College of Science
Rev. John Cardinal O'Hara, C.S.C Professor of Mathematics
Claudia Polini remembers a time when her mother, a teacher, would prepare for class and Polini would answer the mathematics questions in the lesson plan. She was only 3 or 4 years old.
The fire that was lit inside Polini as a child growing up in Italy later turned into a career in mathematics with a focus on commutative algebra and its interactions with algebraic geometry. She uncovers the properties of systems of polynomial equations associated with complex shapes in multiple dimensions. These findings have applications in robotics, statistics and 3D design imaging, for instance.
It’s work in which Polini is passionate. Every problem solved or theorem proved is a personal joy.
“I believe the way the world works and the universe works is written in the mathematical language, which is the same belief that Galileo had. This is a language God gave us, and it is very important,” Polini says. “It’s like a puzzle to me. You’re looking for a truth. Mathematics is absolute. When you’ve proven something, you’ve really proven it. You’ve found a truth. Unlike other sciences where a new experiment or a new technology can destroy the belief of a generation, mathematical proofs withstand the passing of time. There is an immortality in mathematics that distinguishes it from other subjects. We still study in middle school or high school the mathematics discovered by the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.”
Though she was good at mathematics, it usually takes more than skill for individuals to excel in the field. Polini succeeded, she believes, because her success bred excitement — a flame that was nurtured by her parents. Thus began a cycle in which success and enthusiasm built on each other. They are the building blocks she’s laid for her own daughters, who are working toward careers in STEM fields, and the foundation she hopes to see more girls and young women experience.
“It’s about role models. That is what is lacking so much. We don’t have enough role models. The encouragement is very important. To do mathematics and to do science, you have to be very assertive,” Polini says.
“There is always this idea that women are not talented in mathematics or science, and that it is not feminine to excel in those fields. It’s a stereotype. They don’t get so much encouragement to do math or succeed in math. It self-propagates. There is this need to feel good at it in order to go on with it.”
Polini didn’t feel the biases against women in math or science until she was in graduate school, by which time she wasn’t going to let those pressures stop her. Her career did come at a cost, however. Polini says her husband, a computer scientist, and parents took on a greater role in raising her children, whom she didn’t see as often as she’d like while she traveled to conferences and lectures around the world.
She was able to have both lives — a family life and a career in STEM — but she sees many women who feel they have to choose one or the other because the most important career moves often must be made during the optimal time for many women to start families. Polini knows women who worry that because they chose to focus on their careers, they may have passed their childbearing years. And others choose to forgo the career to have a family, and then find out it may be too late to get back into the field.
It’s clear, Polini says, that women can excel in math and other STEM fields. The barriers to entry, however, need to be dismantled.
“The hardest part is choosing between career and family,” she says. “If you look at the percentage of girls in graduate school in math and the percentage of women working in tier 1 universities, the (latter) percentage is much lower. They have to make a choice, and this is terrible.”
Polini says there is hope on the horizon, however. She is seeing math conferences that include the option to bring children, and she is optimistic about the work of groups such as the Association for Women in Mathematics, which she sees creating the spark and fostering the enthusiasm she had as a child in today’s young women and girls around the country.