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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Expectations Defied: The Algebraic Journey of Raman Parimala

If you have been reading this series over the years, you’re used to a particular narrative sequence: (1) Brilliant woman researcher establishes herself, with a good reputation and a solid position at an institution of renown. (2) Brilliant woman researcher gets married to a man whose work is in a different city/country. (3) Brilliant woman researcher moves with husband to that new city/country, where there are no significant jobs in her field, and she spends the subsequent decades doing part-time work on the fringes of her discipline, which proceeds to pass her by without a second thought.

So often do we see this pattern in the history of women in science, that we have come to expect it, and gird ourselves instinctively for the coming tragedy whenever we come to the part of a scientist’s biography that mentions their marriage to Eminent Professor X or Travelling Salesman Y. But every so often, the best instincts of human nature win, genius is recognised, and our expectations are subverted by spouses who place the support and nurturing of their wives’ profound gifts ahead of their own egos or immediate career goals.

This was decidedly the case for the husband of the brilliant algebraist Raman Parimala (b. 1948), who, when he saw how relocating had hurt Parimala’s mathematical career, undertook to give up his job and move to the city that would best support her continued world-class work. As remarkable as that sacrifice was, however, it was not Parimala’s first experience with the goodness of humanity standing out against the inertia of societal expectations.

She was born on 21 November 1948 in Mayiladuthurai, a town approximately 175 miles distant from Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This was a fateful time in India, which had achieved independence from Great Britain just sixteen months before Parimala’s birth, and which bore the recent scars of the turmoil that resulted from the India–Pakistan partition of 1947. Passions were high, and while many doubled down on religious and ethnic identities, and the traditional roles associated with them, others saw the transition as an opportunity to create a more equitable future, free from the restrictions of the past. Parimala’s father, a professor of English Literature, was one such figure, and he actively encouraged his daughter’s passion for mathematics, sending her to the Sarada Vidyalaya Girls’ High School in Chennai. This was one of the institutions founded by the great Indian social reformer R.S. Subbalakshmi (1886–1969), who spent the early years of the twentieth century establishing organisations that fought against some of the reigning restrictions on women’s education and social equality, including the Lady Willingdon Training College and Practice School, various ladies’ clubs, schools for adult women, social welfare centres, and the Sarada Vidyalaya (founded either 1921 or 1927).

Subbalakshmi was married while she was still a child, but the early death of her husband left her free to pursue her education at the university, and she fought the rest of her life to make sure other young women in India had the same opportunity. Parimala benefited from the pioneering efforts of Subbalakshmi, received an excellent education, and encouragement to continue on with her studies, attending Stella Maris, a women’s college which had only been founded in 1947, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1968, and her master’s in 1970. While at Stella Maris, her goal was to simply get her degree and move on to a teaching position at the college, but one of her teachers there, Professor Thangamani, believed so heavily in her mathematical brilliance that she refused to let the college consider Parimala’s teaching application, effectively shoving her for her own good into applying to doctorate programs elsewhere.

Parimala began her doctoral career at the Ramanujan Institute of the University of Madras, but after one year transferred to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a scientific research institution founded in 1945 working under the umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy. She worked in the group of the algebraist Ramaiyengar Sridharan (b. 1935) and was soon displaying mathematical abilities in the realm of algebra that startled her older, more experienced co-workers. She was all set up to join the Tata faculty upon receiving her PhD in 1976, when she married a man who worked as the chief internal auditor for the Board of Internal Trade in Tanzania, a country which itself had just emerged into independence a decade and a half earlier. While Tanzania was more stable than other former colonial territories in the 1970s, under the comparatively idealistic dictatorship of Julius Nyerere, its capital of Dar-es-Salaam, where Parimala moved with her husband in 1976, was not precisely a world capital of mathematical research.

Her career suffered in the absence of the colleagues and robust research libraries that were the great necessities of a mathematical researcher in the pre-Internet age, and her husband was not long in noticing that Parimala’s mind was going to waste in this new environment. She was offered a prestigious post-doctoral position at the University of Lausanne in Zurich, Switzerland, an institution which had been in continuous existence since 1537, and her husband agreed to give up his post in Tanzania so that she could take the job. This was the start of her meteoric rise to the first rank of the world’s algebraists, anchored by her early feat of developing the first example of a non-trivial quadratic space over an affine plane. (A quadratic space is basically a vector space V, and a set of elements A, with a rule Q for mapping elements of V to a single element of A which states that, for any v in V, and a in A, Q(av) = a^2 Q(v). Parimala found an example of one where A is an affine plane, i.e. a plane that is like a Euclidean plane, but has been stripped of all notions of measuring length or angle size.)

Since that impressive entry into the consciousness of the global mathematical community, Parimala has studied a variety of topics in algebra, toppling long-standing conjectures and solving others. She has worked with Witt groups, the Hasse principle, Galois algebras, torsors, Clifford algebras, and most recently with the Grothendieck-Serre Conjecture. After her time at Switzerland, she returned to the Tata Institute, where she carried out her research until moving to Atlanta’s Emory University in 2005, a move which gave her more opportunities to teach the next generation of mathematicians, and which placed her closer to her son in New York. In 2010, she was made the plenary speaker for the International Congress of Mathematicians, a signal honour capping four decades of brilliant work across the algebraic domain.

Today, at age 73, she continues to teach at Emory while serving as a judge for some of mathematics’ most prestigious prizes, including the Infosys Prize, and the Abel Prize. In 2020, she was recognised by the government of India as one of eleven Indian women scientists who would have a Chair named in their honour, cementing forever in the memory of her country the name of the woman who, born during the heady, chaotic days of her nation’s modern becoming, went on to embody in her own person the spirit of that new country, full on the promise of its coming future, enhanced by the participation of all of its people.


If you want read more stories about women in mathematics like this, you can pre-order my A History of Women in Mathematics from Pen and Sword Books, due out October 2023!


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