Carol Walker’s father may not have dreamed what the future had in store for her, but when little Carol was in elementary school, her dad introduced her to mathematics.
“My father used to teach me the sine squared plus the cosine squared equals 1,” Walker said. “I had no idea what it meant, but I didn’t question it.”
Years later Walker would not only learn what it meant, but also would become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at New Mexico State University. She was the second graduate student to earn a Ph.D. in math.
In 1963, her career took off. Walker’s mathematics research spanned seven decades, meanwhile publishing 10 books, numerous articles and serving as the department head of mathematical sciences at NMSU for 14 years.
“Carol Walker got a Ph.D. in mathematics at a time when likely 1% of mathematics Ph.D.s were female,” said John Harding, NMSU mathematical sciences department head. “She had a distinguished research career, was the department head in math for many years and was instrumental in transforming the department to three times its size.”
So far, Walker is the only woman to have headed NMSU’s math department.
Although her legacy is in mathematics, Walker’s interests in high school were physics and music. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school and earned a Regents Scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder. However, she didn’t pursue a math degree.
“I decided to study music education, majoring in piano,” Walker said. “Being a woman in the 1950’s, I thought that getting a degree in physics, and not being able to use it, might be too frustrating. An education degree was ‘just in case.’”
Walker met her first husband, a French horn player, at UC Boulder. A year after they were married, he was drafted. He died during a training exercise. After she was widowed, Walker completed her degree in music education.
While at UC Boulder, she met the author of “1 2 3 Infinity,” George Gamow. His book inspired Walker’s curiosity to learn more about mathematics. After a period of reading math books and teaching herself, Walker went to Denver College to take an algebra placement exam. After the exam she asked if she could take the trigonometry placement exam as well, just to see what it was about. She’d never studied it.
“The monitor graded it and said I didn’t pass, but if I could do that much without studying it, I could fill it in as I went along.”
At UC Denver, Walker went on to study calculus and physics and decided to apply to a master’s program. She chose NMSU because her friend bought a new encyclopedia, which said NMSU was offering a Ph.D. in mathematics.
“Just my luck. I wanted a school that was within driving distance of my family,” Walker said. “I was also attracted to the location because of the spicy food and warm weather.”
Walker’s brother, Darel Hardy, helped her move to Las Cruces and ended up transferring to NMSU himself and earning three degrees.
Her NMSU adviser was math professor Elbert Walker. She showed him transcripts from her music education degree. He was unimpressed, but after seeing her math and physics coursework, suggested she try a graduate level math course to find out if she could make it or not. She did.
After earning her Ph.D., she married Walker. The two were offered NSF Fellowships to the Institute for Advanced Study. When they returned, she was offered a position as an assistant professor at NMSU. Carol and Elbert Walker continued to teach in NMSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences for decades.
“As a professor, the most important thing was trying to make my students independent thinkers.” she said.
Music never stopped being part of Walker’s life. She received a scholarship at NMSU to play piano for the University Singers and also played in the university orchestra for many years.
In fall 2020 on her 85th birthday, NMSU honored Walker as the university’s first female Ph.D. with a plaque and drive-by celebration (due to pandemic restrictions) at her home in Las Cruces.
“Dr. Carol Walker is not only a role model for women, but also for any students who might be reluctant to take a chance at pursuing a career in STEM fields,” said Enrico Pontelli, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “As a land-grant university, we welcome all students and strive to help them to achieve their personal best. We have many first-generation students who are breaking barriers and making their dreams come true every year.”
In the 1960s, Walker didn’t consider herself a pioneer. “It wasn’t something people thought about that much at the time,” she said. “What I remember was there were 100 graduate students and I was the only woman. It was a lot of fun.”