Lillian Pierce '02, Ph.D., alumna

Before Lillian Pierce ’02 met Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace, she got two pieces of advice: “Don’t contradict the Queen and don’t ask personal questions.”

When Pierce, who was studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, introduced herself as a theoretical mathematician, the Queen responded, “Not many girls have the head for pure maths.”

“I couldn’t hold myself back,” remembers Pierce three years later. “I said, ‘Well, actually, I think that most women are told that they can’t do math, and then they don’t.’”

Pierce has been challenging expectations and convention ever since she started playing violin professionally at the age of 11 and read just about a novel a day during an intense period of what would have been her sophomore year of high school. She was educated in a unique, very small school started by her family, because regular classes couldn’t satisfy her boundless curiosity.

At Princeton, Pierce was able to maintain the intellectual freedom she had experienced earlier by taking classes all across the spectrum, from neuroscience and molecular biology to music, Latin and math.

Pierce had loved math from a very young age, and Professor Elias Stein, Pierce’s mentor, inspired her to continue focusing her intense intellectual energy on pure mathematics in graduate school. After earning a master’s degree at Oxford, Pierce returned to Princeton to work toward a Ph.D. in number theory and analysis with Stein, a National Medal of Science winner, as her adviser.

In 2009, she finished her Ph.D. with a thesis titled “Discrete Analogues in Harmonic Analysis.” Through funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Simonyi Fund, she spent the next academic year as a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where she continued to collaborate with Stein.

“I had a fantastic year at the Institute,” she says. “It is a very special place to work. It provides the solitude necessary for thinking deeply, but also an intimate and congenial social atmosphere that encourages all the mathematicians to get to know each other as friends and colleagues. With the combined resources of the IAS and the University’s math department, it is hard to imagine a better place to do mathematics than Princeton.”

During 2010-13, Pierce was a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University, funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship and the National Science Foundation. At the start of the 2013 academic year, she will begin a professorship at the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany. In 2014, Pierce will move to Duke University as an assistant professor of mathematics.

She is still collaborating with Stein, and usually spends some time in Princeton each summer. “I love visiting the Princeton math department because it always feels like coming home. In particular, it is inspiring to come back for lively conversations at the blackboard with the professors who influenced my education so greatly,” she says. "Besides, as a result of my frequent summer trips to Princeton, both of my children are devoted fans of the Woody Woo fountain."

Pierce's mathematical work is highly theoretical, with very few actual numbers; it mostly consists of symbols and formulas that the average person will never come across, much less understand. In some ways it is not a huge departure from her other passion, the violin. “I think of myself as being a very abstract mathematician, like an artist, as well as a scientist," she says.

Pierce believes Princeton does very well when it comes to welcoming women in the sciences and math. “There’s a society-wide assumption that girls can’t do math, and that can eventually be demoralizing,” says Pierce, who was named valedictorian of the Class of 2002. “The fact is that every math student comes across problems he or she can’t solve. But if you already have the idea that because of your sex you can’t do math, when you come across a challenging problem you can’t solve immediately, you might get too discouraged.”

To help break this cycle, Pierce mentors young female mathematicians and writes and speaks about the challenges and joys of being a young mother as well as a mathematician. In 2010 she taught a course in the SWIM program (Summer Workshop in Mathematics) at Princeton. The program introduces very talented high school girls to the math department at Princeton. She also started a program called Mentoring Möbius to create a support system for female mathematicians in all levels of undergraduate work, as well as a series of panel discussions called The Many Faces of Science, which brought stellar female science faculty together with undergraduates to discuss life as scientists.