Student Essay Contest

A Mathematician Receives a Warm Welcome in a Free Society – Dr. Tatiana Shubin

2004 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the 6th-8th Grade Category

By Jacqueline My Anh Tran

Dr. Tatiana Shubin left a repressive Soviet Union only to receive a warm welcome in the free society of the United States. Her well-developed background in mathematics was a key to her survival and eventual integration into United States society as a citizen. Dr. Tatiana Shubin says, “mathematics is very sublime, and it is one of the most powerful of the sciences.” Further, she believes that “while it is a universal language that allows dialogue, or conversation, within and across the borders of sciences, it also allows specialized communication across the borders of human nationalities and races.” Being a universal language, “it can be communicated around the world and possibly even with extraterrestrial intelligences.” She chose the field of mathematics for her life career because of its inherent structure and beauty. It became, for her, a viable mechanism enabling her survival in a new land.
Dr. Shubin was born in the Ukraine, a country that was part of the former USSR. Dr. Shubin’s father, a forensic criminologist, and her mother, a lawyer, were also born near the same area. She lived in the Ukraine until she was ten years old. Her father wanted to teach at the university level, and he was accepted for posts in both Minsk in Belarus and Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. Before making their decision as to which position to accept, her parents did something very startling -– they asked her which location she preferred. At the time, she was reading an exciting book about Central Asia where Alma-Ata was located, a region of great, natural beauty. Swayed by her interest, the family decided to move there.
Dr. Shubin has encountered significant ethnic bias during her life. Her father’s bloodline religion and ethnicity were Jewish, while her mother’s nationality was Russian. In the USSR, there was a terrible, systemic, and repressive bias against ethnic and religious minorities and especially against all intellectual and political dissidents. These repressions during the totalitarian regimes of Nikita Krushchevand Leonid Brezhnev caused her to question authority and to ultimately seek freedom.
Dr. Shubin’s interest in mathematics began when she was in the first grade. Her grandfather gave her two mathematical problems to solve. The first question was: “If you had an ash tree with two hundred apples in it and a maple tree right next to the ash tree with three hundred apples, how many apples did you have in all?” She answered “five hundred apples.” But instead, she was supposed to say “none” because neither ash trees nor maple trees grow apples. The second question was: “If there is a wine bottle and you want to find the weight of the wine without the bottle, how would you do it?” Dr. Shubin gave a very silly answer at the time, since she was in the first grade. She replied, “you have to dry the wine and then you can weigh it.” Instead of running away from her mistakes, she was motivated to learn more about mathematics and problem solving.
One day in Alma-Ata, while reading the newspaper, Dr. Shubin came across some posed mathematical problems. If you solved the problems correctly and sent them in, you could participate in an on-going contest. She sent in her answers, and in a week or so, she received a letter that stated she was able to participate in the All Siberian Mathematics Competition. To complete the second-level competition, she went to a special school where each competitor was sent to a different room to complete the examination. She passed the second level, taking first place at her grade level, and was invited to a small town near Novosibirsk, called the “Science Town.”
She went to the “Science Town” during the summer along with three hundred other talented children who ranged from the 7th grade to the 11th grade. After the beginning of the third week, she was invited to be a student in a “special” boarding school, which had math and science lectures. In addition, the children attending the “special” school were allowed to choose a research institution with a field of math or science in which they preferred to work a few hours a week after school. Dr. Shubin chose the chemistry institution where she worked and was treated as an equal. At this time she was in the 8th grade. Although she enjoyed studying there, her parents missed her dearly and they lured her home by letting her skip a grade. She took that opportunity and returned home to her parents. While there was some initial resistance by school administrators to her skipping into the 10th grade, the resistance was overcome when she proved she could do the work. She graduated from high school early at the age of sixteen.
She then went to Moscow State University, which was one of the best universities in the former USSR. This was the university from which she eventually received her Bachelor’s degree. Moscow State University was a five-year school, but at the end of her fifth year she was kicked out of the university. One of the charges against her was that she had never participated in any school activities related to politics. Dr. Shubin has always been a strong woman of conscience. When questioned by the school authorities about her non-participation in politics, she told them that as a citizen, she has the right not to vote! Their reply was that as a member of the Young Communists League she had to participate. She refused to participate and was expelled. When she was not able to finish her 5th year at Moscow State University, she returned to her hometown of Alma-Ata and entered Kazakh State University where she earned a Master’s degree in mathematics. After graduating from Kazakh State University, she moved to Leningrad, where she lived for two years.
At a time when few people were allowed to leave the USSR, she left by obtaining a letter of invitation from “somebody” in Israel. After permission was granted to leave, she had a one-way ticket to exit. She had truly mixed feelings about leaving because she did not believe that she would ever see her parents again. After making her way to Vienna, Austria, nine months later she and her three year old daughter were flown to Los Angeles by the Tolstoy Foundation, an organization for the needy founded by Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of one of Russia’s most celebrated authors. She arrived in the United States in 1978.
Tatiana arrived in Ojai, California with no knowledge of English but was received warmly and enthusiastically. She had at last found freedom! Not long after settling in Ojai she learned of the University of California at Santa Barbara, which was not far away. She went there to investigate employment and possible further education. Proving that mathematics is a universal language, her meager knowledge of English was no deterrent to continuing her graduate mathematical education. After taking some examinations she was readily accepted into the Ph.D. program, where she specialized in discrete mathematics – both algebra and combinatorics. After completing her Ph.D. she taught for two years at the University of California at Davis and then proceeded to San José State University in 1985 as a lecturer. Today she is a tenured associate professor of the Department of Mathematics at San José State University.
Shortly after her arrival at San José State University, she created mathematical meetings for high school students, but unfortunately, this program ended within two years because there was not enough participation. Six years ago, word spread that there were people interested in creating a Mathematical Circle in the San Francisco Bay Area. Based on her experiences, Dr. Shubin was hesitant at such an innovation but when people started volunteering to help, she felt more confident that San José Math Circles would last for quite a while. The San José Math Circle has flourished and helped develop a three-time gold medallist in the International Mathematics Olympiad.
Dr. Shubin has two children: a daughter, 29 and a son, 13. Her daughter is a gifted medical illustrator and artist while her son is a talented 8th grader at Joaquin Miller Middle School in San José, California.
One of her great passions is a love for rocks – for their simple natural beauty. Her most treasured are two highly polished and meaningful rocks given to her by a friend. The larger of the two rocks represents the teacher and the smaller rock symbolizes the student. The teacher tries to impart all the knowledge, understanding and wisdom he/she knows to the student. When the student becomes a knowledgeable mature teacher, he/she will pass on the small rock to another person who most likely will become a successful teacher. One day, she will have the opportunity to pass the rocks on, and this will be a memorable occasion.
Dr. Shubin’s strong will prevented her from giving up when she was still experiencing repression in the former USSR. She sought out the alternatives and has become a stronger, more hopeful person, mathematician and teacher. Through her trials she has learned that life is not as easy as we might wish it to be. But she knows that when you develop and maintain strong ideals, focusing on your goals toward the good, success will often follow. While there are always obstacles in the path to acquiring knowledge and success in life, she has demonstrated that patience and perseverance will overcome them.
Mathematical knowledge was key to Dr. Shubin’s survival and success. We may never really know how difficult her journey in life has been, but we do know that her departure from the former USSR as part of the diaspora was that country’s loss and our country’s gain. As a United States citizen, accomplished mathematician, and gifted teacher, she inspires all of us.
About the student: My name is Jacqueline My Anh Tran, and I am a seventh grader at Chaboya Middle School in San José, California. I have a strong interest in both mathematics and science. During the past year I participated in the Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology Championship where I received second place in my division and first place from the American Society of Civil Engineers for my project, “The Optimal Design of Truck Escape Ramps.” I am a regular participant of the San José Math Circle where I continually experience Dr. Shubin’s guidance and exemplary teaching.