Ever since she was little, Stella L. ’23 has loved a challenge. It all started back in elementary school with her local newspaper at the breakfast table. Filled with popular strategy games like Sudoku, Stella would start her mornings tackling puzzles meant for people twice her age. “As I got older, I discovered that math is a lot like puzzle solving, but infinitely more complex and thus more interesting.”
Building off her success at ISEF, Stella spent her summer applying to the 82nd Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS). Known as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition, Regeneron STS recognizes and empowers the nation’s most promising young scientists and mathematicians who are developing ideas that could solve society’s most urgent challenges. Stella’s entry into this year's competition was Bounding Vanishing at the Central Point of Cuspidal Newforms, a research project over two years in the making. And the hard work paid off, as Stella was named as a Renegeron STS Top 300 Scholar for her entry.
“I started, in June 2020 and spent almost a year just learning the background information. At that time, I didn't know the research direction. I learned three math courses [number theory, multivariable calculus, and complex analysis] by myself using online lectures, and I learned the programming language necessary for calculations. April 2021 to October 2021 was my active research period, where I was reading past literature, doing computations, writing coding programs, and writing and editing my paper,” Stella shared. “After I finished writing my paper, I submitted it to a few competitions and also, my mentor, Professor Steven Miller of Williams College, helped me submit it to a peer reviewed journal. Earlier last year, I got the feedback from the editors of the journal and my paper was accepted, but I needed to revise some small details. So I did that, and now it's published in the Journal of Number Theory
Throughout the excitement of competitions and publishing, Stella has looked to Ms. Schmidt for all types of support. “I showed Ms. Schmidt my paper after I finished my first draft when I was entering it to my first research competition. She connected me with a postdoc who she had been a good longtime friend with, and that postdoc helped me practice my presentation,” Stella explained. “Ms. Schmidt has supported me in various ways, especially when I got into ISEF. She traveled with me all the way to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend the competition. It was a pretty fun but stressful week, and she definitely helped a lot in terms of alleviating my stress.”
As for Ms. Schmidt, she reflects that her time as Stella’s teacher and mentor has been a partnership and a joy. “It’s not very common to teach a student for all her high school classes; we’ve traveled a lot of roads together, literally and figuratively. When Stella took my non-routine precalculus class as a freshman, she immediately showed a thoughtful, deliberate quality. Some students like to show what they know—and that can legitimately be something to take pleasure in—but Stella takes her time and digs deeper, gently including others as she pursues her line of questioning. I am so aware of my own mentors and guides and what they have given me, and to be able to pass along what I know to Stella, or share connections and perspectives that can help her, is very meaningful. I think both of us see mathematics as a fundamental way of connecting to the universe. That sounds very grand and deep, but what it has meant on a day-to-day basis is that our conversations also bridge to what it means to make a difference in the world—as a human being and as a woman in mathematics, but also as a colleague, a family member, and a friend. We lend each other books; one that Stella introduced me to is actually a reflection on poetry and language. For me, Stella is the embodiment of what Russian mathematician Sonya Kovalevskaya once wrote: It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul. The poet has to perceive what others do not perceive, to look deeper than others look. And the mathematician must do the same thing.”
With the announcement of the Regeneron STS Top 40 Finalists approaching next week, Stella has been reflecting on this entire experience. “It feels very empowering. This acknowledgement definitely marks a huge step towards my current aspiration to become a mathematician in the future. I think I'm just more excited than ever to pursue more research in college. Right now, I'm actually trying to find research opportunities with a friend by cold emailing math professors,” she laughed.
As the world of STEM starts to see more female representation, Stella doesn’t take the women who have come before her for granted. When asked about some of the inspiration she draws from, she named Duke University’s Nicholas J. and Theresa M. Leonardy Professor of Mathematics Lillian Pierce. “She mentioned in one of her interviews about how people seem to understand the beauty of music even though they might not be a musician, but sometimes when it comes to mathematics, there's often a voice of ‘why are we doing this math?’. She had a goal to make the beauty of math more accessible, even to people who are not necessarily professionals at math. I think her goal of increasing math accessibility really aligns with mine and also that of Ms. Schmidt.” She continued, “I was inspired when Ms. Schmidt proposed a number theory project to me in my junior year to annotate a paper to make it more accessible to others. That's definitely something I want to continue to do in my college years.”
As Stella looks ahead to her career, she has a lot of hope for future female mathematicians. “I certainly hope that the gender gap will reduce over time. For me personally, I've experienced the negative effects of the gender stereotype in STEM and that is something that I want to work on to reduce in my future. It's one of my aspirations. One thing that I remember noting in my [Regeneron] STS application about what I saw myself doing in 20 years was becoming a professor who's not confined to the ivory towers of academia. I want to give talks at local high schools or even middle schools to debunk the gender stereotypes and hopefully encourage more girls and other gender minorities to pursue STEM because they are just as good and talented.”
As commencement quickly approaches, Stella’s incredible career at Emma Willard School is coming to an end. As she reflected on her four years on Mount Ida, Stella noted the ways that Emma has helped her along in her journey, not only as a budding mathematician, but as a young woman as well. “Being at Emma, I have definitely built up my confidence, not just in STEM, but overall during these four years. I remember when I first came here – I was very timid, and I didn't talk much in class, but I found many role models in students from grades above me or female teachers to look up to. I think that just really helped my confidence.”
She continued, “Two weekends ago I was at the local AAMC meeting, and I was the only girl there. If that was me in the past, I probably would've felt very intimidated and probably wouldn't speak much at all because younger me was always afraid that if I made a mistake, I would perpetuate the stereotype that girls are not as good at math as guys, especially in a setting where guys dominate in numbers. Now, me today is no longer affected by those thoughts, and I am able to share my thoughts and collaborate actively with them. It has been a very fruitful experience, and I think I couldn't become the person I am today without my Emma education.”
Join us in congratulating Stella on her Regeneron STS Top 300 nomination and wish her the best in the next round of finalist announcements on January 24. We look forward to seeing how Stella continues to serve and shape the world of STEM!