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Catching Up With Mathematics Professor Naiomi Cameron

March 21, 2018

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This story was written by Mara Sleeter BA ’19.

I trekked to BoDine, the biology and mathematics building on campus, and proceeded to scour it from top to bottom for Naiomi Cameron’s office before I realized she was one building over in the dean’s suite, which really should have been obvious—after all, she was recently promoted to associate dean of faculty development, in addition to her duties as an associate professor of mathematical sciences.

My interview with Naiomi started out by asking her to tell me a little about herself. “Well,” she said, “I can tell you the short version of my story. I earned both my undergraduate degree and my PhD from Howard University, and I specialize in a field called combinatorics, which is often referred to as ‘the science of counting.’ As an undergraduate at Howard—a proper university, in the sense that there are several schools and professional programs and they don’t really intersect—I was in what was called the school of liberal arts. At the time, I didn’t really have the language to articulate what I found attractive about that part of my education, but looking back after having more experience in a liberal arts environment, I realize that what I really connected with as a student was the interplay of different disciplines.

“This idea of seeing yourself as a leader—dare I say it, a pioneer—and encouraging that sensibility to direct your path forward for yourself as well as others is important. You should do this not just because you can, but because the field as a whole needs you.”Professor Naoimi Cameron

“My first job as a professor was a visiting position at Harvey Mudd College. It is a very unique kind of liberal arts college,” she continued. “I really appreciated being in that department and I learned a lot of things from the faculty there because they’re very productive mathematicians. But what I didn’t have there, and what I needed, was a much more diverse and somewhat larger type of institution. Harvey Mudd was a little small, a little insular, and a little too focused on science and engineering. I came to Oregon in 2005 and started working at L&C in 2006, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“So you found a place you liked, then?” I asked.

“Yes!” she laughed. “I found a good fit, as they say.”

In her 12 years at Lewis & Clark, Naiomi has achieved tenure and been appointed to the position of associate dean of the college. But a true scholar never stops learning, and this summer Naiomi will attend the prestigious HERS Institute at Bryn Mawr College from July 9 to 21. The institute was established in 1976, and since its inception has offered nearly 5,000 women faculty and staff members from 1,200 university campuses around the world intensive residential leadership and management development. It is focused on providing “a curriculum of leadership development to advance women to senior leadership positions throughout the ranks of faculty and staff.” Its STEM community in particular is devoted to fostering a web of connections with peers and mentors across the science and technologies fields to provide support for all stages of careers in academia.

Leadership opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM are sorely needed in order to expand diversity within those professions. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women are drastically underrepresented in STEM occupations, holding only 24 percent of jobs in the field—and only 1/3 of that percentage are women of color, according to the National Science Foundation.

“I was very aware, even at a historically black college like Howard University, about my underrepresentation in the field I was studying,” said Naiomi. “They’d say, ‘You should get a PhD in math,’ but what they meant was ‘You should be a leader in math, because you can; because you’re black and female; and because we need you. There aren’t enough of you.’ This fed my ambition to go forward with my education and my career. This idea of seeing yourself as a leader—dare I say it, a pioneer—and encouraging that sensibility to direct your path forward for yourself as well as others is important. You should do this not just because you can, but because the field as a whole needs you.”

I asked Naiomi what ideas she has on fostering an interest in STEM for underrepresented groups.

“One of the things important to me going forward as a math professor is trying to create more opportunity for students to succeed in STEM. Math is so central to STEM fields, and I have a great opportunity to mentor students and give them the tools they need to succeed. I think there are a variety of ways [to foster interest]—outreach is key. We have to go out and commit to recruiting people in order to balance that representation. I think mentorship is a big deal, and it can happen in a lot of ways. Anyone can be a mentor or a role model, but it’s helpful to get encouragement from someone you see yourself in.

“She has mentored so many young women in STEM, showing them that they have bright futures in the field. I would have to say that her work with students stands out in her achievement-filled career. She is fantastic to work with. It’s hard to imagine a better peer.”Bruce SuttmeierInterim Dean of Arts and Sciences

“Something that’s important to become a leader in STEM is research opportunities,” she added. “That’s a big focus for me. I believe that students who have a successful research experience will go on to earn PhDs, masters, and internship opportunities, and feel confident to approach really complex problems and develop a tolerance for difficult problems. They will learn strong collaboration and leadership skills—all the tools they need to be successful professionals.”

So, what motivated Naiomi to apply to the HERS Institute in the first place?

“A dean and chemistry professor at Willamette University encouraged me to apply because she had gone through the program and thought it would be a great experience for me. Once I looked into it, I realized how perfect it was in the timing of my career path. I’m at a stage where I see how important leadership is, particularly in the STEM field for women. There are lots of professional development opportunities out there, but very few are focused on this narrow scope. I was very happy to learn there was a scholarship opportunity as well, because one of the barriers to programs like this is the cost. It’s an investment, and it’s a worthwhile one, but not every institution can afford that. So it’s a great thing that the Clare Boothe Luce Program has made this possible, and I was pretty jazzed to apply.”

The Clare Boothe Luce Program (CBL) is a foundation dedicated to providing private funding to support women pursuing undergraduate degrees in STEM, as well as encouraging women to teach these subjects at the collegiate level. CBL has partnered with the HERS Institute to provide scholarships for female faculty and staff to attend the prestigious summer programs.

“Naiomi has always taken on outsized roles at the college,” said Bruce Suttmeier, associate professor of Japanese and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She has mentored so many young women in STEM, showing them that they have bright futures in the field. I would have to say that her work with students stands out in her achievement-filled career. She is fantastic to work with. It’s hard to imagine a better peer.”

Learning about her motivation to lead, I asked Naiomi how she thinks the skills she further develops at the HERS Institute will affect her career here at L&C, particularly inside the classroom.

“As far as the way I interact with students—I’ve always taken representation in STEM as a core value of my teaching and my research and my service, both to this community and to the professional community at large. Now that I’m fortunate enough to have leadership experiences, I feel like I have the responsibility to pass that knowledge onto my students. It will help me advise my students, as I will have much more access to information about the world outside of L&C. How can you be successful as a leader in STEM? What are your goals and aspirations, and how can we match that up with what’s available in the field? That’s something I got as an undergraduate in disparate ways, but now I will be able to give this information to my students actively and explicitly.”

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