3 Successful Mathematicians Who Persevered Despite Hardship

3 Successful Mathematicians Who Persevered Despite Hardship

The workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) suffers from a shortage of women and non-Asian minorities. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, women are underrepresented in most STEM fields except for the health professions. Additionally, blacks make up only 9 percent of the STEM work force, and Hispanics make up only 7 percent of the STEM work force.

One way to encourage more diversity in the STEM fields is to highlight role models from underrepresented groups who have been successful. Examples of famous scientists who overcame adversity include Michael Faraday, who faced economic hardship; Marie Curie, who encountered sexism; and George Washington Carver, who dealt with racism in the form of slavery.

We can also find examples of notable engineers who overcame obstacles on the path to success. These include Edith Clarke, who was orphaned at a young age; Soichiro Honda, who faced socio-economic challenges; and Ursula Burns, who was raised by a single mother.

But what about those from underrepresented groups who want to study mathematics? Plenty of role models exist in the mathematics career field as well. Read on to find out about three great mathematicians who persevered despite hardship and who went on to find success.


  1. Sonya Kovalevskaya

Sofia Kovalevskaya
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sonya Kovalevskaya was born in 1850, a time when women suffered severe inequality. In her early life, she lived in Moscow, where women could not attend universities. Women were also unable to travel alone. Therefore, in order to study in Germany, she married at the age of 18 and went with her husband to Heidelberg, where she attended university classes.

However, the couple later moved to Berlin, where she was unable to take additional formal coursework. Instead, she became the private student of a renowned mathematician. Eventually, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics, a degree she earned summa cum laude.

Later Kovalevskaya became the first female professor of mathematics. Her work led to her becoming known for the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem, related to partial differential equations, as well as the Kovalevskaya top, a type of gyroscope. She became the first female member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and was the first woman to serve on the board of a scientific journal.

Unfortunately, Kovalevskaya died of pneumonia at the age of 41. This makes her achievements in her field all the more remarkable because they were accomplished in such a short lifetime.


  1. Katherine Johnson

Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson came of age in an era when opportunities were limited for black women. After beginning elementary school by placing into the second grade instead of kindergarten and starting high school at the age of 10, Johnson went on to college at the age of 15. She graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18, when many people are just beginning college, with a double major in mathematics and French.

Professional options were few for black women in the 1930s, so Johnson became a teacher rather than pursuing her goal of becoming a research mathematician. In the 1950s, however, with increased emphasis on civil rights in the United States, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA, started hiring black women to work in mathematics.

Johnson’s work included calculations that enabled the first moon landing in 1969. She was employed at NASA from 1953 to 1986. During this time, she earned many awards, including National Mathematician of the Year, and two honorary degrees.


  1. Hermann Mena

Hermann Mena grew up in Ecuador. He spent his youth attending school and working in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop to help his family financially. As a young boy, he enjoyed playing soccer more than studying. It was not until he was 15 years old that he realized his talent for mathematics. He later earned a master’s degree in mathematics and enrolled in the first PhD program in mathematics at an Ecuadorean university in 2002. Despite the limited resources in his program, he was able to publish in international journals by the time he earned his doctorate.

After becoming a mathematics professor at Ecuador’s national polytechnic university, Mena undertook politically controversial research that used mathematical modeling to determine whether the Colombian government was in compliance with an international agreement to cease spraying herbicides near the Ecuadorean border. Collecting data in the militarily patrolled region was dangerous. However, Mena managed to develop a mathematical model that can be used in similar situations.

Despite this accomplishment, Mena’s university life in Ecuador was difficult due to scarce funding, bureaucratic strife, and lack of infrastructure. Eventually, Mena left Ecuador to pursue his mathematical career in Austria. There, he continued to develop mathematical models to solve real-world problems, such as optimizing athletic performance, increasing both the stiffness and flexibility of train rails, and simulating the effects of El Niño weather patterns.