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Black History Month
2019 Honoree

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Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis

Professor

Operations Research and Information Engineering

Senior Associate Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development

College of Engineering

Cornell University

Where are you from?

Niceville, Florida

Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

I have had many influences and mentors through the years. Each helped me continue to progress from where I was to the next phase. My mother and father were (and continue to be) my strongest advocates. When we arrived in Florida from the northeast, they fought to have the schools allow me to work at my own pace. I had a long series of excellent teachers who treated me like they would have any of my white counterparts. I graduated from high school with a solid mathematical base. From there I again found the Mathematics department at Eckerd College to be a place of exciting and deep exploration. At that time, my professors exposed me to research and allowed me to take specialized courses in combinatorics, real analysis, operations research and partial differential equations. I do not know how often the professors there are still able to teach those courses (the classes were small), but for me it was a rich and inclusive environment to learn. In graduate school (at Georgia Tech) I was involved with research year round. My thesis advisors provided the “guided freedom” I needed and the Cooperative Research Fellowship Program at Bell Labs gave me access to some of the world’s premiere researchers in the summers. Lastly, I spent a year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia. After having always been told what the next thing is, my postdoc advisor, pointed me in a direction and set me up for an independent research career.

What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

Each promotion breaks down a new wall. I was the first African-American hired in Industrial Engineering at Michigan, the first tenured in my current department (the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE)), the first African-American Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development in the college of engineering, etc. So, I guess I would say that the proudest professional accomplishment is the latest one. By the way, we have since hired the second African-American in the School of ORIE. I would like to think that my being here in some small way was a catalyst for the second hire.

What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

I married the person whose opinion i respect the most.Virtually every decision I make starts with a consultation with her. We have two daughters whom I hope look up to me.

Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

The study of the mathematical sciences has always broadened opportunities, but with the technological advances of today and in the future, the potential will continue to magnify. Perhaps most importantly, these opportunities are diverse. With a focus on the sciences we can continue to cultivate role models to work in the tech industry, as entrepreneurs, at predominantly white institutions and historically Black universities (to name a few possibilities).
The added challenge of being Black while pursuing a career in the mathematical sciences continues to be real, but it might be good to know that you need not be a pioneer. You are not alone.
On a personal level, while I think most about encouraging African-Americans, if following my path inspires anyone to do anything positive, my struggle is justified.