2004 Essay Contest
About the Essay
Biographies of Women in Math
2004 AWM Essay Contest:
Honorable Mention in the 6th-8th Grade Category
A Mathematician Receives a Warm Welcome in a Free Society - Dr. Tatiana Shubin
By Jacqueline My Anh Tran
Dr. Tatiana Shubin left a repressive Soviet Union only to receive a
warm welcome in the free society of the United States. Her
well-developed background in mathematics was a key to her survival and
eventual integration into United States society as a citizen.
Dr. Tatiana Shubin says, "mathematics is very sublime, and it is one
of the most powerful of the sciences." Further, she believes that
"while it is a universal language that allows dialogue, or
conversation, within and across the borders of sciences, it also
allows specialized communication across the borders of human
nationalities and races." Being a universal language, "it can be
communicated around the world and possibly even with extraterrestrial
intelligences." She chose the field of mathematics for her life
career because of its inherent structure and beauty. It became, for
her, a viable mechanism enabling her survival in a new land.
Dr. Shubin was born in the Ukraine, a country that was part of the
former USSR. Dr. Shubin's father, a forensic criminologist, and her
mother, a lawyer, were also born near the same area. She lived in the
Ukraine until she was ten years old. Her father wanted to teach at the
university level, and he was accepted for posts in both Minsk in
Belarus and Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. Before making their decision as
to which position to accept, her parents did something very startling
-Ė they asked her which location she preferred. At the time, she
was reading an exciting book about Central Asia where Alma-Ata was
located, a region of great, natural beauty. Swayed by her interest,
the family decided to move there.
Dr. Shubin has encountered significant ethnic bias during her life.
Her fatherís bloodline religion and ethnicity were Jewish, while
her motherís nationality was Russian. In the USSR, there was a
terrible, systemic, and repressive bias against ethnic and religious
minorities and especially against all intellectual and political dissidents.
These repressions during the totalitarian regimes of Nikita Krushchevand
Leonid Brezhnev caused her to question authority and to ultimately seek freedom.
Dr. Shubinís interest in mathematics began when she was in the
first grade. Her grandfather gave her two mathematical problems to
solve. The first question was: "If you had an ash tree with two
hundred apples in it and a maple tree right next to the ash tree with
three hundred apples, how many apples did you have in all?" She
answered "five hundred apples." But instead, she was supposed to say
"none" because neither ash trees nor maple trees grow apples. The
second question was: "If there is a wine bottle and you want to find
the weight of the wine without the bottle, how would you do it?"
Dr. Shubin gave a very silly answer at the time, since she was in the
first grade. She replied, "you have to dry the wine and then you can
weigh it." Instead of running away from her mistakes, she was
motivated to learn more about mathematics and problem solving.
One day in Alma-Ata, while reading the newspaper, Dr. Shubin came
across some posed mathematical problems. If you solved the problems
correctly and sent them in, you could participate in an on-going
contest. She sent in her answers, and in a week or so, she received a
letter that stated she was able to participate in the All Siberian
Mathematics Competition. To complete the second-level competition,
she went to a special school where each competitor was sent to a
different room to complete the examination. She passed the second
level, taking first place at her grade level, and was invited to a
small town near Novosibirsk, called the "Science Town."
She went to the "Science Town" during the summer along with three
hundred other talented children who ranged from the 7th grade to the
11th grade. After the beginning of the third week, she was invited to
be a student in a "special" boarding school, which had math and
science lectures. In addition, the children attending the "special"
school were allowed to choose a research institution with a field of
math or science in which they preferred to work a few hours a week
after school. Dr. Shubin chose the chemistry institution where she
worked and was treated as an equal. At this time she was in the 8th
grade. Although she enjoyed studying there, her parents missed her
dearly and they lured her home by letting her skip a grade. She took
that opportunity and returned home to her parents. While there was
some initial resistance by school administrators to her skipping into
the 10th grade, the resistance was overcome when she proved she could
do the work. She graduated from high school early at the age of
She then went to Moscow State University, which was one of the best
universities in the former USSR. This was the university from which
she eventually received her Bachelor's degree. Moscow State
University was a five-year school, but at the end of her fifth year she was
kicked out of the university. One of the charges against her was that she had
never participated in any school activities related to politics. Dr.
Shubin has always been a strong woman of conscience. When questioned by the school authorities
about her non-participation in politics, she told them that as a
citizen, she has the right not to vote! Their reply was that as a
member of the Young Communists League she had to participate. She
refused to participate and was expelled. When she was not able to
finish her 5th year at Moscow State University, she returned to her
hometown of Alma-Ata and entered Kazakh State University where she
earned a Master's degree in mathematics. After graduating from Kazakh
State University, she moved to Leningrad, where she lived for two
At a time when few people were allowed to leave the USSR, she left by
obtaining a letter of invitation from "somebody" in Israel. After
permission was granted to leave, she had a one-way ticket to exit. She
had truly mixed feelings about leaving because she did not believe
that she would ever see her parents again. After making her way to
Vienna, Austria, nine months later she and her three year old daughter
were flown to Los Angeles by the Tolstoy Foundation, an organization
for the needy founded by Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of one of
Russia's most celebrated authors. She arrived in the United States in
Tatiana arrived in Ojai, California with no knowledge of English but
was received warmly and enthusiastically. She had at last found
freedom! Not long after settling in Ojai she learned of the
University of California at Santa Barbara, which was not far away.
She went there to investigate employment and possible further
education. Proving that mathematics is a universal language, her
meager knowledge of English was no deterrent to continuing her
graduate mathematical education. After taking some examinations she
was readily accepted into the Ph.D. program, where she specialized in
discrete mathematics - both algebra and combinatorics. After
completing her Ph.D. she taught for two years at the University of
California at Davis and then proceeded to San Josť State University
in 1985 as a lecturer. Today she is a tenured associate professor of
the Department of Mathematics at San Josť State University.
Shortly after her arrival at San Josť State University, she created
mathematical meetings for high school students, but unfortunately,
this program ended within two years because there was not enough
participation. Six years ago, word spread that there were people
interested in creating a Mathematical Circle in the San Francisco Bay
Area. Based on her experiences, Dr. Shubin was hesitant at such an
innovation but when people started volunteering to help, she felt more
confident that San Josť Math Circles would last for quite a while.
The San Josť Math Circle has flourished and helped develop a
three-time gold medallist in the International Mathematics Olympiad.
Dr. Shubin has two children: a daughter, 29 and a son, 13. Her
daughter is a gifted medical illustrator and artist while her son is a
talented 8th grader at Joaquin Miller Middle School in San Josť,
One of her great passions is a love for rocks - for their simple
natural beauty. Her most treasured are two highly polished and
meaningful rocks given to her by a friend. The larger of the two
rocks represents the teacher and the smaller rock symbolizes the
student. The teacher tries to impart all the knowledge, understanding
and wisdom he/she knows to the student. When the student becomes a
knowledgeable mature teacher, he/she will pass on the small rock to
another person who most likely will become a successful teacher. One
day, she will have the opportunity to pass the rocks on, and this will
be a memorable occasion.
Dr. Shubin's strong will prevented her from giving up when she was
still experiencing repression in the former USSR. She sought out the
alternatives and has become a stronger, more hopeful person,
mathematician and teacher. Through her trials she has learned that
life is not as easy as we might wish it to be. But she knows that
when you develop and maintain strong ideals, focusing on your goals
toward the good, success will often follow. While there are always
obstacles in the path to acquiring knowledge and success in life, she
has demonstrated that patience and perseverance will overcome them.
Mathematical knowledge was key to Dr. Shubin's survival and success.
We may never really know how difficult her journey in life has been,
but we do know that her departure from the former USSR as part of the
diaspora was that country's loss and our country's gain. As a United
States citizen, accomplished mathematician, and gifted teacher, she
inspires all of us.
About the student:
My name is Jacqueline My Anh Tran, and I am a seventh grader at
Chaboya Middle School in San Josť, California. I have a strong
interest in both mathematics and science. During the past year I
participated in the Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology
Championship where I received second place in my division and first
place from the American Society of Civil Engineers for my project,
"The Optimal Design of Truck Escape Ramps." I am a regular
participant of the San Josť Math Circle where I continually
experience Dr. Shubin's guidance and exemplary teaching.
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