2022 Student Essay Contest: Grades 6-8 Honorable Mention

“We Must Believe”

by: Eliza Pfeil (The Independent Day School)

Interviewee: Janet Striuli (Fairfield University)

“We must have perseverance, and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe we are gifted for something.” -Marie Curie.

There have been times throughout the life and career of math researcher Dr. Janet Striuli that perseverance and the belief in herself have been exactly what she needed to pursue her love of mathematics. Dr. Striuli grew up in Italy and found that she loved math from an early age. Her mom hadn’t finished high school and wanted her daughter to be able to go to college. Dr. Striuli worked very hard and did go to college to major in math.

Her first year of college was a real struggle because she had come from a country high school. Luckily for Dr. Striuli, in Italy when you major in math, you only study math and not other subjects, so she was able to just focus on solving math problems and getting better at it. When she was struggling, her mom let her know it was all right to drop out, but she said “no, I can do it” and continued to persevere.

Dr. Striuli said she loves the feeling of solving a math problem, even if it takes years to do! When asked why she loves math, she said “It is really clear and once you understand it, that’s it, it’s not going to change. On the other hand, even with the same concept, you can look at it in different ways or in different settings and reveal something new all the time.”

When Dr. Striuli finished college, she went to teach for 2 years at a high school in Italy and loved it, but she missed the novelty of new math. She decided to apply for a scholarship for a summer study to study with a professor at University of Kansas. Once she got there, she really liked how welcoming the math community was and how people from different cultures and with different accents are welcomed for their different ideas. Dr. Striuli liked it so much, she decided not to go back. She applied to their graduate school while being there that summer.

One of the biggest challenges for Dr. Striuli when she was getting her Ph.D. was when she was trying to do research and discover a new theorem. Her colleagues were all celebrating their discoveries and she was still struggling to find something. Dr. Striuli’s area of interest is commutative algebra, and discoveries in her field are pretty rare, so it takes a lot of small results to get a big result. She says that those struggles are something you learn to deal with and a good advisor is someone who can help you. She learned to believe in herself and stick with her research even when she was feeling frustrated or discouraged.

After graduate school, Dr. Striuli went to work at a small liberal arts college where she gets to teach and pursue her true passion—conducting math research. She meets with collaborators, and they think about problems to solve, papers to read, new techniques to try, talks and speeches to listen to and get inspired by, new ideas to find, and solutions to write down, even though she says they often don’t work. They listen to talks to see where the field is going because the problems change and even interests change. Dr. Striuli says when she finds a solution, there is “nothing for me that is more rewarding than to be able to say I have the solution and show it to people.”

Now that she is more experienced at math and education, she is trying to shape her profession more in the direction of creating more opportunities for women and more inclusive ways to do research so everyone in the field can do it. One of the biggest challenges Dr. Striuli has faced as a woman in math research is wanting to invest time in her family and also to be able to attend conferences that are often held on weekends. She is excited because now women in the field are pushing to have their voices heard and are sticking together and celebrating each other.

In 2018, Dr. Striuli took a prestigious two-year position with the National Science Foundation where she read proposals by other math researchers who were applying for money from the NSF to help with their research. She would put together a diverse group from the math community to read each proposal and then listen to everyone’s ideas very carefully and rank where she thought the money would go. While she didn’t do any research, it was a privileged position for her to see what research everyone else is doing and an honor to get the appointment.

When she was asked if she had any advice for people with the same goals as her, she said to enjoy it and have fun. Even though there are so many struggles and challenges to overcome, just face your fears and try your hardest. If you keep persevering then you will get better and better, and you will eventually achieve your goal.