Student standing with three faculty members after dissertation

Student becomes PSU’s first Native Ph.D. in math

By The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Benjamin Quanah Parker just successfully defended his dissertation, making him the first Native student to earn his Ph.D. in mathematical sciences at PSU and only the second in the Math + Stats department. Estrella Johnson graduated in 2013 with a Ph.D. in mathematics education and is now an associate professor at Virginia Tech.

Ben (Squaxin, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, Cree, Shoshone-Bannock) says it still hasn’t sunk in. 

“When they told me I was a doctor, it was surreal. I was in disbelief. I still am at times.”

Ben’s family and committee at his dissertation defense

On why representation matters

During the pandemic, Ben started a list of Indigenous master’s and Ph.D. recipients. It became a source of motivation and inspiration when he needed it most in his final push of grad school. 

“It was important to know that I wasn’t alone,” he said. “These people did it, and so could I.”

It wasn’t easy to compile. Indigenous mathematicians were few and far between, so he broadened his search. He knows he, too, can serve as an inspiration for other students, be it at PSU or elsewhere.

“I feel like I have to set an example or carve a path out for other people so that they can do this. There’s a little pressure there, but it’s important that someone does it. It’s nice to know that someone’s gotten through it.”

On having support networks

Though he was fortunate to have family and friends in and around the metro region, Ben says the Native American Student and Community Center also served as a safe space for him to decompress and escape the grind of classes and research. 

“It was a place where I could get grounded, relax, be myself, talk through things and relate to other people in the struggle,” he said. 

Ben celebrates with his mom, left, and grandma

On getting through the pandemic

The isolation of the pandemic was a huge adjustment for him, especially not knowing when he would see his family again. Some things that helped: scheduling time on Sundays to Zoom with his family, gardening, painting with his roommate, honing his cooking skills and binge-watching “The Great British Bake-Off.”

“One thing I learned is that when I’m feeling down and out about things or feel stuck in a rut, I try to force myself to keep my hands busy,” he said. “My mind is not doing anything, but I have to do something to keep myself distracted.”

Toward the end of 2020, Ben says that a lot of his stressors started to build up to the point where it became nearly impossible to focus on anything. He took a three-month leave of absence — and it was just what he needed. 

“It’s OK to take time off; it’s OK to delay your journey.”

He returned in January and ramped back up.

Ben presents during his dissertation defense

On the importance of self-care

He says grad school burnout is real — “between classes, teaching, and research, you have to switch roles constantly and that can wear you down really fast” — so making self-care a priority is important.

“Your work isn’t your life or a measure of your self-worth. There’s so much more you can do and experience. How are you kind to yourself? How do you treat yourself for the little victories throughout the day? 

Advice for prospective and current grad students

“The healthiest thing you can do in grad school is to set boundaries around when you work and when you take time for yourself throughout the day, especially in the times we’re in now. It’s easier said than done, but it’s something that gets better with practice.”

On what’s next

After a much-deserved break, he’ll start a new job at Intel as a software research and development engineer at the end of January.

Visit Indigenous Mathematicians to read more about Native peoples’ journeys in math.

About the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences: We’re Portland State’s largest and most diverse college, with 24 departments spanning the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.




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