Persevere and succeed, by Jeanette Shakalli

I had always been a straight A student. Everybody at the Episcopal School of Panama knew that I had the highest GPA in my class. In particular, I was really good at math since I inherited a passion for mathematics from my dad. At the beginning, I would get frustrated with my dad since he would teach me advanced material that I did not need to know at the time. I was only interested in understanding the math concepts that would enable me to pass the next math exam. However, when my math professor would explain a concept in class that I had already seen with my dad, the ideas made sense and I started loving the feeling of being ahead. Soon enough, I challenged myself to solve the most difficult math problems in the textbook on my own. I even participated in and won a medal at the National Math Olympics in Panama… twice! Furthermore, I was trained by the Panamanian Math Olympics Foundation at the University of Panama to compete internationally while I was in high school. I never actually travelled to represent my country in an international Math Olympics since someone somewhere had spent the funds for the program on something else, which is sadly pretty common in Panama, but at least I knew that I was above average. Therefore, failing my first calculus exam during my undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame was appalling!

“Was I capable of failing?” I started panicking. “What did that say about me as a person?” I desperately tried to find a somewhat reasonable explanation. “Or does this failure simply mean I am not good at math after all?”  A sense of despair took over me. It was my first failure EVER, and I had a choice to make: I could either succumb to it, quit, and return to Panama, or I could do something about it. Option 1 involved me giving up and never knowing what would have happened if I had stayed. Option 2 involved me taking a risk. Since I have always loved a challenge, I decided to do the latter. I emailed my calculus professor and asked to meet with him one-on-one. He was a very patient man and we went over all the problems of the exam one by one. He explained what I had done wrong and I redid the entire exam, making sure that I understood the material profoundly. His kindness and my perseverance helped me get through my failed exam.

As a result of this experience, I learned that failure is not the opposite of success. If you would rather not fail, you will probably never succeed. However, I did not have experience with the concept of failure while I was growing up since I always had good grades. Hence, facing my first failure on an exam on my own while I was living by myself in a different country definitely shaped the future me that I was meant to become.

It turns out that I later found out that failing your first exam is pretty common among international students when they study abroad while they are adjusting to a different environment. I was lucky that the University of Notre Dame was aware of this issue and my professor was understanding. Nevertheless, I share this story every time I am invited to give a math presentation to young students in Panama because I want them to know that just because you fail a math exam, it does not mean that you do not belong in math.

Math is all around us. You can find math in magic, mime, music, art, movies and more. I am blessed now to belong to an international math community with whom I can share the richness and beauty of mathematics, regardless of gender, race, religion, or nationality. Thanks to these connections, I created a Program on Math Outreach in Panama in 2016 with the purpose of inspiring Panamanian youth to study math and to convince the general public that math is not only fun but it also has many interesting applications. Moreover, this coming April 2020, I will officially launch the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics (FUNDAPROMAT), a private non-profit Foundation that I created with the goal of promoting the study of mathematics in the Republic of Panama. Therefore, my advice to you, who are reading these words, is to never give up since you never know what adventures await you.


Born in Panama City, Panama, Dr. Shakalli attended the Episcopal School of Panama. She won a Gold Medal and a Bronze Medal in the Panamanian Math Olympics. She obtained her 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, she was recognized with the W.E. Coppage Fellowship in Mathematics by Texas A&M University and obtained her PhD in Mathematics from Texas A&M University in 2012. From 2012 until 2019, Dr. Shakalli worked at the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) of Panama. 

Dr. Shakalli is currently the Executive Director of the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics (FUNDAPROMAT), a private non-profit Foundation which she established with the goal of promoting the study of mathematics in the Republic of Panama. Since 2016, Dr. Shakalli has organized more than 50 math outreach events in the Republic of Panama, including Math Carnivals, MathsJams, Julia Robinson Mathematics Festivals, Celebrations of Mind, Origami Workshops, and presentations open to the general public given by international mathematicians on topics like “Magic and Math,” “Music and Math,” and “Origami and Math.” Since 2017, she has been the International Mathematical Union (IMU)’s Committee for Women in Mathematics (CWM) Ambassador for Panama. Dr. Shakalli was recognized as “One of the Twenty Faces of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA)” in their magazine MAA FOCUS in the April/May 2017 edition. Furthermore, she was promoted as IEEE Senior Member in 2019. Her unique career profile appears on the fourth edition of the book “101 Careers in Mathematics,” pages 203-204, and her story was highlighted by Lathisms on October 12, 2019. Dr. Shakalli currently serves as Director of Admissions of the Panamanian Association for the Advancement of Science (APANAC), Secretary on the Board of Directors of IEEE Panama Section, and Secretary on the Board of Directors of the J. Thomas Ford Gift of Life Foundation. Moreover, she is the Executive Coordinator of the Panama Pod of 500 Women Scientists. She is also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and of OrigamiUSA.


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