Gigliola thinks of an unsolved differential equation as a "scary,
messy pile of laundry."
For her, there is an unrivaled satisfaction in turning an unrecognizable mass into ordered, neat parts. "What's exciting to me is when I can't figure out how to 'fold up' a piece and I have to come up with a new relationship between concepts or borrow a mechanism from another field." At MIT, she finds ample opportunity for this kind of work. While she loves a day alone with a pencil, she finds exchanging ideas with colleagues an exciting part of her career. "There's a lot of collaboration going on at every level here and I don't think people recognize that," she says. In fact, she thinks that the pervasive stereotype of mathematics as a solitary career discourages many girls from pursuing a career in high-level math.
As a young student in Martinsicuro, Italy, Gigliola never heard women couldn't do math. Fascinated that a geometric formula could so perfectly describe a figure, she was the kind of student who completed all the problems in the book before they were assigned. But here in the states, she notices that girls face a pervasive, ingrained belief that they aren't cut out for math.
The gender gap in high-level math concerns Gigliola, but she looks ahead positively.
Year after year, she observes first-year female students at MIT match first-year males in multivariable calculus performance. "I don't think there's any question girls can do it," she says. Instead, she says it's time for a culture shift.
Just as she uses abstract strategies to attack equations from different angles, she suggests several approaches to leveling the tilted educational field. She thinks that educators should enforce confidence in girls' math ability long before high school. While specialized math and science programs for young girls are useful, Gigliola feels that they may just reiterate the problem. Isolation isn't the answer. So, at MIT, she helps organize lectures that feature female speakers, and encourages the entire community, men and women, to attend.
And then there is "the two body problem," to use her mathematical language, that women must tackle as they enter into the career world with a family. She believes that women need help to balance a family and pursue scientific passion. An understanding partner is crucial. "If one person doesn't do at least half the housework", she says, "it's very hard." She is happy to see that many institutions are creating child day care centers. In fact, Gigliola and her husband were among the first to enroll their children, Mario and Sofia, in MIT's service.
Gigliola Staffilani is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics at MIT. There, she works on dispersive partial differential equations, using abstract tools to describe wave phenomena. After earning her PhD from the University of Chicago, she went on to faculty positions at Stanford, Princeton and Brown Universities. She has received multiple teaching awards and National Science Foundation grants. During the 2009-2010 fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, she widened her study of dispersive equations to investigate probabilistic phenomena in nature.