Ph.D. Student Victoria Whitley ‘Talks Math’ and Mentorship

As co-director of the Girls Talk Math summer camp at UMD, Whitley shows underrepresented students that everyone has a place in mathematics.

Victoria Whitley always loved numbers—until she took high school calculus. The course was so hard and so frustrating that she nearly swore off math for good.

Victoria Whitley
Victoria Whitley. Photo courtesy of same.

“It was awful,” she recalled. “I cried my way through the whole thing.”

Several years later, as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, she gave calculus a second chance—and this time it clicked. Her professor’s enthusiasm for the subject was so contagious that she decided to drop her physics major and pursue a different path.

“After that I thought, ‘Oh, maybe math is for me,’ so I decided to switch to an applied math major,” Whitley said. “One good teacher or one bad teacher can really make a difference.”

Now a Ph.D. student in the University of Maryland’s Applied Mathematics & Statistics, and Scientific Computation (AMSC) program, Whitley wants to help others find joy in math. She is working to make the field more inclusive as co-president of UMD’s Women in Mathematics group, president of AMSC’s Student Council and co-director of UMD’s Girls Talk Math summer mathematics camp for high schoolers.

On top of all that, Whitley works as a teaching assistant (TA) while conducting research at the intersection of ocean physics and applied math. She works closely with her advisor, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Jacob Wenegrat, who appreciates Whitley’s dedication to her field. 

“Taking on any one of these roles—while also TAing introductory math classes and making progress on a complicated research project—would be a lot for any graduate student,” Wenegrat said. “That Victoria has stepped into leadership roles in so many different ways speaks both to her capabilities and to her commitment to improving the field of mathematics.”

Making waves

As an undergraduate, Whitley learned about a new campus organization called Girls Talk Math, which planned to offer a free two-week math camp to high school students of underrepresented genders. Inspired by the group’s commitment to representation, Whitley signed up as a volunteer and planned experiments and games for the campers.

She helped at the camp for two summers and enjoyed it so much that she chose to attend UMD for graduate school—partly because it had a Girls Talk Math camp, but also because she liked AMSC’s hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to applied math.

She knew she wanted to study fluid dynamics but wasn’t sure what her research focus should be. When she met with Wenegrat, they discussed the various applications of math and oceanography, and Whitley decided she was all in—despite not considering herself an “ocean person.”

“I thought Jacob’s research was really cool, even though I knew nothing about the ocean,” Whitley said. “I finally broke down and told him about a year into our advisee-advisor relationship that I don’t know how to swim, and he gently reassured me that it wasn’t a prerequisite for oceanography.”

In her research, Whitley uses a numerical simulation called the immersed boundary method to study the breaking of internal waves below the ocean’s surface. These processes, which occur continuously on small scales around the world, are thought to play an outsized role in global currents.

“Just like a wave on the surface could break on the shore, you could have a wave inside of the ocean break on sloping boundaries,” Whitley said. “Depending on the angle, if it’s sharp enough, you can get some really interesting dynamics and a lot of mixing, which is really important in the ocean. Global circulation is thought to rely on small-scale mixing on these sloping boundaries.”

‘It can be done’

A group photo of Girls Talk Math participants
Victoria Whitley is pictured with participants of a previous Girls Talk Math camp at the University of Maryland. Photo courtesy of Victoria Whitley. 

In the meantime, volunteering for Girls Talk Math continues to be an important part of Whitley’s life.

Beyond offering new and engaging ways to learn about math, Whitley believes that programs like Girls Talk Math can help prevent “leaky pipelines”—the phenomenon of underrepresented students dropping out of STEM due to systemic factors—by giving students positive experiences early in their education.

“You have people that leak out of the pipeline early on—in high school, middle school or even elementary school—and that continues through the higher levels until suddenly you see no one who looks like you,” Whitley said. “Without mentorship and without someone there to show you that it can be done, it can be really difficult to stick with it.”

Whitley is currently gearing up for the next Girls Talk Math camp, which will run June 20-30, 2023. She handles most of the camp logistics, from processing applications to hiring team leaders, but says the most rewarding part is making a difference in students’ lives.

“It’s nice being able to reach out and grab high schoolers before they run off to biology or something else—not that there’s anything wrong with the other STEM fields,” Whitley said with a laugh. “I hope by exposing them to these things early on that they’ll remain interested in math and push through their calculus course.”

After all, Whitley has shown that if at first you don’t succeed in calculus, try again. It could just be the start of a long career in mathematics.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.