Elena Kim ’21 Awarded 2021 Alice T. Shafer Mathematics Prize

Elena Kim

Elena Kim ’21 has won a national undergraduate mathematics award after being selected as the recipient of the Alice T. Shafer Mathematics Prize established by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). The annual prize is presented to one undergraduate woman for excellence in the field.

During her time at Pomona, Kim has been able to develop a strong research background and set of skills thanks to two summer research experiences for undergraduates (REU) programs. She did an REU at the University of Michigan-Dearborn the summer after her sophomore year. This past summer she did a virtual REU at Williams College working for Professor Steven J. Miller who nominated her for the prize. Kim proved to be not only a strong nominee for the prestigious honor but the top candidate.

Almost four years ago, as a first-year student, Kim turned to her sponsors (two older students who mentor small groups of first-years living together) who both recommended she enroll in linear algebra, an introductory math class taught by William Polk Russell Professor of Mathematics Shahriar Shahriari. “It was the first time that I’d encountered more theoretical math and proof-based math. What really encouraged me to keep taking math was how collaborative the class was. I really just enjoyed doing homework with my classmates and felt I was part of the math community.”

Kim decided to major in math and focus on the pure mathematics track. “When you start learning analysis, a lot of what you learn are the same concepts you’d learn in a high school calculus class, but you go behind the hood where you prove everything and you see why things rigorously work,” she says. Kim took various courses from her advisor, W.M. Keck Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Mathematics Stephan Ramon Garcia, whose analysis courses helped inspire her love for the subject.

Not only does theoretical math hold a deep interest for Kim, but she adds that thanks to the unique and inviting environment of Pomona’s Math Department, she felt encouraged to continue in the field. “Something that is somewhat unique to Pomona is there are a lot more female students doing math here, which is sometimes very rare.”

Based on her research experience and “stellar coursework,” Garcia recently hired her to proofread a graduate-level textbook manuscript he’s co-writing.

“Her attention to detail, both mathematical and stylistically, is phenomenal,” says Garcia. “My colleagues are very impressed with her work. Elena’s liberal arts background really shines through – she’s able to read through very dense technical material (to see if there are mistakes that slipped through), while also having an eye for writing style, consistency, and presentation.”

“As a research student, Elena is quick and independent,” says Garcia, who notes her senior thesis work is off to a great start. Kim’s thesis is on generalized Frobenius norms and approximately finite-dimensional C*-algebras. Garcia, who is advising Kim’s thesis with Assistant Professor Konrad Aguilar, explains it as “infinite-dimensional linear algebra with lots of delicate analysis involved – the topic was developed to provide the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics.”

Garcia says, “This is not a standard topic for undergraduate research, and it requires a great deal of maturity to even understand the questions being posed.”

Kim plans to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics after graduating from Pomona this May. “I’m certain that she’s bound for a top-notch graduate program,” says Garcia.

The award includes a $1,000 prize presented at the AWM Awards Presentation at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, which was held virtually Friday, Jan. 8. The was established in 1990 and is named for one of the founding members of the AWM, Alice T. Schafer, who later served as the organization’s president and contributed a great deal to women in mathematics throughout her career.