Student Essay Contest

Math is More Than Just Numbers: Biography of Professor Jenny Baglivo

2010 AWM Essay Contest: Middle School Level Winner

By: Ada Li, Walter S. Parker Middle School, Reading, MA

Boston College Professor Jenny Baglivo, who has overcome obstacles that only the most hardworking, determined and motivated woman can take on, sat down with me in her office Tuesday, about 300 yards from the very stadium where Doug Flutie threw his famous touchdown passes.
“I just wanted to go and went,” she said. If only everyone could have this kind of self-motivation. But for Jenny Baglivo, this kind of motivation and determination was something she possessed before she even knew her multiplication tables. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1948, Professor Baglivo’s family hails from Italy. Her grandparents immigrated to New York, and her family was rather poor. Her father worked as a watch repairer and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Jenny loved math with all her heart and soul; she enrolled in an old-fashioned Catholic school. She always showed potential in math, and sometimes even found herself tutoring her own classmates. “Others came to me for help,” she said. One of four children, she was the only one in the family, including her parents, to attend college. Because of both the financial condition of the family and Jenny’s young accomplishments, she soon found herself with a scholarship to Fordham University.
“One plus one equals two.” This was my very first impression of math, what I believed math was all about. All through elementary and middle school, math to me was numbers, symbols, theories, equations, and formulas. Math meant maintaining an A+ by spending time every night solving equations and algebraic expressions, and studying for tests. Mathematics stood as a mere class in school, a subject that I was required to take in school.
But this was only true before I met Professor Jenny Baglivo. Now math acts as a way of looking at the world, a way of attacking problems that are significant, and a way of thinking that the majority of people enjoy.
“I got lucky. I was one of those success stories,” says Professor Baglivo. She had a smooth ride throughout school, always becoming one of the brightest pupils. However once she was in college, and later while working for her Ph.D. at Syracuse University, she had to prove herself. “The atmosphere wasn’t as comfortable.” Some might get discouraged; some may say, “Forget about it,” but not Professor Baglivo.
She said, “Finally, I’m challenged!” Working for her Ph.D. she hit a wall, but she loved how it wasn’t a breeze anymore. She worked for it, rightfully earned her Ph.D., and found herself teaching at Fairfield University.
Just like me and everyone else, Professor Baglivo started out learning what she likes to call “pure” math — the everyday mathematics. However when her mother’s sister suffered from lung cancer, she realized something. Very few people were involved with the research. She felt the need to get more people involved with things that really mattered. She took a leave from her teaching job to work at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and since then has been interested in biostatistics.
Jenny says, “When it comes to math, everyone thinks of pure math.” This is true, with Professor Baglivo as an exception. From her perspective there are really three areas of mathematics: pure math, applied math, and statistics.
Baglivo believes that working with so many people from a variety of different fields of study created the many opportunities she possesses today. She has degrees in both math and computer science.
Jenny told me that she has known what she wanted to be for a long, long time. She says that in order to become successful as a mathematician “you have to really love your subject. For me, it was clear from day one.” She always had her eyes on the prize. She had many other job opportunities besides teaching, including working with NASA, the Atomic Energy Commission and Sloan-Kettering. “But it just didn’t measure up with what I really wanted,” she said.
When not reading, traveling, cooking, visiting family and friends, and listening to music, Professor Jenny Baglivo is always giving one hundred percent commitment to her students and her writing projects. It brings her joy to see students going through the process from a look of confusion to an “Oh! Now I get it!” She feels that it is very important to build the bridge between mathematical theories and practices. To her, there’s barely ever math by itself in the everyday world.
And going even beyond that she has written her own books, feeling that others that were previously written didn’t contain enough to bring both theory and practice together. “In other words, math isn’t just about numbers. It’s about applying math in everyday life.”
Her students, with such a determined professor that was stopped by no odds, will no doubt be successful in the future. “You have to truly love it. No parent, teacher, or professor can change or alter that.” This is her advice to girls who are interested in pursuing a career path in mathematics. “For me, it just seemed like the natural way to go. As I went along, different doors opened.”
About student:
My name is Ada Li and I am currently in seventh grade. I attend W.S. Parker Middle School in Reading, MA. I was introduced to Professor Baglivo through my uncle, who is also a math professor at Boston College. I am in the honors algebra math class in my school. Math is my favorite subject in school, but I also enjoy English. I am a member of the school math team. My favorite type of math is geometry. When not busy with school, I find myself dancing, swimming, reading, or playing piano and violin.