Diversity Dialogues - Ruth Gonzalez

By Marilyn Mays posted 04-17-2021 16:01:27


The First Known Hispanic Female Mathematician in The United States

We are learning through popular media that many significant contributions to science and mathematics have been made by African American women, a fact most of us had not been aware of until recently. Black female mathematicians made many major contributions to education and industry in the U.S., but most notable were their efforts and success in the space race. Knowing this might make one curious—what else don’t we know about the history of mathematics and mathematicians? Particularly about the contributions of any groups of people that we don’t usually associate with math history—women. What do we know about women mathematicians, particularly those of another underrepresented demographic—Hispanic women?

One of the first steps in learning more about Hispanic female mathematicians would be deciding what criterion to use for “mathematician.” If we settle on “someone who has a doctorate in mathematics” or “an individual known for their contributions to the field,” we find that the number of Hispanic women meeting either of those criteria is surprisingly small. 

The first time a Hispanic woman is known to have been awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in the U.S. was in 1986, a mere 35 years ago. One conjecture as to why this is the case might be that women in the Hispanic culture are often expected to confine themselves to culturally acceptable roles, which preclude having careers in the male-dominated areas of mathematics and science. In addition, the scarcity of female role models and mentors in mathematics and science contributes to the absence of Hispanic women in Academia who aspire to these fields. The result is a higher concentration of Hispanic women in fields such as education and nursing. These fields can be richly rewarding and do require a solid knowledge of mathematics applications. However, a background in more advanced mathematics is necessary for those mathematicians who will continue innovation and technological advances in the U.S.

Ruth Gonzalez, born in Houston, Texas, to Mexican parents, is the first U.S.-born Hispanic woman known to earn a doctorate in mathematics. She first attended the University of Texas and graduated with a B.A. and M.S. in mathematics. She worked on projects that involved developing mathematical models for wave propagation in underwater acoustics. These models could be used, for example, to position submarines to avoid detection.

Her work motivated her to seek more education. She was accepted to Rice University's graduate program, where she studied computational mathematics and graduated in 1986 with a Ph.D. After graduation, she became a geophysical mathematician for ExxonMobile. 

The following is an explanation in her own words of her contributions to oil and gas production, “As a geophysical mathematician for Exxon, I am involved in the research and development of seismic algorithms that are used in the exploration and production of hydrocarbon reservoirs (oil and gas). An important part of the exploration task is deciphering and integrating various types of data in order to illuminate the subsurface of the earth.”  She helped develop technology that allows specialists to determine where to drill for oil and gas. She continued her association with ExxonMobil both as an advisor in the Geophysical Processing Department and for the Project Facilitation Team of the ExxonMobil Exploration Company.

Gonzales volunteers in several capacities in an effort to increase the number of people studying math, particularly individuals from underrepresented minorities. She has served as an adult literacy tutor for a program she supports at Rice University and volunteers at the Houston Area Women's Center and a shelter for homeless teenagers.

Careers That Count. (1991). Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM).

Riddle, L. (2018, December 12). Ruth Gonzalez. Biographies of Women Mathematicians.

Sterrett, A. (2014). 101 Careers in Mathematics, 3rd Edition (3rd ed.). Mathematical Association of America.