Pomona College math whiz earns prestigious national prize
By Andrew Alonzo | firstname.lastname@example.org
In late October, Zoë Batterman, a 21-year-old senior mathematics major at Pomona College, received an email she had to read a few times to process fully. It was good news, really good news.
The email informed Batterman she was one of just two students nationwide to receive the 2024 Alice T. Schafer Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Woman from the Association for Women in Mathematics.
The news came as a surprise to Batterman since she’s a student at a small liberal arts college in Claremont going up against much larger Ivy League schools. And because Pomona College alumna Elena Kim won the prize in 2021, it was hard for her to envision the committee recognizing another Pomona student just two years later.
An award ceremony for the Schafer Prize recipients, which also included Purdue’s Meenakshi McNamara, will be held in San Francisco on January 3 at the 2024 Joint Mathematics Meeting, where the winners will each receive $1,000 and a certificate. The runner-up, Brown University’s Mattie Ji, will receive $250.
Anyone can nominate students for the prize. Nominees are evaluated based on their performance in advanced mathematics courses, their own work, and other programs. Batterman was recommended by two of her Pomona College professors, Konrad Aguilar and Edray Goins, as well as Steven J. Miller at Williams College.
“Zoë is a brilliant mathematician,” wrote Aguilar, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Pomona, in an email. “The research that we produced together is at the graduate level and higher and answered a question that I had for some time. Not only has she elevated my research, but she has also elevated my courses by helping me improve explanations of important topics in my courses over various discussions we have had about my courses over the years.”
“Zoe is ambitious yet curious,” Goins wrote in an email. “Working with Zoe has caused me to step up my own game, to think deeply about my own research questions.” Goins added that he treats Batterman “much the way I did my graduate students” at Purdue.
In an article published by Pomona College, Goins described Batterman as a “powerhouse of a mathematician.” Batterman said such kinds words from her mentor were just as rewarding — if not more so — than the Schafer Prize itself. “It’s great to be recognized relative to the math community that’s to the Alice T. Schafer award,” she said. “But someone you’ve worked with and seen and grew with … seeing that said I was like ‘Whoa!’ I felt more of a visceral reaction.”
Batterman’s work over the last few years has been in very technical areas. She explored C*-algebra (“a Banach algebra together with an involution satisfying the properties of the adjoint,” according to Wikipedia.) with Aguilar — she was his first research student at Pomona who was not a senior thesis student — during the spring of her sophomore year. During the Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience with Goins the following summer, she and others explored the relationships between Monodromy groups, Dessin d’enfants, and Belyi functions. She also worked with Miller at Williams College over the summer of 2023 researching random matrix models of cuspidal newform L-functions.
The Pomona College article stated her work with Miller “led to four preprints (preliminary versions of scholarly papers) with two more papers in preparation.”
Asked if the research can translate to real world applications, Batterman said yes and no.
“Is this research going to help people? No,” she said. “The work itself, maybe it has computer science applications in the far off future. That’s what happens with math, it gets adopted into these different areas.”
In spring, Batterman received the Barry Goldwater Scholarship for showing promise as a research leader, and an honorable mention for outstanding poster at the 2023 Mathematical Association of America’s MathFest in the summer, as well as outstanding poster at the association’s Southern California-Nevada Section contest.
Born in 2002 and raised in New Orleans, Batterman was not keen on mathematics. In fact, she was usually lost in fantasy novels or creating art.
“I would very much daydream, like, a lot,” she said.
At Benjamin Franklin High School, math was still not at the top of her priorities despite taking Advanced Placement calculus.
“I actually did not want to continue math” post high school, she said.
After graduating in 2020, Batterman declared for two majors at Pomona College, physics and philosophy. She explored both during her virtual freshman year during COVID, but interests pulled her elsewhere.
“If I have to go somewhere where there’s like a time thing on it, it’s very draining, and so I’d rather do my own thing,” she said. “I really, really, really was attracted to the freedom of mathematics.”
She switched to mathematics in 2021.
“When you’re able to think about the ideas and kind of translate freely between different objects and see something in a new light, at least for me, I felt very fulfilled and I really liked that,” she said.
With the holidays around the corner and spring graduation coming in a few months, Batterman has one main goal on her mind: spend as much quality time as possible with friends. She already applied for graduate school and scholarships and is waiting to hear back, and hopes to continue pursing mathematics in grad school.