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A proof that math opens doors

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Don't tell Evelyn Boyd Granville that math lovers are nerds. This child of the Great Depression and daughter of a janitor has a mission: neutralize the belief among today's students that being good at math makes you a social misfit.

"There's a lot of peer pressure to be cool, to be like the rest of the crowd - and this whole word they've invented, 'nerd,' didn't exist in my day, thank goodness," says Ms. Granville, the first black woman in America to earn a PhD in mathematics, from Yale University in 1949. "You could be great at music at a young age, and nobody looks upon you as weird ... do they? We must get beyond this for mathematics. And I think we can."

Granville didn't have an easy start. She attended a segregated school in the US capital and grew up poor. But she decided, even as a grade-schooler solving math problems in her head for fun, that everything would come out right if she stuck with math. And it has.

Math was always the great equalizer for her. "The fact that an African-American woman can do math has to mean something to somebody," she says. "It has to change some attitudes - or at least make people think."

Granville, who has taught math for decades to students from college to grade school, is being hailed as a mathematical beacon to a new generation of US students. Last year, she was honored by the National Academy of Sciences. Dow Chemical Co. sent her on a national tour of grade schools to help inspire future mathematicians.

She believes in the need to make math meaningful to students, recommending, for instance, that grade-schoolers be taught the history of math's impact on society. But her campaign is an uphill battle: Most US students don't have the math skills of children in other countries.

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