By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Math can be really fun. Solving an especially interesting problem is its own reward.”
—Sarah Peluse
Fourth-year

During her first year in the College, Maggie Cornelius got stuck on some advanced calculus. She mentioned her trouble with Epsilon-Delta proofs to Sarah Peluse, a friend on the women’s cross-country team, little knowing that she was about to get help from one of the best young mathematicians of her generation.

“Sarah met with me in the library one night and explained the proof in the simplest terms,” Cornelius recalls. Once she was confident that Cornelius understood, Peluse created some practice problems for her friend to complete before her exam. “She not only understands everything on an incredibly deep level, but she can make it accessible to a hard-core humanities major like myself,” Cornelius says. 

Peluse says she has been happy to explain Epsilon-Delta proofs to many of her cross-country and track teammates over the years. The fourth-year student has joined a tradition of UChicago mathematicians supporting each other as they reach the top of their demanding field. That mentoring is part of the University’s distinguished legacy in mathematics; nine current or former UChicago mathematicians have won the Fields Medal, the discipline’s highest honor.

Peluse’s ascent in mathematics and athletics has been remarkable. She started college at age 15, transferred to the University of Chicago two years later, and developed important mentoring relationships with Prof. Maryanthe Malliaris, the late Prof. Paul Sally, and other faculty members in the Department of Mathematics. She has spent her summers researching at Emory University and Williams College, all while running on the women’s cross-country and track teams as an All-Academic athlete.

In January, mathematicians from around the country recognized her accomplishments with the national Schafer Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Woman.

The prize is named for Alice Turner Schafer, PhD’42, who worked throughout her career to increase the numbers and participation of women in mathematics. It’s awarded to an undergraduate woman who excels in classes, in special research projects, and in independent work.

In the UChicago mathematics department, Schafer’s legacy is strong. Five undergraduates in the College have won the Schafer Prize since it was created in 1990, while three more Schafer Prize winners have come to UChicago as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

Peluse says she has found a supportive environment for women at the University of Chicago. In fact, she says that winning the Schafer Prize was one of the first times she has been identified as a female mathematician, rather than just a mathematician.

“I never think about being a girl in math,” she says. “I think mathematics is a stretch for everyone, and everyone has to work hard to be good at it.”

A rigorous discipline in a collegial climate

Cultivating the talents of women mathematicians is the goal of many organizations across the campus. The UChicago chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, for example, hosts a lecture series for prominent women mathematicians from around the country, and regularly invites graduate students and junior faculty to coffee hours and other social events.

“There is, in my experience, a critical mass of women in the Chicago math PhD program so that gender does not need to be the defining feature in our professional relationships with our classmates and advisors,” says Jenny Wilson, a PhD student in mathematics and president of the group.

Among faculty, the Women’s Leadership Council and the Women in the Physical Sciences Committee are identifying and removing barriers to women’s advancement, tackling everything from recruitment and leadership opportunities to childcare and family leave policies.

Beyond campus, faculty members at UChicago and at Northwestern University are partnering to advance the careers of all women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through the Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM. The group helps women plan their careers, expand their networks, take advantage of leadership opportunities, and develop policies that bring a diverse faculty into labs and classrooms.

Aspiring to research heights with delight

The support of peers and teachers helped Peluse rocket to the top of all her mathematics courses. “I taught Sarah mathematical logic for one quarter, and she did perfectly in the class,” recalls Denis Hirschfeldt, professor of mathematics. He soon recommended that Peluse move on to graduate-level material.

“It's really a pleasure to work with someone whose appreciation and understanding of the material is so precise, and who is delighted by the depth and nuance of particular theorems,” says Malliaris, assistant professor of mathematics and one of Peluse’s many mentors and advisors. Peluse is now a research assistant on Malliaris’ grant from the National Science Foundation.

Malliaris knows the Chicago tradition of mentoring well—when she was still in high school, her talents were cultivated by the late Paul Sally and others in the UChicago mathematics department. Sally died in December 2013 after nearly 50 years as a pioneering math educator and mentor at UChicago.

Peluse plans to pursue a career in academia and to continue the research she has begun in number theory. She already has published one article and has more submitted for publication. She’s a little daunted by the prospect of teaching, however. “I’m more excited about research,” she confesses.

But Cornelius, Peluse’s cross-country and track teammate, says Peluse is an exceptional teacher in both academic and non-academic settings.

“Her mind is incredibly versatile. Sarah keeps a level head and a sense of humor before important races, which helps the rest of the team stay calm and run their best,” Cornelius says.

Igniting a love for mathematics in students is simple enough, Peluse says—give them interesting puzzles and problems, and let them discover the joy in working it out.

“Math can be really fun,” she says. “Solving an especially interesting problem is its own reward.”

Originally published on March 3, 2014.