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Wanlin Li gives talks on number theory and her career

March 4, 2022

Mathematician Wanlin Li from the Centre de Recherches Mathématiques in Montreal delivered two talks to the Bowdoin community over Zoom on Tuesday. She first presented a lecture, “Diophantine Problems,” about number theory. The second talk, “Official and Unofficial Stories,” was a question-and-answers session in which Li discussed her journey from being a first-generation college student in China to pursuing a tenure track teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis next fall. She also talked about how she learned a valuable lesson about how the path to academic success is different for everyone.

Li attended Nanjing University in China, where her academic career took twists and turns. After initially being placed into computer science, she switched her major to mathematics at the end of her first year.

“My second year of college was very chaotic because I was trying to take the classes for the first two years of math in one year,” Li said. “I didn’t have time to think about what I wanted to do in the future; all I wanted at that point was just to get by and pass all the classes.”

Li made the decision to attend graduate school in the U.S. after receiving her B.S. in mathematics. She packed her bags for the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UWM)—a daunting experience, she remembers.

“That was the first time I ever took a plane, and it was the first time I ever went to a different country. My English was fine, but I was very nervous,” Li said.

While studying number theory at UWM, Li met Eric Ramos, a fellow student who is now an assistant professor of mathematics at Bowdoin. Working with the Bowdoin Association for Women in Mathematics (BWM), Ramos arranged for Li to speak at the College, believing his old classmate’s story was important for all students to hear.

“It’s important to show aspiring math students, or aspiring academics of any kind, that no matter what their personal path, there is nothing that excludes them from [reaching success],” Ramos said. “I hope they can see that in [Li]’s story. This is not the stereotype of a mathematician who has been doing calculus since they were five.”

Ramos and the BWM also chose Li because of her salient success story as a woman in mathematics.

“As soon as you feel like there’s some reflection of yourself that you can find in the world, that always makes things so much more doable,” Ramos said.

Wanlin furthered this sentiment when she expressed her excitement for the amount of women in the audience, offering a plethora of advice, as well as tangible resources, for this unique and challenging experience.

After receiving her PhD from UWM in 2019, Li spent the last three years conducting research with MIT and the Centre de Researches Mathématiques in Montreal. Next fall, she will take up Professorship at the Washington University in St. Louis.

BWM co-leader Emily Simons ’24 found inspiration in Li’s journey and success in the field of mathematics.

“She was so generous in sharing stories of her journey in math and demystifying the world of academia,” Simons said.“She painted a very real and honest picture of what her career has looked like, so we could really get a sense of both the challenges and joys of working in her field.”


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