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Sharing the magic of math with the kids of Panama

Math is all around us! Dr. Jeanette Shakalli shares her love of math and its endless applications with Panamanian youth to inspire them to pursue the discipline. 

I inherited my love for mathematics from my dad. Ever since I was little, my dad used to challenge me to solve the hardest math problems, and soon after, I started challenging myself. When I was in high school at the Episcopal School of Panama, one of my happiest moments was when I participated at the Panamanian Math Olympics and won! The personal satisfaction I felt after solving a very difficult math problem is indescribable -- completely out of this world!

I went on to study mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. There I discovered that what I like the most about math is that it frees your imagination. We live in a three-dimensional world. For example, a cube has a measure of length, width and height. Nevertheless, in the universe of mathematics, you can imagine a world in four dimensions, five dimensions, and if we want to be more abstract, even n dimensions. Topology is the area of mathematics that studies the structure of objects without paying attention to size or original shape. For example, in the world of topology, a donut and a coffee mug are equivalent. Mathematician Tim Chartier once noted: “If you do not like math, it’s probably because you haven’t run into the type of math that works best for the way that you think.”

During my graduate studies, I could not see myself doing anything else but studying math. I have been lucky enough to have had wonderful mentors throughout my math career. I must mention my thesis advisor, Dr. Sarah Witherspoon from Texas A&M University. I obtained my Ph.D., thanks in large part to her guidance, patience and support. I moved back to my country after I graduated, and that is where the fun really started! The good news is that since math is all around us, there were endless possibilities for what I could do next.

Collage created by author.

Since 2012, I have worked at the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) of the Republic of Panama. At the same time, I have kept in contact with the international math community as a member of several professional organizations. In 2016 I had the idea of inviting talented mathematicians to Panama to share their passion for math with my fellow Panamanians. This is how my program on math outreach was born. The goals of this program are to show the general public that math is fun and has many interesting applications, and to inspire Panamanian youth to study math.

So far, we have organized nine engaging activities (two in 2016, three in 2017 and four in 2018). In October 2016, Arthur Benjamin amazed the Panamanian audience with his show of “Magic and Math.” In their performance of “Mime and Math,” Tim and Tanya Chartier sparked the imagination of the audience in December 2016 by explaining mathematical concepts using mime.

In September 2017, James Tanton and Lindy Elkins-Tanton took us on an extraterrestrial trip with “Math in Space.” That same month, the professional violinist David Kung, who is the perfect combination of a mathematical expert and a talented musician, described how music and math are closely interconnected in his presentation on “Music and Math.” In his talk on “Math in Disney and Pixar Movies” in October 2017, Michael Dorff explained how movies use math to model the real world in the movement of animated characters, in the flow and crash of objects, and in the simulation of physical objects (like hair, clothing and snow).

In July 2018, Jennifer Quinn tackled the “Mathematical Mysteries in Nature and in Art” by exploring the connections between math, nature, architecture and art and introducing the Fibonacci sequence. In August 2018, Robert Vallin and Jacqueline Jensen-Vallin immersed us in the world of “Recreational Mathematics” (which means more than just math done as a diversion). In her presentation on “Art and Math,” Annalisa Crannell taught the audience in September 2018 about the mathematics behind perspective paintings, which starts with simple rules and then leads into lovely, yet tricky, puzzles. In October 2018, the audience journeyed into sports analytics with Tim Chartier in his talk on “Sports and Math,” in which he illustrated how biometric data can improve performance and prevent injury.

The nine activities so far have been a success, as more people than we expected attended the events, and in all the presentations, many people from the audience stayed after the talk to speak to the international expert and follow up with questions or take a selfie. In some cases, we even had to ask the hotel staff to add extra chairs to the room, and even in those cases, we sometimes had people standing in the back. In particular, the reactions of the Panamanian kids were priceless. They truly enjoyed the fun and simple way that mathematics was introduced to them, and that is what really makes the effort worth it.

In 2019 there are three phenomenal mathematicians already lined up to amaze the Panamanian audience with their incredible presentations. In the years to come, we hope that more remarkable mathematicians will be interested in traveling to Panama, and that maybe in the near future we can expand the program to not only reach even more students, but also to do other kinds of science outreach. My dream is to keep inspiring Panamanian kids and adults of all ages to rejoice in the beauty of science and math.


About Dr. Shakalli:


Dr. Jeanette Shakalli is currently the Executive Assistant of the National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Panama. She is the International Mathematical Union (IMU)’s Committee for Women in Mathematics (CWM) Ambassador for Panama. In 2017 she was recognized as One of the Twenty Faces of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). She loves sharing her passion for math and solving math puzzles.

Want to know more about the work she's doing to reach Panamanian youth? Email Dr. Shakalli at