Student Essay Contest

A Moment with Vera Pless

2001 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in Graduate School Category

By Susan D’Agostino

It is fitting that coding theorists speak of “Pless power moments” – for Dr. Vera Pless is a woman who has filled every moment of her life in a very powerful way. She has traveled as far as Korea, Israel, Australia and China to collaborate on math research and to speak at math conferences and seminars. She has written over 120 papers and a popular coding theory textbook Introduction to the Theory of Error-Correcting Codes (3rd ed., Wiley, 1998), co-edited the whopping 2169-page Handbook of Coding Theory, and is currently finishing an advanced coding theory textbook with W. C. Huffman. She has worked as a pure mathematician at the Cambridge Air Force Research Laboratory, as a full professor at the University of Illinois…and she even found time to raise three children!
One conversation with Dr. Pless reveals a woman who is as friendly and engaging as she is unaffected by the dramatic impact she has had in the field of coding theory. Her claim that that she has just been having fun is one of the most becoming features of both her personality and her story.
As the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, her parents were eager for her to take advantage of the educational opportunities that existed for her in the United States. Due to her intellectual gifts, her formal education was accelerated. Her father encouraged her to leave high school after two years so that she could pursue a “great books” program at the University of Chicago. She followed his advice despite the fact that it meant forgoing the opportunity to be the first cello in her high school orchestra. She graduated from the University of Chicago in three years and subsequently pursued an M.A. at her alma mater. Dr. Pless is quite candid about the fact that she had no career aspirations early on. Her path was serendipitous rather than deliberate. One almost gets the sense that math chose her, rather than the other way around.
After earning her MA, she accepted a job with a physics group at the University of Chicago. It was at this time that she got married. Soon after, she was offered a fellowship to the Ph.D. program in math at Northwestern University. She decided to attend because the salary was comparable to what she had been earning and she thought that studying math would be more enjoyable than her work in the physics group. When her husband was offered a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the social norms of the 1950’s dictated that the couple would move to Cambridge together. Completing her degree long-distance kept her busy while she was pregnant. She defended her dissertation two weeks before her first child was born and then settled into the expected role of a wife and homemaker. Her foray into math all could have ended there.
A few years later, however, Dr. Pless realized that she would be a better and happier wife, mother and individual if she were to work outside of the home in the field in which she was trained. Family finances were tight, and she knew she could contribute if she were to get a job. In addition, her mind was yearning for the stimulation that she remembered from graduate school. At the time, there were no laws prohibiting gender discrimination in academic institutions and some schools did not disguise their reluctance to hire female mathematicians. Before she had a chance to get discouraged, however, she learned that the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory was looking for mathematicians to work in a new area called “error-correcting codes.” She had never heard of the field, but she trusted in her ability to learn. Once hired, she discovered the work environment to be lively and subsequently spent ten satisfying years there. She chose to leave when Congress voted to prohibit the Department of Defense from conducting pure research. As she was not interested in using her intellectual abilities for weapons research, she decided to pursue other options.
After leaving the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, Dr. Pless spent three years as a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was also able to gain valuable teaching experience at the M.I.T. which laid the groundwork for a dual career in teaching and research.
Following her position at M.I.T., Dr. Pless accepted an invitation to become a full professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she has remained in this position ever since. She particularly appreciates the high degree of cross-disciplinary interaction afforded her in her department. She interacts regularly with both pure and applied mathematicians, computer scientists, statisticians, math education researchers and works closely with graduate students.
She advises aspiring mathematicians to foster a broad view of the field. “While I consider myself a pure mathematician, some very interesting questions I’ve worked on have been posed by individuals who have been interested in applications,” she notes. Had she not been open to such collaboration, she may have missed valuable opportunities. However, when pressed for specifics regarding how young women mathematicians might organize their lives so that they too can find a satisfying balance between work, play and family, she claims to have no answers. “Everyone is different, there is no formula I can offer.”
If, however, proof by example were a valid construction, Dr. Pless’s story would provide ample evidence for the conjecture that if you remain true to yourself and your interests, then everything else will fall into place. However, until we can rigorously prove this conjecture, may all of your “moments” be as “powerful” as Dr. Pless’s.
About the author: Susan D’Agostino is in her fourth year as a graduate student in the Ph.D. program in mathematics at Dartmouth College. Her research area is coding theory, specifically equivalent and isodual codes. She is advised by Thomas Shemanske. As an undergraduate, it neither crossed her mind nor did anyone suggest that she might pursue math. Instead, she earned a B.A. in anthropology. Several years after college, however, she made a life-changing decision to pursue a Ph.D. degree in mathematics. She started by pursuing the undergraduate math curriculum part-time at night, progressed to pursuing the graduate curriculum full-time, passed her qualifying exams and has since been advanced to candidacy. She considers her decision pursue a Ph.D. in math one of the two best in her life–the other being the decision to marry her husband, Esteban Rubens, a man who has been incredibly supportive throughout her journey.
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM website.