Risk Takers Series | Women in STEM: Meet Jeanette Shakalli, PhD

Katherine Bazley

Teacher Ambassador

This interview is part of Magma Math’s Risk Takers Series, where we explore the stories of people who have leveraged math in unique ways to unfold bold career paths.

FUNDAPROMAT Executive Director Jeanette Shakalli joined me for a chat about being a risk taker in the math field. FUNDAPROMAT (Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics) is a private non-profit Foundation whose mission is to promote the study of mathematics in the Republic of Panama and all over the world. Dedicated to providing valuable opportunities in math education to students everywhere, Jeanette understands how important math is in unlikely careers.

"Math trains your brain to think logically, which allows us to analyze everyday situations with critical reasoning...so that we can make better decisions in our everyday lives."

Katherine Bazley: Can you explain what you do on a regular basis for your job?

Jeanette Shakalli: My job consists of organizing math outreach events, which are free and open to the general public, with the purpose of convincing kids and adults of all ages that math is not only fun but it also has many interesting applications. I am also constantly invited to give fun math talks to different audiences, including students, teachers and/or the general population. I really enjoy giving these talks since I love sharing my passion for mathematics with others.

KB: Why is math important for students to know?

JS: Math is necessary in practically all the professions. Besides the careers in STEM, carpenters and builders use basic geometry. Tailors work with measurements and proportions. The recipes that chefs use contain specific quantities of each of the ingredients. Mechanics use arithmetic to measure and compare the oil density and the brake pressure. Furthermore, math trains your brain to think logically, which allows us to analyze everyday situations with critical reasoning, identifying which variables intervene and what are their effects, so that we can make better decisions in our everyday lives.

KB: Do you have a background in math?

JS: I obtained my Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Chemistry from the University of Notre Dame in 2007 and received the Senior GE Prize for Mathematics Majors. From 2007 until 2008, I was recognized with the W.E. Coppage Fellowship in Mathematics and obtained my PhD in Mathematics from Texas A&M University in 2012. During my graduate studies, I worked as Teaching Assistant and Instructor of several undergraduate math courses.

KB: Does math play into what you do every day?

JS: Definitely! My job is to get people excited about mathematics by showing them fascinating examples that math is indeed everywhere. We can find math in nature, sports, music, dance, art, fashion and even in games. For example, magicians use basic math concepts in their magic card tricks to surprise their audience. Movies use math to model the real world in the movement of animated characters, like Yoda in Star Wars, and in the simulation of physical objects, like the snow in Frozen. The virtual events that I organize for FUNDAPROMAT teach us to appreciate that math is all around us.

KB: Do you think that if students had better exposure to jobs like yours, they might invest more in STEM?

JS: Yes! To inspire kids to be interested in mathematics, we first need to figure out what those kids like. For example, if the kid likes to play a sport, fold origami, play video games, explore nature, solve puzzles… all these involve mathematics. The only thing that we need to do is to connect whatever the kid likes with mathematics and what we do in FUNDAPROMAT can help with that.

KB: When is a time you have had to take a risk in your career?

JS: I took a huge risk when I decided to create FUNDAPROMAT! After almost 2 years of existence, I can wholeheartedly say that it was totally worth it! So far I have organized more than 350 virtual events with more than 35,000 participants, including Panamanians and internationals from all over the world. Kids and adults of all ages from diverse countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, Ecuador, Bolivia and many more, attend our activities.

Through various math outreach events, like Virtual Encounters with Outstanding Mathematicians, Math Jamborees, Virtual Origami Classes, Webinars on Recreational Mathematics, Virtual MathsJams and many more, we are working to change people’s perception towards mathematics and give them the opportunity to discover the beauty and richness of mathematics.

KB: What would you say to a student who is struggling to figure out what to study in college?

JS: Don't worry. That is totally normal. Just think about what you really enjoy doing. The best kind of job is the one in which you don't actually feel like you're working since you genuinely enjoy what you are doing.

KB: Have you always liked math?

JS: Yes! And it's all because of my dad. My dad loves math so when I was little, he described the math concepts to me as magic tricks and fun games instead of mathematical results. By presenting mathematics in this way, I enjoyed learning more about mathematics. I even won a Gold Medal and a Bronze Medal in the Panamanian Math Olympics when I was in high school!

KB: What did you want to be when you grew up as a kid?

JS: I had no idea what I wanted to study when I grew up. My mom, who is a pediatrician, wanted me to become a medical doctor and my dad, who has a PhD in Chemistry, wanted me to go into finance or business administration. I wasn't interested in either of these. It was after I took my freshman core courses at the University of Notre Dame that I decided that I wanted to study both math and chemistry.

KB: Do you have any role models?

JS: I do! I want to be like Talithia Williams when I grow up! I even want to get red eyeglasses like hers! She is a fierce math communicator.

KB: Any parting words?

JS: Join us in our FUNDAPROMAT virtual events, which are free and open to the general public. Most of our virtual events are in Spanish but we do run a Math Webinar in English once a month. This month we had the incredible Michael Dorff as our invited speaker with "Math in Disney and Pixar Movies," which was an incredible talk!

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow FUNDAPROMAT on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Read more about their mission on their website.


About the Author

Katherine Bazley (@katherinebazley) is a K-12 EdTech teacher ambassador at Magma Math where she contributes SEL, Special Education, and classroom experience. Reach her on LinkedIn or at katherine@magmamath.com