Skip to content

A Collaborative Life: Finding Fun and Community in Mathematics

We are all shaped by key moments in our childhoods. For Candice Price, one of those moments came in the third grade, when her math teacher played Schoolhouse Rock to teach her class multiplication. From then on, Candice loved mathematics for one simple reason: it was fun. She reveled in the chance to play Number Munchers in her school’s math lab—an online game that taught children about multiples, factors, and primes, among other topics—and spent hours of her free time solving logic puzzles. For her, math was a source of joy and excitement. It was just an added bonus that she excelled at it.

However, as we grow up, our circumstances shape our experiences in the world, sometimes in unfortunate ways. Candice remembers her love for math beginning to dwindle as she progressed through her education. Research has shown that, though girls perform as well as boys in math and science, they begin to lose interest and confidence in STEM fields very early on in their education. As a result, only 9% of girls between ages 13-17 say they’re interested in STEM careers, compared to 27% of boys.

Placed in the gifted and talented program at her middle school, Candice started to feel pressure surrounding math, such as grades, standardized tests, and competitive classmates. She recounts one high school teacher who was particularly discouraging. The teacher often chose to raise their voice at students as their preferred method of motivation, leading to a largely uncomfortable learning environment. That negative reinforcement from a teacher made a lasting impact on Candice, damaging both her self-esteem and her faith in her mathematical abilities. Long gone were the days of math being “fun.” Moreover, her performance in this class had consequences that impacted her future. The following year, Candice had to retake that class, and thus began her college career without any experience in calculus, or any belief that she could pursue the field further.

However, Candice’s first day at California State University (CSU) Chico brought with it a crucial turning point in her mathematical journey. She walked into Lori Holcombe’s precalculus class and was immediately struck by her enthusiasm, awakening something in Candice that she thought was lost. Lori’s teaching reminded her of the joy she felt in the third grade, and it revitalized her. Candice began to feel her passion for math returning, though she was still unsure if she was capable of following it. Although Candice did not have confidence in herself, Lori always made her feel otherwise. One day after class, Lori suggested that Candice major in mathematics. To accelerate her education and gain the correct prerequisites, Lori recommended that Candice attend a summer workshop that she was hosting. This interaction became a pivotal moment in Candice’s education and was the first of many opportunities she credits to the support and encouragement of others.

The summer before her sophomore year, Candice attended Lori’s Calculus workshop as part of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. The program not only helped her catch up in the classroom but also provided her with a community of other underrepresented students in mathematics who experienced many of the same challenges that she did. From that point on, Candice knew that her third grade instincts had been correct. She was going to be a mathematician.

I fell in love with this kind of mathematics.

Candice Price, on her experience at CSU Chico's NREUP

After her senior year at CSU Chico, another professor and mentor, Thomas Mattman, suggested she participate in an MAA National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (NREUP). Like many seniors, Candice was unsure of her next step after graduation, so she agreed without much thought. She could not have imagined the profound impact the program would have on her career. Her project was on color invariance in knot theory, and Candice quickly became enraptured by it. She particularly enjoyed the room for creativity that the project provided, how different it was from anything else she’d ever seen, and ultimately, the fun she found in it. During the NREUP, “I fell in love with this kind of mathematics,” Candice says. She had discovered her niche, her passion, and she carried that with her throughout the rest of her journey. Candice went on to study knot theory under Mariel Vázquez during her masters at San Francisco State University, and under Isabel Darcy at the University of Iowa for her PhD.

Equally important to Candice as this opportunity to discover her passion was the ability to build a network of supportive peers, mentors, and role models. She recalls the first time she ever saw herself represented in mathematics at the Infinite Possibilities Conference at Spelman College, where the majority of participants were Black women in mathematics. Until then, Candice hadn’t realized how much the lack of representation in mathematics had held her back. The impact of that one moment, in addition to her own transformative experience in one precalculus class, was so strong that it propelled her into education with the goal of empowering her students in the same way that she had become empowered. Now, she says, all of her students know first-hand, “a Black woman who is a mathematician.”

Candice continued building her community in other programs, such as Project NExT and Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE). She made many lifelong connections during both programs, including Erica Graham, Raegan Higgins, and Shelby Wilson. Together, they founded and maintain the website Mathematically Gifted and Black, which is dedicated to highlighting and celebrating Black mathematicians. As an assistant professor at Smith College and incoming director of the MAA Tensor Strengthening Underrepresented Minority Mathematics Achievement (SUMMA)program, Candice continues her work of providing the same opportunities and experiences that she was given to her students. She believes hers to be a “collaborative life,” built by the many people who supported her along the way, and she wishes to be a similar figure to others—to provide the foundation for a robust, loving community and for a joyful lifetime of learning.