Kamuela E Yong

Bringing Community Together: Indigenous Mathematicians Co-Founder, Kamuela Yong 

It wasn’t until his senior year of college that Dr. Kamuela Yong realized he wanted to be a mathematician. Though he’d been on the math team in high school and had always loved the discipline, “I just never really thought I could have a career in math. I had no idea what mathematicians do,” he reflected. In college, he studied civil engineering at Loyola Marymount University. After taking some math classes – and then a lot more – he double majored in civil engineering and applied mathematics. For his senior thesis, he worked with a professor on a mathematical modeling project. “This really showed me I can use my creativity to apply math to problems in the real world,” he reflected. His thesis opened his eyes to the idea that scientific research could be fun. At that moment, he decided to pursue a PhD, but still hadn’t decided whether it would be in math or engineering. After much discussion with his advisors, he ended up pursuing a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Iowa.

“I realized as an applied mathematician, I didn’t have to be an engineer. I could do applied math models on conservation of endangered species, I could study diseases. It’s limitless,” he said. 

Though he loved math, his PhD program wasn’t an easy path. “I started graduate school and found myself in over my head. The first week of class covered everything I learned in undergrad. I started reflecting: do I belong here?” He felt alone in more ways than one. “As I started going to conferences as a graduate student, I realized there was no one who looked like me. The field of math is mostly white,” Yong reflected. Though he was welcomed into math communities by other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), these felt like “borrowed spaces,” he said. In fact, when he earned his PhD in 2012, he became the first Native Hawaiian to earn a PhD in applied mathematics. Since graduate school, he has spent much of his career supporting fellow Indigenous people pursuing degrees and careers in mathematics. 

“I didn’t experience racism in academia in the same ways a lot of people did, I was viewed as a novelty,” he said. “I would be introduced as the first Native Hawaiian to get a PhD in applied math, but not by name sometimes. And not who I am as a mathematician. I was viewed as a token, not as an academic.” 

He has supported Indigenous people in mathematics in several ways. Last year, he co-founded Indigenous Mathematicians. The idea started in 2019, when Yong and Dr. Rebecca Garcia organized a panel of Pacific Islanders in mathematics at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference. “It was a very powerful moment that will live with me forever,” Yong reflected. After the panel, a group of Pacific Islander mathematicians had dinner and decided to create a community which would eventually be extended to all Indigenous people in the field. The Covid-19 pandemic struck soon thereafter, so they organized online. First, the group wanted to identify other Indigenous mathematicians. It was a very grassroots effort. “I went through websites of all math departments in the Pacific and found people who had Polynesian names or mentioned it in their bio,” said Yong. “Then I started a spreadsheet, and it started to grow. People would recommend other people from Canada to Australia. Now I have just under 40 people with a doctorate in the mathematical sciences.” 

In addition to building community for Indigenous mathematicians, he is working to integrate Indigenous knowledge into his undergraduate math courses. He is currently a professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, West Oʻahu, where about 30% of students on campus are Pacific Islander. His undergraduate pre-calculus course is taught through the perspective of Polynesian navigation, like “looking for signs to indicate you are approaching land such as clouds that form over land, land-based seabirds, or changes in swells refracting off land. Then once they are interested in the problem, I introduce the math that determines when an island first appears over the horizon.” He is currently trying to redesign his curriculum to include more place-based and culture-based knowledge in the classroom. “When you have a group that is very underrepresented, you never know what you’re missing out on.” 

In addition to his work supporting Indigenous students and mathematicians, Yong values spending time with his family. “I always make sure to carve out days where I’m devoted to being there for my son and my wife. That really helps me keep going knowing that sometimes I need to set aside what I’m doing to be there for them.” 

Meet more Indigenous Mathematicians here

Author Bio: Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Métis) is a freelance writer and public health researcher passionate about health equity in Native communities, particularly for justice-involved community members. She earned her Master’s in Public Health in 2020 and grew up in Montana.

This article is supported by the generous support of the Tensor SUMMA Grant! Thank you!