
Falconer was generous with sharing knowledge, information,
sharing your successes," Dr. Prothrow-Stith says.
"There are literally thousands of young women who would say
that she was responsible for their success, and that, in many
ways, is her legacy: thousands of young women, and daughters of
those women, who will believe they can do math, a huge
accomplishment because girls didn't do math."
Lango Deen can be reached at LDeen@ccgmag.com