2023 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

“The Remarkable Dr. Jeanette Shakalli”

by: Amanya Gonzales (Kettering University)

Interviewee: Jeanette Shakalli (FUNDAPROMAT)

Often, we are told as children to follow our dreams; shoot for the stars. However, as we grow older, we are encouraged to pursue more attainable and reasonable pursuits. Dr. Jeanette Shakalli, an accomplished mathematician, was told that she would not be able to accomplish her dreams of earning a Ph.D. Despite this, Dr. Shakalli took it upon herself to shoot for the stars and follow her dreams; Dr. Shakalli earned the Ph.D. she dreamed of and founded her own non-profit Foundation, where she shares her love and appreciation for mathematics with the world.

Before she was Dr. Jeanette Shakalli and founder of FUNDAPROMAT, she was a student, and like many of us, didn’t inherently understand high-level mathematics. Dr. Shakalli’s love of mathematics began with her father teaching her the basics of mathematics through games and puzzles. With time, she found she became more curious, which made her seek even greater understanding; as she studied mathematics more, she discovered that it became a passion. Later in her childhood, she competed in the National Math Olympics of the Republic of Panama, earning gold and bronze medals. Reminiscing over her time competing, Dr. Shakalli mentioned, “I didn’t even expect to win in the National Math Olympics. I just love math!” Eventually, in high school, she began exploring universities, which led her to discover the University of Notre Dame, where she would earn her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry.

“I had no idea what I wanted to study the first year I was at Notre Dame.” Dr. Shakalli spent the first year of her college career unsure of her future and, like many college students, allowed herself to be open to new possibilities. During one of her first math exams, she found that it was more difficult than she had anticipated, and as a result, she failed “Yes as in F” her first calculus exam. She said, “I could do one of two things: I could give up and go back to Panama or seek help and learn from my mistakes.” As you may have guessed, Dr. Shakalli decided to attend her professor’s office hours and sought out the understanding she needed. After her freshman year, Dr. Shakalli spent a summer in an undergraduate research experience, where she and a group of her friends were presented with math problems to solve. This allowed her to explore the opportunities that mathematics offered. With her graduation date arriving, she found that she was not done learning and wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. However, she was discouraged because she was not in the honors program; in tears and feeling defeated, a mentor of Dr. Shakalli empowered and encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D. This advice and mentorship enabled her to begin applying to graduate school, where she would obtain her Ph.D. in Mathematics at Texas A&M University.

While earning her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, Dr. Shakalli taught college algebra. She found that teaching was challenging, as many of her students were at different levels in her class; she confesses, “some were more advanced, while others did not know where to begin. It was hard to teach so many different levels of understanding.” Her time as a professor taught her that teaching was not the route she wanted to continue and feeling unsure of her future in mathematics, Dr. Shakalli returned to Panama for an answer. Arriving back in Panama, Dr. Shakalli began to work for the Panamanian government as the executive assistant for Dr. Jorge Motta. While working for Dr. Jorge Motta, Dr. Shakalli attended several math conferences where she would meet and listen to her fellow mathematicians share their love of mathematics. Over time, Dr. Shakalli noticed how many people participated in these conferences and presented the idea of a math outreach program to her boss. Dr. Motta encouraged her to bring these talks to Panama, which enabled the creation of the Program on Math Outreach in Panama. The program was overwhelmingly successful; Dr. Shakalli reminisces, “the program was so successful with many of the participants asking when the next talk would be. We would even have to ask for extra chairs!” The program held twenty-two talks between 2016-2019; however, with a change in leadership, the program was no longer a priority. Here, Dr. Shakalli boldly decided to create her own non-profit Foundation, independent of the Panamanian government: FUNDAPROMAT.

FUNDAPROMAT was created right before COVID, and with the entire world on lockdown, Dr. Shakalli could not conduct the talks she loved so dearly in person. Despite this, FUNDAPROMAT took the initiative to host virtual events five to seven times a week. Initially founded for the people of Panama, the virtual events drew the attention of thousands of people worldwide. Dr. Shakalli remarks, “We created an online community! At only three years old, FUNDAPROMAT has hosted over five hundred events with over 50,000 attendees.” The success of FUNDAPROMAT continued with in-person events being held for the first time. Many of her beloved Panamanian people attend these in-person events, and Dr.Shakalli notes that her father “attends every event possible and is always at the front, greeting everyone!” Dr. Shakalli’s love of math is translated into her work and success. FUNDAPROMAT is an organization dedicated to spreading the love of math to everyone. When asked why she loves math so dearly, Dr. Shakalli admitted, “I find math so beautiful because I see math everywhere. Everything that I see, I can find math in. That’s powerful in itself.”

Dr. Shakalli is undoubtedly a remarkable woman who has built a life around a passion she holds dearly. While it may seem far away and out of reach to follow your dreams, the remarkable Dr. Shakalli advises, “When you figure out what makes you happy, don’t let go. Don’t let other people tell you what you can and cannot do.”