Women in STEM: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang

We are so excited to announce that we will be holding a Women in STEM panel discussion on September 13! With that said, we are proud to introduce our first panelist: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang, a Mathematician and Professor at the University of Toronto. Given her knowledge and documentation of the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, we are very excited to hear her take on how women in STEM can continue to forge ahead! But until then, here is a little about Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang.  


What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

Hearing the stories of other women and being able to share my own in an understanding environment have been a huge source of support as I have progressed in my career.  Even if we “know” about unique challenges that women face in fields where they are underrepresented, there is something special that happens when we share and talk about our experiences.  I am also excited for the opportunity to connect with other local women in STEM.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

Reading. I try to read widely, but am not afraid to put down any book that I don’t enjoy, even if I think it would be beneficial. Physical activity. My exercise routine looks a lot different than it did a few years ago, but ensuring that my body functions well is important in ensuring that I am able to do my best work. Restoration. I am understanding the importance of rest and relaxation in developing a successful career more and more each year.  Some of my favourite ways to unplug include baking, playing piano, and exploring new places with my husband.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

The biggest learning curve in my career was at the beginning of my first continuing faculty job.  Up until that point, my success had always seemed to be based largely on the quality of my work; if I worked hard I would find a way forward.  Suddenly, I found myself in a position where good work wasn’t enough, students seemed to be comparing me to their vision of what a mathematician “should” look like or be, and it felt as though I had hit an impenetrable wall.  Eventually, things got better as some students began to trust me and word spread that I was a good teacher. I became successful in my position.  Through this experience, however, I learned that we don’t always have control over how others perceive women in STEM and that it is important to surround yourself with a supportive community.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

My strong drive to learn has been instrumental throughout my journey.  Loving learning and discovering new things is key to making it through graduate school, but plays an even bigger role in being a faculty member.  I see this as an essential part of my job as a professor;  whenever I get away from learning new things my work becomes stagnant.  Although I am a mathematician, I prioritize learning about a variety of subjects (education, history, medicine, computer science, leadership, sociology, etc.).  I am constantly surprised about where I stumble upon connections to, and inspiration for my work! 

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Find people with whom you can talk openly and honestly about the struggles that you face in your career.  Having friends or colleagues who will be reliable cheerleaders when things get tough can be a tremendous support.  They do not need to be in STEM themselves - some of my greatest professional supports are not - but you should be able to rely on them to accept the barriers that you face.

Who do you look up to, and why?

I think that I could write a book about all of the people that I look up to! Here are three, in brief.  A friend, Bianca Brigidi, is one of the wisest and most eloquent women I know - she always seems to know exactly what to say in difficult situations. My mom, Ann Mayes, has built communities and a family with grace and is a pillar of strength in my life.  My PhD supervisor (aka my “academic mom”), Karen Smith, is a tremendously accomplished mathematician but she spends a great deal of time and effort supporting young mathematicians, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

Sarah Mayes-Tang received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Queen’s University, and her Master’s and PhD degrees in pure mathematics from the University of Michigan.   Her dissertation was in computational algebra and algebraic geometry, and investigated questions about infinite collections of polynomials. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Mayes-Tang joined the faculty of Quest University Canada, a liberal arts institution in British Columbia dedicated to undergraduate education.  While there, she developed and taught innovative courses in both traditional and non-traditional areas including calculus, abstract algebra, cryptology, creativity in mathematics, and knowledge.  She also initiated and led several University-level projects. Following four years at Quest, Dr. Mayes-Tang moved to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Toronto.  She currently leads a team of instructors and TAs as coordinator for the University’s largest-enrollment calculus sequence.  Her current projects include documenting the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, developing programs to support TAs, and helping students to develop positive attitudes towards mathematics.