In the News
Students in the GAINS (Girls Advancing in STEM) Club welcomed OMAYRA ORTEGA ’96 for a virtual visit, during which she discussed her work in statistics and mathematical epidemiology and what led to her career as a college math professor.
Ortega’s route to applied mathematics and epidemiological research was “nonlinear,” she told the students. Now an assistant professor at Sonoma State College, where she teaches statistics, Ortega majored in math and music at Pomona College. A bad experience in a general chemistry class made her rethink the idea of a pre- med track.
“I wasn’t focused on science, specifically,” she said. “I was a pure mathematician; I was interested in theory. Math was this complex, intricate game, and I wanted to play…. Math is the most interesting subject in the whole world. It’s just puzzles all day.”
Studying math at a high level does not just prepare theoreticians; it opens a world of possibility for different careers, Ortega learned. It wasn’t until she participated in a summer research experiment at Cornell’s Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute that she realized she could combine her love of math with science without becoming a medical practitioner. Mathematical models could help in the development of medical treatments, predicting the spread of infectious disease and much more.
“I realized I could still be a healer,” Ortega said. “I could still work in medicine, through mathematical epidemiology and mathematical biology.”
After learning that fewer than one percent of all mathematics doctorates were award- ed to Latina women, Ortega became determined to get her Ph.D. in math. She did so at the University of Iowa, where she also got her master’s in public health. Today, a focus of her work in academia is mentoring and encouraging students of color in STEM. She also directs the Mathematical Epidemiological Research Group (MERG) at Sonoma State and is the president of the National Association of Mathematicians Inc., a nonprofit promoting excellence in mathematics and supporting the development of underrepresented scholars in the field.
A leading figure in helping establish a more equitable and just culture at Milton Academy, Vanessa Cohen Gibbons became the School’s first chief equity and inclusion officer in July.
Since arriving in 2016 as an Upper School math teacher and dorm faculty member, Cohen Gibbons has played an integral role in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) initiatives at Milton. Since August 2020, she has served as Upper School director of equity; as a member of Milton’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission; and as head of Hathaway House.
She has also provided support to Onyx, a student organization that offers social, cultural, and political support for Black students and their peers through meetings and activities, and LGBTQ+ affinity spaces.
Cohen Gibbons is grateful to be stepping into a role she believes already has a lot of support. “My understanding is that people choose Milton because they want to be in a diverse environment,” she says. “They already value the opportunity to do this work and that’s a great starting position.”
Cohen Gibbons earned her doctoral degree in astronomy at the University of Maryland in 2009. Prior to coming to Milton, she taught math and science and supported DEIJ efforts at Garrison Forest School, in Maryland. Over the years, Cohen Gibbons has participated in numerous DEIJ-related profession- al development opportunities, including at the National Association of Independent Schools Diversity Leadership Institute, the People of Color Conference, and the Klingenstein Summer Institute at Columbia University.
One of her first goals, says Cohen Gibbons, is to develop a greater sense of alignment throughout the institution. “Be- cause there is already so much buy-in, many of our students and employees see themselves as active participants in DEIJ work,” she says. “One of my goals is to bring all these folks together and help make this work an integrated experience. I want to help develop an eco-system, a web of DEIJ work, that brings K–12 faculty and staff, families, and alumni together, connecting and communicating with one another.”
Over the next year, Cohen Gibbons will be working with VISIONS, Inc., a nonprofit organization supporting DEIJ work across educational institutions, to administer a DEIJ training program for all Milton employ- ees. The multi-day program, she says, offers employees an opportunity to think about “their own identities and experiences and to process both interpersonal and institutional dialogues around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice and to think about how to make change within their sphere of influence.”
Cohen Gibbons is looking for- ward to developing more formal opportunities for people to get involved in DEIJ initiatives. “I am really grateful for the engagement that I’ve already had with parents, trustees, alumni, and students, and I look forward to formalizing some of those relationships. This isn’t an effort of one person or one office. I want to make this an integrated effort across all of our stake- holders.”
Cohen Gibbons’s appointment follows an extensive nationwide search for someone to lead the School in bringing about important institutional change. In announcing the appointment last spring, Head of School Todd Bland said, “Vanessa has consistently demonstrated a passion for building a more just, anti-racist, and equitable learning, living, and working environment at Milton. I look forward to working closely with Vanessa as she transitions into her new position and to partner- ing with her as she continues the development and implementation of a long-term vision for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice at Milton Academy.”
As a freshman, TEDDY ELLIS ‘22 enjoyed guest speakers who came to campus, some of whom were alumni. Ellis wanted more opportunities for students to connect with them, so he launched Stang Stories, a podcast featuring interviews with alumni who share their stories.
Stang Stories expanded into an official student club, so other students could participate. So far they have interviewed nine alumni: JIM MEEKS ’97, KENZIE BOK ’07, TAD HILLS ’81, REV. DR. CHLOE BREYER ’87, FRED MELO ’84, SID RAJU ’12, AMY KAUFMAN ’04, EDWARD CUNNINGHAM ’94, and FARAH PANDITH ’86.
Although there were some challenges when the pandemic hit, the students were able to manage their meetings and interviews over Zoom and continued to interview alumni throughout the year. Ellis says that overall it’s been the best experience talking to alumni, because “everyone has an interesting story, whether they are a known name or not, and the advice they give is great. We’ve enjoyed the conversations.”