Quello Che Si Far per Amore? Della Matematica

March 18, 2012

From beginnings in rural Italy, Gigliola Staffilani passed through Bologna, Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Stanford, and Brown on the way to becoming a math professor at MIT. Photo by Donna Coveney/ MIT News.
Careers in the Math Sciences
Gigliola Staffilani

I was born in a small town in central Italy. My parents were farmers, educated only through elementary school. At home we spoke a local dialect, and there were no books in the house until my brother, who is ten years older, started bringing his school books home. I spent most of my time outdoors, practically without adult supervision, from a very young age. When I started school I found math to be really fun, and this initial instinct has stayed with me ever since. When I was ten my father died of cancer. This completely changed my perspective on life and in a sense shaped who I am today. My mother didn't have much money and was too busy to pamper me.

I was not a very sociable child, and I was terribly shy. Working on math problems became a world in which everything could be controlled, in which logic was the only rule. I loved this! I did very well in school and had the good fortune to attend a very good local high school, with a curriculum made up of a demanding combination of science and the humanities. At the end of high school, my future was not very clear. My brother was in medical school (he was the first in the extended family to go to college), and my mother was working very hard on the farm. I loved math but had no role models---even my math teacher in high school was a man. To this I should add that at that time, in that rural part of Italy, girls were not encouraged to go to college---a girl was supposed to get married in her early twenties and start having a family.

Fortunately, though, my teachers and my brother convinced my mother to allow me to go to college and, in particular, to choose math; after all, with a degree in math I could go back to my village and teach in the local middle school and take care of my mother. I was awarded a full fellowship to study in Bologna, which has one of the oldest universities in Europe. Culturally, it was as far from my reality as Mars is from Earth! Moving to Bologna, a sophisticated and rich provincial town, was much more of a culture shock than the one I would face when I moved to Chicago as a graduate student.

Undergraduate Studies
Before arriving in Bologna I had enjoyed my math homework immensely, but that homework had consisted of relatively simple calculus questions. At the university, mathematics took on a whole new dimension. I started learning about complex theories, very sophisticated theorems; most of all, I learned that my professors were involved in "making mathematics" through their research. At the end of my fourth year, I wrote an undergraduate thesis in which I proved a new result involving the Green's function associated with a certain elliptic equation. I didn't want to stop there; I wanted to become a professional mathematician.

The main obstacle that I could see at that time was the impossibility of going back to my village if I wanted to continue with a PhD; certainly, it was not the fact that I was a woman. In fact, until I came to the United States, I never heard that as a woman you don't have the right kind of intelligence to do math. It is true that in Italy fewer women than men are full professors of math, but this is believed to be because women are traditionally the primary caregivers of children.

Graduate Studies
When I finished college I didn't know anything about the American university system, the ranking of universities, or what it meant to apply to graduate school, and then, if admitted, to pursue a PhD. But one of the younger professors in Bologna had studied at the University of Minnesota, and he strongly encouraged me to apply to the University of Chicago, where Carlos Kenig, one of the major players in the area I was interested in back then, was a professor. Because I didn't know English, the proverbial friend of a friend, who had lived in the U.S. for years, helped me with the application. I got in and moved to Chicago, happy to start a new life, and completely naive about everything. My family of course was not pleased and expected me to return in a few months.

In Chicago I had to overcome several obstacles. I realized there that not knowing English was indeed a serious problem, but not for the obvious reasons. In fact, I had not taken the TOEFEL exam, which foreign students must pass to get the right visa, and as a consequence I was not able to receive the fellowship that the University of Chicago had put aside for me. Without money to pay my rent, I sadly decided that the only option was to go back to Italy and leave math--I had no interest in trying the Italian system. With tears in my eyes, I went to the public phone in Eckart Hall and started making arrangements for my trip back. Paul Sally, my registration adviser, walked by and noticed my distress. He signaled to me to hang up and tell him what was wrong. I explained in my broken English that I had not been paid because of visa issues and was out of money. He laughed his contagious laugh and convinced me that he could solve the problem very easily. We walked to his office, where he opened a desk drawer, took out his checkbook, wrote a personal check for the equivalent of a month's fellowship, and handed it to me. I could pay him back a month later, when he was sure my visa problems would have been fixed!

My career has been marked by several such episodes. Somebody might say that I have been very lucky, and I agree; at the same time, I would add that these moments of great luck came only after I had worked really hard for something, so I would also say that stubbornness played a role.

In Chicago I had the great opportunity to have Carlos Kenig as an adviser and to start working in dispersive equations, a field just then being greatly advanced by Kenig, in collaboration with Ponce and Vega, Bourgain, and others.

The Untenured Years
After finishing at Chicago, I was offered a membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a postdoc at Stanford University. In general, the postdoctoral years are a difficult time for young mathematicians. A postdoc needs to define his or her place in the mathematical community. It is at this critical moment that a young mathematician needs to find interesting problems to tackle and compatible collaborators to work with. In my case, not having a husband and children gave me a lot of freedom to move around and come in contact with many mathematical ideas. The constant support and encouragement of some senior faculty members at Stanford helped me enormously at this stage.

Still, I had several ups and downs. One of the downs was wondering if I was really good enough to be working at IAS and Stanford. I met so many amazing mathematicians in these places that I often felt that I fell short by comparison. It didn't help, of course, that by then I had heard too many times that maybe I had gotten where I was because I was a woman and affirmative action was working strongly in my favor. Fortunately, though, I decided to look only at the positive side of the story: Affirmative action or not, I was given the chance to be in places where mathematics was done at the highest level. I was determined to learn as much as possible and work with several people while enjoying the thrill of doing research at that level.

While all this was going on, I needed to come to terms with what was happening in my personal life. I left Italy thinking only about the five years of the PhD program. Now I needed to think much further ahead and to make a much more difficult decision: Was I ready to live for good in the U.S.? Was my career really so important that it justified such a choice? I decided to apply for positions in Italy while seeking a tenure-track position in the U.S. Nobody in Italy offered me a job, while I was offered assistant professorships at Princeton and Stanford. I mention this not to brag about the offers, but to illustrate how difficult it would have been to go back to Italy after eight years abroad! In retrospect, this was another stroke of luck, as the academic situation in Italy has been seriously compromised by recent negative reforms: There are very few positions, very few research grants, and a very complicated and often corrupt hiring system.

I decided to accept the tenure-track position at Stanford, not because I was sure of getting tenure there, but because at that moment Stanford gave me the best setting to pursue my research. I decided not to worry about getting tenure at Stanford, or anywhere else. I enjoyed proving theorems and collaborating with other mathematicians, in particular at that time with Jim Colliander, Mark Keel, Hideo Takaoka, and Terry Tao---we are now known as the I-team ("I" standing for the name we gave a certain operator defined in our work). Of course, I always had a plan B in case things didn't work out: I would go back to Italy and live on the family farm! Probably what prevented high stress was the feeling that I had already accomplished so much more than what I had expected when I was a high school student, that the great things to come, if any, would be just a bonus!

My Tenure Years
While at Stanford I met the person who is now my husband. He was already a professor at MIT, and, although I was dead set against long-distance relationships, we got married after a few months. For more than a year and a half, we lived on opposite sides of the continent. We solved our two-body problem when I was offered a tenured position at Brown University. I loved Brown, but when MIT made an offer I accepted it, mainly because it reduced my commuting time from a couple of hours to twenty minutes. I was then pregnant with twins, and saving time was suddenly a priority.

The birth of our twins nine years ago completely changed the way I do research. With weekends reserved for family, the time available for research became a fraction of what it had been before. And my mind was no longer free: I had two little guys to worry about! I had to become much more efficient and to learn how to delegate what could be safely done by somebody else.

In the last nine years we have spent thousands of dollars on preschool, babysitters, and household help; I don't regret a single dollar, as this, along with a husband who does more than his share, has allowed me to keep being a mathematician. I actually think that I enjoy doing mathematics now more than before. Before having children, I would allow myself to become obsessed with a problem or a computation, refusing to let it go or to look at it from a different perspective. Now my children naturally break that obsession every evening when I get home; after dinner, when they're asleep, I can go back to that piece of math, no longer feeling trapped in a vicious circle, and it's then that I often get a useful mathematical idea.

It is definitely not easy to be a mathematician, a teacher, a wife, and a mom. It helps to be able to delegate, to accept only a few selected invitations to conferences, to agree to serve on only a few key committees, and to say "no" when the plate becomes too full. My life is still too busy, but it is really the kind of life I love, and I would not have it any other way. I always feel that the obstacles are there to make me appreciate the rest, and the rest is amazing!

Gigliola Staffilani is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been co-chair of the department's graduate student committee for four years, and, with Katrin Wehrheim, she organizes the D.W. Weeks Lecture Series. She is a member of the editorial boards of the journals Communications on Pure and Applied Analysis and Selecta Mathematica.
She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Tom Mrowka, also a mathematician at MIT, and their nine-year-old twins, Mario and Sofia.

Sue Minkoff (sminkoff@umbc.edu), of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column.

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