The Kovalevskaia Fund

Ann Hibner Koblitz and Neal Koblitz
The Mathematical Intelligencer, Volume 22, Number 2 (2002), 62-65.

It was August 1995, and we were in Hanoi for a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Kovalevskaia Fund. As part of the festivities, the Vietnam Women's Union, supported by the Fund, had brought to Hanoi fifteen talented women undergraduate students from different parts of Vietnam in order to learn about scientific careers. We joined the group at the Hanoi Mathematical Institute, where the director, Hoang Tuy, was talking with them about why a young person should pursue a career that she/he truly loves — such as scientific research — rather than one that might be more lucrative or more favored by friends and relatives. The young women were spellbound; most likely none of them had ever heard an eminent scientist speak from the heart in such a manner. Seeing this interaction between the students and a leading scientist, we once again experienced the satisfaction that comes from our travels for the Kovalevskaia Fund.

In 1983 Ann published a biography of the Russian mathematician, socialist and feminist Sofia Kovalevskaia. We decided to use the royalties from sales of the book for a project that would honor Kovalevskaia's memory. We initiated the Kovalevskaia Fund as a subcommittee of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam, an organization in which we had been active for several years. But because we wanted to be involved in other countries besides Vietnam, in 1985 we set up the Fund as an independent tax-exempt foundation. Its purpose is to encourage women in science and technology in developing countries.

The Fund has supported a number of activities, such as prizes for women scientists in various countries, scholarships for women students, and occasional conferences. We publish a Newsletter (in English and Spanish) that has readers in over 100 countries.

When we travel in connection with these projects, we often visit schools to present math enrichment lessons. This is a great way to meet people and get beyond the formality that is often a barrier to meaningful international friendship and collaboration. Our experiences with schoolchildren in other countries also contribute to our understanding of pedagogical issues. (Unfortunately, most American educators who write about math education have observed classrooms only in the U.S., and so lack a broader perspective.)

One of our most memorable school visits was to a school in Cape Town for Xhosa children (the largest Black African ethnic group in the Cape Province). A Xhosa mathematician at UWC named Loyiso Nongxa helped by translating and expanding upon our explanations of the math enrichment topics. At one point he couldn't help laughing — he had heard one of the children comment that "this American sure speaks good Xhosa!" As he explained to us, the kids found it easier to imagine that a Black American visitor spoke unaccented Xhosa than that a member of their tribal group had become a professional mathematician.

One of the rewarding aspects of our travels is the opportunity to get to know some remarkable women. Several such friendships have grown out of Ann's participation in three congresses of the Third World Organization of Women in Science (in Trieste in 1988, Cairo in 1993, and Cape Town in 1999). One example out of many is the Ghanaian physicist Aba Andam. After receiving her Ph.D. in nuclear physics in Great Britain (where she was the only woman in her department), she returned to Ghana to find that her theoretical training had little relevance to the problems of her country. She re-tooled and, along with her students, has been going around Ghana taking baseline measurements of pollutants such as radon gas in mines, dormitories, public buildings, and villages.

We combine our Kovalevskaia Fund activities with other interests when we travel — talking with mathematical colleagues (Neal), gathering data on gender issues (Ann), and snorkeling (both of us). For instance, in 1997 in Malawi, in addition to academic activities, we spent a few days on Lake Malawi, which probably offers the best freshwater snorkeling in the world.

Sometimes even the non-recreational part of our travels is so interesting that between ourselves we speak of the "Kovalevskaia Fun," omitting the final `d'. For example, in 1989 we visited Pnom Penh at the invitation of the Cambodian delegates to a women in science meeting the Fund had sponsored in Hanoi in 1987. Our visit happened to coincide with a gala celebration of the 10th anniversary of the ouster of Pol Pot, and we turned out to be almost the only Western "representatives" in town for the occasion. We were treated as if the Kovalevskaia Fund were a small country. The Prime Minister greeted Ann (our "chief of delegation") on the tarmac when our plane landed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs put us in a hotel with the diplomatic delegations from Angola, Nicaragua, and Mozambique. The morning of the main festivities we were on the reviewing platform for an extravagant parade: we had the best possible seats for the world-famous Khmer dancers.

Perhaps the most surreal moment occurred during a group excursion to a crocodile farm on the outskirts of Pnom Penh. Mongolia's ambassador to Indochina mentioned to us that it was unfortunate that the Mongolians had not been invited to send someone to the Hanoi conference of women scientists — the slight was still rankling him two years later. In her politest Russian (which was the common language she had with him), Ann assured him that, as far as the Kovalevskaia Fund was concerned, we had fully expected that they would participate. But invitations to the socialist countries had been the responsibility of the Vietnamese. So it was the Vietnamese, not the Kovalevskaia Fund, who had unintentionally snubbed the Mongolians. Ann happened to have brought a spare copy of the Proceedings of the conference, which she gave to the Ambassador as an expression of our good will. This "diplomatic" conversation was taking place as we were all making the rounds of the crocodiles.

The Kovalevskaia Fund has had a high profile in Vietnam since 1987, when our women and science conference was featured on the national TV news and the participants were brought to the Presidential Palace to meet with the legendary Pham Van Dong, who was then Prime Minister. The Kovalevskaia Prizes are well known throughout the country. In fact, if a name-recognition poll were conducted in Vietnam for all foundations, the Kovalevskaia Fund would easily beat out the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

Not everyone agrees with everything the Kovalevskaia Fund does. Some have said, for example, that it's unfair to offer a prize only for women; we should give another prize for men. Our response to this has been that the Kovalevskaia Fund's purpose is to support women in science, but that this does not preclude offering a prize for men. Such a prize could be for the husband of a scientist who is most supportive of his wife's career. A local women's group could organize the competition, which would include a cooking and cleaning contest for the men. Unfortunately, when we suggested this possibility in Peru, no one wanted to take us up on it.

All of our projects depend upon the enthusiasm and dedication of the local people, who have the burden (with no remuneration from us) of organizing and administering them. Thus, an idea that might appeal to our fancy but does not seem appropriate to them (e.g., prizes for househusbands of scientists) will never be attempted. We do not impose an alien agenda on anyone.

Since we rely on a large commitment of time and energy by local people, occasionally we have had to discontinue projects in a country because of changing conditions there. For example, in 1998 we stopped giving Kovalevskaia Prizes for university researchers in Peru. Several members of the Prize Committee had left the universities or were working at two jobs. The Peruvian government's financial support of the universities had diminished (a consequence of the ideology of "privatization"), and morale had declined among academics. There was simply no one left to organize the Prize competition.

There are occasional setbacks, and even in the best of circumstances the accomplishments of the Fund are hard to pin down. There's an intangible aspect of what the Fund does in boosting the morale of women scientists who often work in extremely unfavorable conditions and in helping them to feel less isolated.

The amount of money that we and others have invested in the Fund is relatively modest. On our part it's essentially the income we get from miscellaneous sources — royalties for books and Ann's $5000 consultant's fee that the U.N. paid for a cross-national comparison of women in science for the volume World's Women. Even from a purely selfish point of view, it's well worth it: we learn a lot, enjoy ourselves, and get to know some wonderful people in farflung parts of the world.