One of the most recent graduates of the University of Maryland is Dr. Alena Maze, who is believed by members of the academic community to be among the world’s first Black Ph.D. holders in the field of Survey Methodology, if not the very first.
Reflecting on the milestones she has achieved, Dr. Maze said that, from a young age, she was encouraged by her family to take an interest in mathematics.
“I think it’s amazing that it turned out this way. Both my mother and father were mathematicians. My mom played math games with my sisters and me, sang us math lullabies, and sent us to overnight math camps,” Dr. Maze said. “Thinking back on how a mother instilling the love of math in her daughter turned into that daughter becoming the first Black person to earn a degree in a math-centered field—I just feel grateful to get a chance to be a part of a legacy.”
Dr. Maze first became interested in the field of survey methodology while interning at the Centers for Disease Control. She became intrigued with how mathematicians used data to solve health problems. With the encouragement of her colleagues, she enrolled in an initial sampling theory course in the Joint Program in Survey Methodology in BSOS as a non-degree seeking student. She quickly found that she liked the program.
“The program was small and the professors were always available and able to help. My job was right down the street from the college, so I even took classes during my work hours. That spring semester, I applied to the fall program and got in,” Maze said.
Dr. Maze’s dissertation, “Using Commercial List Information in Screening Eligible Housing Units,” addresses the general problem of allocating a household survey based on information from error-prone lists of addresses that are sold commercially.
“A lot of the theoretical work involved deriving variance component formulas. I spent a lot of time writing up and proving math formulas,” Dr. Maze said.
As Dr. Maze has focused so much time on completing her Ph.D., she is taking some time to relax with her family and vacation in Hawaii before moving on to what’s next.
She’ll be sharing her personal and professional journeys with the audience who follows her YouTube channel, MAZELEE, which she started during her Ph.D. program, and focuses on her family and her life. She has more than 2 million subscribers.
“I was able to share my graduate journey with my audience. I plan to continue to share my story with others with the hope to inspire many other people throughout every nation to pursue higher education,” Dr. Maze said.
Dr. Maze said she wanted to earn a Ph.D., in part, so her children could see Black females who had a doctorate.
“I became even more certain that's what I wanted to do when I had my first baby at 19. I really wanted to show people you can do anything, even if you are a teenage mom. And that’s what my goal was: to continue to live my family life as normal, while pursuing my career goals. So I gave birth to all seven of my children throughout my academic career,” Dr. Maze said. “I did it with a lot of help from my family, classmates, colleagues, professors, and friends!”
Despite being actively recruited by prestigious organizations like Facebook and Google, Maze is committed to taking time off to be with her family and to consider all of her future options.
Faculty members in JPSM admire both Dr. Maze’s work, and by her ability to succeed in all areas of her life.
“We were impressed with Alena's intelligence and, especially, her tenacity and determination in completing the degree,” said Research Professor Emeritus Richard Valliant.
Along the way, Dr. Maze was supported by the department and by the college. She received financial support that was gained with the assistance of Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kim Nickerson.
“During the time I received additional financial support, I was able to stop working at my job in order to focus fully on my degree. I was able to focus on my academic work without feeling the pressure of working full-time and going full time, while all the while supporting my family. I’m very grateful for that support, and think it was the turning point in my studies,” Dr. Maze said.
“I remember Dr. Maze’s application—and Professor Valliant and JPSM’s advocacy for her—quite well. We provided Diversity Recruitment Supplement funding for her in 2012, and she deserved every penny of it. She deserved every second of the care and work that went into helping her succeed,” Nickerson said.
Maze, Valliant and Nickerson have all worked to make the field of survey methodology, and JPSM, more diverse and inclusive.
“During my time at the CDC, I gave a presentation at a conference for Black and Brown undergraduate students who were interested in the field of math. I told them, ‘When I was an undergraduate student, I’ve asked many mathematicians, what do you actually do? But no one ever gave me an answer. So today I’m going to give you that answer and show you what mathematicians actually do!’ I talked to them about how the statistical research I was doing could potentially help doctors recognize characteristics of women who may be more likely to have babies preterm, but not realize it due to inaccuracies in their reported last menstrual period,” Dr. Maze said. “At the end of my presentation, I said, ‘Now that’s how we use math. We use data to solve a real problem.’”
Dr. Maze also encouraged JPSM and other departments to actively recruit graduate students from HBCUs, or recruit students from HBCUs to summer programs.
Professor Valliant echoed this idea, and added that this would lead to great career outcomes for students.
“An important selling point for JPSM is that virtually every JPSM grad gets a job in a survey-related field,” Professor Valliant said. “For quite a while, federal agencies were the main employer. Now, tech companies like Google, Facebook, SurveyMonkey, Netflix, and others are very interested in hiring grads who know survey methodology.”
Image courtesy of Dr. Maze. Story originally posted on May 27, 2021.