NMSU’s first woman to earn a Ph.D. had transformative mathematics career

When Carol Walker applied to study for her doctorate degree in mathematics at NMSU, her music degree didn’t impress her adviser in the mathematics department.

Professor Elbert Walker asked Carol Hardy, as she was known then, to try her hand at a graduate level math course to see if she had what it took. Her performance convinced him. In 1963, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at NMSU, and only the second person to earn a Ph.D. in math.

“Carol Walker got a Ph.D. in mathematics at a time when likely one percent of mathematics Ph.D.s were women,” says 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.”

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.

“I decided to study music education, majoring in piano,” Walker says. “Being a woman in the 1950s, 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.’”

After earning her Ph.D.in mathematics, she married Elbert Walker. The pair 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 says.

Her research spanned seven decades. She published 10 books, numerous articles and served as the department head of mathematical sciences at NMSU for 14 years.

In the 1960s, Walker didn’t consider herself a pioneer. “It wasn’t something people thought about that much at the time.”

On her 85th birthday in August 2020, NMSU honored Walker with a plaque and drive-by celebration at her home in Las Cruces, due to pandemic restrictions.

“Dr. Carol Walker is not only a role model for women, but also for any student who might be reluctant to take a chance at pursuing a career in STEM fields,” says Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Minerva Baumann ’13

Top: Carol Walker holds the award she received from NMSU honoring her as the university’s first female Ph.D. Walker earned her doctorate in mathematics in 1963.