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SVC math professor enjoys “reunion” in Italy at program for commutative algebra research

by Public Relations | March 14, 2024

LATROBE, PA — Last autumn, about 50 female mathematicians gathered for a week of research and collaboration in Trento, Italy, as part of the Women in Commutative Algebra (WICA) program. Organizers selected a diverse group of women in different career stages from large universities and small liberal arts colleges all over the world.

Among them was Dr. Whitney Liske, assistant professor of mathematics at Saint Vincent College (SVC). At the outset of the event, Liske met SVC alumna Dr. Rachel Diethorn, C’13, who recently started in a tenure-track position at Oberlin College. Liske also was introduced to Dr.Janet Stiuli, a professor at Fairfield University whose son plays for the SVC men’s soccer team. Likse was blown away by the coincidences: “I mean, what are the odds that we all meet like that in Italy?”

Wait a minute, Dr. Liske—shouldn’t a mathematician be able to compute those odds? “Probability is not my forte,” she said with a laugh. “I just know [thAttendees at the WICA meeting in October 2023 in Trento, Italye odds] are not high.”

Liske, who got her undergraduate degree from the College of Saint Benedict and her Ph.D. from Notre Dame, began teaching at SVC in 2019 and specializes in commutative algebra— a branch of abstract algebra that studies commutative rings, sets that satisfy certain specified properties, and is important in algebraic geometry. Although mathematics tends to be a male-dominated area of research, the number of female instructors and researchers in commutative algebra has risen in recent years.

“We have a lot of women who are very senior in the field and very well respected,” Liske said “They support young female researchers and have done a lot to make it a very welcoming environment for female mathematicians.”

WICA is one such effort. The program is a network of female mathematicians who aim to advance commutative algebra through research, promote the work of women in commutative algebra, advance the academic careers of female algebraists through publications and professional connections and facilitate collaborative interaction between junior and senior researchers.

“The purpose is to connect female researchers in different stages of their careers and different types of institutions to form collaborations and do good research,” Liske said.

Trento, a picturesque town along the Adige River in northern Italy, was a perfect setting for the WICA meet-up. In the 16th century, Trento hosted the Council of Trent, where the Catholic Church clarified its doctrines as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Now, Trento is a hub for scientific and financial institutions and has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley of the Alps.”

Before she arrived in Italy, Liske scanned the list of attendees and saw several familiar names. Liske knew Diethorn from their interactions during grad school and at conferences. “Although Whitney and I did not work on the same project, it was very nice to connect with her in Trento and hear more about her research and her time at Saint Vincent,” Diethorn said.

When the event got under way, each attendee stood and introduced herself. “I heard someone in the back of the room say she was from Fairfield University in Connecticut,” Liske said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I need to find her sometime throughout the week,’ because I wanted to tell her that Fairfield was the first place I’d ever done math research as an undergraduate. She found me first and told me that her son is at Saint Vincent.”

Striuli’s son Mattia Speretta, C 27, is a freshman forward for the Bearcats. “Having my kid just starting at Saint Vincent, I could not resist making the connection [with Liske],” Striuli said. “We compared notes on our institutions and careers. Of course, I told her how, as the mother of a freshman, I was anxious about the college experience in a small, far-away school. But meeting Whitney made me feel great about SVC.”

In Trento, the overall group of 50 mathematicians was broken into research groups. Liske’s WICA group has seven members, which is considerably larger than a typical math research collaboration.

“Lately, we've split up into smaller groups that are meeting weekly to talk about different approaches to our project, then we're meeting as a whole group once a month to report to each other and bounce ideas,” Liske said. “The small groups have changed a couple of times since we met in Italy, but it seems to be working pretty well.”


Liske and her research group recently landed grant money to assemble for two weeks this summer at the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute, an independent nonprofit research institute on the campus of the University of California, Berkley.


PHOTO: Attendees at the WICA meeting in October 2023 in Trento, Italy