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Jeanette Shakalli Works to Spread the Love for Mathematics

Jeanette Shakalli
Jeanette Shakalli. Image credit: Rita Sano.

As soon as AAAS Member, Jeanette Shakalli, defended her Ph.D. in 2012 at Texas A&M University, she was assigned a college algebra class as an instructor, “the lowest level of math that you can teach at that university,” she said. The class, according to her, was a hodgepodge of different skill levels. “Some of the students were really advanced some of them didn’t know what a fraction was,” she said. “That class was very frustrating.” This experience didn’t scare her away from promoting math to people, especially children, in her home country of Panama. After all, she had also come to like math as a child. 

Always a straight-A student, Shakalli credits her doting father for leading her to love math. “He would teach me advanced stuff and I would get mad,” she said. “I don’t need to know this right now,” she would argue. It was only during the subsequent class lessons that Shakalli would understand why her dad had taken the trouble to teach her advanced mathematics. “When my math teacher would start explaining all these concepts in the classroom that I had already done with my dad, it became easier to understand,” she said. “I wanted to learn more from my dad, and I started challenging myself.”

A scientist in his own right, Shakalli’s father, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, pushed his daughter to excel further in math. Without warning, he registered her for the math Olympics in Panama when she was 13 years old in her first year of high school. “Just go and have fun,” he said to her. Shakalli did not win anything because she had not prepared, but the occasion had given her a glimpse of victory when she saw her fellow contestants walk away with medals hanging around their necks. In her fifth year of secondary school (which would be 11th grade in the U.S.), she won a gold medal at the math Olympics. The next year, she settled for a bronze medal. “It was so amazing,” she said, referring to her back to back victories. “The best part is that we also got training at the University of Panama to go and compete abroad.”

In the fall of 2003, Shakalli came to the U.S. and enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. “I ended up getting a double major in math and chemistry,” she said. She later joined Texas A&M University on a W.E. Coppage Fellowship for both her graduate and post graduate studies where she earned a doctorate in mathematics.

“In mathematics we have sets,” she said as she leaned back in her chair explaining her thesis. She described these sets as a group of things that have to satisfy certain conditions. “After that group, we have algebra,” she said and added, “they are like groups too, but they also have to satisfy certain requirements.”

An algebraic equation, the kind that Shakalli was working on, is very complicated. It has to be broken down or deformed and studied piece by piece. “Once we understand the deformations of the algebra, then we can understand more things about the original algebra,” she said. Her thesis looked at the quantum symmetry of the deformed algebras and in doing so, she came up with a new deformation that was not known before. Her discovery has since been extended to other realms of academia, like physics “The quantum part is very important,” she said in reference to her research topic. “They have used it in quantum physics; at least that is what my advisor Sarah Witherspoon told me.”

After completing her studies, including a brief stint as a teacher, Shakalli realized that her career options had narrowed. “If I had stayed in the U.S., my path would have been teaching or research in mathematics,” she said. “I wanted to do something different.”

She returned to Panama in May 2012. With a nudge from her cousin, she leveraged her connections and secured an influential position as an executive assistant at the Panamanian National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation — an autonomous institution that aims to strengthen science and technology in the private sector, government, academics and the general population. With the backing of the executive director, she created a math outreach program in 2016 that invited renowned international mathematicians to Panama to give talks to the general public. Her topics sweetened the pill of mathematics with “something that is super interesting and something that is super catchy that people won’t think there is math in it,” she said. “We had math in Disney and Pixar movies, Origami and math, magic and math.”

A member of AAAS since April 2016, a decision she says was encouraged by her then boss Dr. Jorge A. Motta, Shakalli says her membership has given her the opportunity to stay connected with amazing scientists from around the globe to the extent that, when the political deck was shuffled in 2019, Shakalli left her job as executive assistant and embarked on another venture. “I created the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics FUNDPROMAT,” she said. The purpose of this private non-profit foundation is to promote the study of mathematics in the Republic of Panama by organizing math outreach events for all ages in order to convince the Panamanian population that math is fun and that it has a lot of interesting applications. “We want to inspire Panamanian youth to follow a scientific career through fan events, like math carnivals and math jams,” Shakalli said.

Her crusade to spread the love of math to the furthest corners of Panama is firmly anchored in her belief that math is universal. It is not just numbers. “Math is all around us,” she says. “That is why I always tell people keep giving it an opportunity, keep trying, keep exploring the universe of mathematics.”

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Owen Kibenge