MAA Math Ambassadors in a Global Mathematics Community

By Rachel Levy, Deputy Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

Jeanette Shakalli, Executive Assistant of the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Panama

Jeanette Shakalli, Executive Assistant of the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Panama

Have you heard about the fantastic mathematics outreach program in Panama run by Dr. Jeanette Shakalli?

Jeanette is a mathematician who currently serves as Executive Assistant of the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Panama. You might recognize her from "Meet A Member" in the August/September 2018 issue of MAA FOCUS magazine.

I had heard about Jeanette from several mathematicians lucky enough to travel to Panama and present mathematical wonders as part of her program to bring mathematics to a general audience. You might recognize some MAA Math Ambassadors in the collection of posters below (click on the thumbnail to see a larger image)!

Poster featuring MAA Math Ambassadors

Poster featuring MAA Math Ambassadors

Jeanette’s role is to help connect people to mathematics and share the power and beauty of the subject with Panamanians. After Jeanette and I met at the Mathematics Section Meeting of the AAAS Annual Meeting 2019, we started an email correspondence. I was pleased to learn Jeanette is an enthusiastic MAA member. When I asked her why she joined MAA, Jeanette wrote:

“Actually, I became a member of the MAA because the AMS President of the time, David Vogan, recommended I attend MAA MathFest because he thought I would really enjoy it, so I did. I followed his advice and joined the MAA, and it has been the best decision I ever made. I believe I am a self-proclaimed math ambassador for Panama. In 2017 I became IMU's CWM Ambassador for Panama so maybe I am not self-proclaimed anymore =).”

“Whoa!” I responded. “Best decision you ever made?!?!? Tell me more…”

Jeanette responded: “It's true!!! If it wasn't for all the great connections that I have made through the MAA, I would not have been able to come up with my Program on Math Outreach at the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation of Panama (SENACYT). If you notice, almost all (or maybe all?) the mathematicians who have visited Panama so far are MAA members. Moreover, they have somehow become my mentors. For example, today Robert Vallin sent me a message on another activity that involves pi that I could do next time I organize a Pi Day Celebration. (I have to mention that yesterday was my first time organizing a Pi Day Celebration and it was SO much fun!!!) Arthur Benjamin is always introducing me to remarkable mathematicians who he thinks are wonderful public speakers and would love to come visit Panama. Michael Dorff has helped me think about what I want to do with my life (I know, it sounds intense!) and has pushed me to consider creating my own math presentation for Panamanians and spreading the love for math in my own country (in other words, besides bringing talented international mathematicians to Panama, he says that I could also do it myself!). Deanna Haunsperger invited me to be one of the Twenty Faces of the MAA. In a way, the MAA has become my family and I am very happy that I followed David Vogan's advice.”

Jeanette’s comments made me start thinking about what the last “A” in MAA really stands for.  Before I was the Deputy Executive Director of the MAA I was the Vice President for Education for SIAM, appointed under the Presidency of Dr. Irene Fonseca (Carnegie-Mellon University). Irene liked to say that the “I” in SIAM not only stood for industrial but also for international. The mission of the MAA is "to advance the understanding of mathematics, and its impact on our world.” Sometimes I like to think of us as the Mathematics Association of Ambassadors!

This map of our sections includes the US, Canada and four US Territories. But our community extends beyond these boundaries through our mathematics competition program, our members who come from all over the world, our global mathematics teaching, learning and research networks, and the global society and ecosystem that we serve.

However, Jeanette shared this perspective: “I do not consider the MAA to be an international organization since whenever I go to the conferences, I rarely see people from outside the US, and all the MAA meetings are in the US.” She encouraged us to consider not how many MAA members live outside of the US but instead how many MAA members are international (not US citizens or residents). She suggested many ways the MAA could choose to be more international, such as making new alliances with international organizations, organizing MAA meetings/events outside of the US, promoting MAA membership in other countries, and preparing flyers about math in general and about the MAA in other languages.  

This is a timely suggestion! Just last week the staff leadership of MAA, AMS, ASA and SIAM were invited to the National Academies of Sciences to discuss research trends with leadership from the British Research Council (EPSRC) and the UK Research and Innovation USA. Our new MAA President Michael Dorff is well known for traveling internationally so I expect we will hear more from him about global mathematical perspectives.

Next time you are in Panama, let Jeanette know, and if you are lucky, she will show you around her beautiful country and connect you to the mathematics community there!