Mattie Ji ’24 was recognized last November as the runner-up for the Alice T. Schafer Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by the Association of Women in Mathematics, an organization dedicated to fostering an inclusive and diverse community for women and girls to “thrive in their mathematical endeavors,” according to its website.
Named after one of the AWM founders and its second president, the Alice T. Schafer Prize was established in 1990 and has since been awarded annually to one or two undergraduate women and a runner-up for exceptional achievement in mathematics.
Ji, a double concentrator in mathematics–computer science and applied mathematics, initially entered Brown as a potential concentrator in mathematics–computer science and physics. She solidified her interest in pure mathematics after taking an algebra course with Nicole Looper, who was then a postdoctoral researcher at the University.
“That was a big turning point for me,” Ji said. “After I finished the class, I felt like I really enjoyed studying more abstract problems.”
But adding a concentration in applied mathematics was “unexpected,” Ji said. Her primary reason for her studies in applied mathematics stemmed from her experience taking two courses taught by Professor of Applied Mathematics Mark Ainsworth.
“One of (the classes) was about wavelets and its applications, and the other class was about numerical solutions to partial differential equations,” she said. “I really enjoyed his classes, and they were huge motivators for my second concentration in applied mathematics. It all happened because I randomly decided to sit in on his lectures on the first day.”
Algebraic topology, which was taught by Professor of Mathematics Thomas Goodwillie, also stood out to Ji for the challenging problem sets whose “almost theoretically impossible questions” made the course “arguably one of the hardest classes I’ve taken in the pure math concentration,” Ji said. “I was always very proud of myself whenever I could figure out some of the more impossible questions.”
As a trans person in mathematics, Ji said she has faced some “emotional challenges” due to her identity. “When doing research and mathematics … sometimes I do feel skepticism from others,” she said.
But Ji also said she had been inspired by other trans women in the field whom she had encountered in the past.
Ji’s coursework in algebraic topology and topological data analysis — two branches of mathematics that center around the analysis of mathematical structures — ultimately motivated her decision to pursue research in related fields.
Ji has worked on projects in algebraic geometry, conic bundles and fake projective planes at the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Brown.
“Research is hard in general,” she said. “There’s always uncertainty because you’re always dealing with unsolved problems. When you start out in research, it can be very intimidating.”
Professor of Applied Mathematics Kun Meng worked with Ji on topological data analysis research and served as her instructor in an independent study.
“Working with Mattie has been really enjoyable,” Meng said. “She was able to teach herself topological data analysis and Euler calculus material in just a month, and I was learning from her.”
Professor of Applied Mathematics Richard Schwartz, for whom Ji serves as a teaching assistant, said that he was thrilled to hear about Ji’s award.
“It’s a big award, it’s a national award,” he said. Schwartz, who nominated Ji for the prize, described her as a “very involved and enthusiastic TA.”
“It really, really meant a lot to me,” Ji said of her award. She added that the awards “serve a pretty important role in encouraging people to pursue more mathematics.”
Ji plans to advance in her mathematical studies by applying to PhD programs.