Student Essay Contest

A Life in the Circle: Tatiana Shubin, Ph.D.

2012 AWM Essay Contest: Middle School Winner

by Lilith Sarkar

The task of finding and interviewing a woman working in mathematics was much easier and more thought-provoking than I imagined. A simple search of the faculty at a local university lead to Dr. Tatiana Shubin, a woman whose accomplishments in math education are astonishing. Born in Ukraine, Dr. Shubin and her family moved to the Republic of Kazakhstan when she was ten. Dr. Shubin attended a boarding school in Siberia that was specifically for children who liked mathematics and physics. After she graduated from Moscow State University, Dr. Shubin lived for two years in Leningrad before she left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1977.
Dr. Shubin’s extended family played an important role in her life. Both her parents were well educated, her mother a lawyer, her father a professor. She shared a four room, one bathroom apartment with her parents, her two sisters, her grandparents, and another family of four. “It wasn’t poverty, but by U.S. standards it was pretty close to poverty. But it was so for everybody.” Dr. Shubin realized very early on that she had a burning passion and curiosity for mathematics. When she was five or six years old, her grandfather gave her two mathematical problems to solve. She failed both, but remembers them still. She became very distressed that she couldn’t figure out those problems that now seemed so simple! It became Dr. Shubin’s goal to be able to solve problems, and to do that, she knew she had to be good at math.
Though there are many careers in mathematics Dr. Shubin could have pursued, she knew from an early age that she wanted to become an educator. In middle school, when she had finished math problems before anyone else, her teacher would have her help other students. Also while in graduate school, she enjoyed being a teaching assistant. Both of these experiences contributed to her professional endeavors.
Mathematics was taught and regarded differently in the Soviet Union. There, people who were good at mathematics were regarded as the most intelligent and clever. Representatives of companies would recruit students, always seeking mathematicians. They believed if they hired an engineer, they would still have to educate the engineer in their subject and corporate culture. A mathematician would be the easiest to educate, as they were the cleverest people. Dr. Shubin reflects being good at math conferred instant popularity in middle school, whereas in the U.S., admitting you are good at mathematics can diminish your social standing. In the Soviet Union, there was no gender bias. In the U.S., mathematics is not one of the subjects at which girls are expected to excel. Girls don’t admit a skill at math for fear of being shunned. Within the profession, however, Dr. Shubin has discovered that though there are few females, she hasn’t experienced gender-bias, finding it is special to be one of those select few.
Dr. Shubin believes the home environment influences a child’s feelings about mathematics. If mathematics is regarded as something inaccessible, even someone with a natural talent for math won’t like it. Students can and will grow to like math only in an environment in which they are challenged. Everyone enjoys a challenge; you’ll never hear someone say that they like a video game because it is so simple. “Unfortunately, the way mathematics is taught pretty often, it is not as something that is exciting, challenging, interesting, requires lots of thinking, teachers doing interesting things,” Dr. Shubin says, “but instead as something that is a collection of recipes from a cookbook, but you are reading these recipes from a cookbook and not even really given the chance to cook with them!” Mathematics is made uninteresting and uninspiring. She suggests it’s no wonder kids don’t want to deal with it, adding that it is not the fault of students, but unfortunately the fault of the educational system. This is one of the reasons Dr. Shubin started various math circles, including a circle for teachers. A Student Math Circle (SMC) is an informal mathematical enrichment experience that fosters a passion for math in pre-collegiate children. A Math Teachers’ Circle (MTC) provides teachers with the opportunity to enhance their intellectual endeavors and their teaching.
As a child, Dr. Shubin participated in learning circles. She greatly enjoyed these circles, so she brought the first SMC to San Jose State University. Dr. Shubin started various SMCs, including an MTC, something that is unique to the U.S. Dr. Shubin is very proud to have been a part of something so widely admired and revolutionary.
The success of the SMC fills Dr. Shubin with pride, particularly seeing the students who started in the SMCs as 7th graders becoming mathematicians. Dr. Shubin is a founder of the Mathematical Circles Library, a book series published by the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and was a translator and editor of A Moscow Math Circle, published December 29,
2011. In the Introduction to the book Mathematical Adventures for Students and Amateurs that Dr. Shubin co-edited, she writes, “One of the goals is to provide students with an interest in mathematics with the opportunity to expand and deepen that interest. Another goal is to furnish that unexpected spark in some of those who just happen to attend…” Dr. Shubin wants to create an alliance of educators running SMCs and also hopes to travel to Arizona and New Mexico to start SMCs for native children, training teachers to run them once she leaves. Dr. Shubin will consider that her greatest achievement.
Dr. Shubin notes the challenge in pursuing mathematics is mathematics itself. To Tatiana Shubin, this challenge is the best kind, one that involves high-level thinking, persistence, and passion. Dr. Shubin grabbed that challenge, and has pursued it with vigor. It didn’t matter whether she got her degree or not. She liked what she was doing, she would continue to do it no matter what, and that was all that mattered.
About the Student:
I am an 8th grade student at Castillero Middle School in San Jose, California. I have always had more interests than I have time. I love music and reading, but art, fashion design, sewing, writing, and math vie for my attention, too. I sing with two school choirs as well as Cantabile Youth Singers. I have participated in Math Olympiad, as well as Stanford’s SPLASH program and Stanford’s Society of Women Engineers youth programs. Throughout middle school I’ve attended writing workshops at San Jose State University. I am attracted to both the consonance, and the dissonance, in music and math.