Inclined to succeed

USA Today First-teamer Lillian Pierce pursues interests ranging from mathematics to music

Ruth Stevens


Lillian Pierce with her violin on the stairs at the Woolworth Center of Musical Studies.

Princeton, NJ -- Junior Lillian Pierce is at the point where she's starting to think seriously about what she wants to do with her life.

After talking with her and reading her three-page resume, one gets the sense that the hardest decision she'll make won't be what to do but what not to do in order to achieve her goals.

Pierce was one of 20 students recently named by USA Today to its All-USA College Academic First Team for outstanding intellectual achievement and leadership. She was selected from 682 students nominated by colleges and universities in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

A pre-med student from Fallbrook, Calif., who is majoring in mathematics, Pierce maintains an above 4.0 grade-point average. She has spent summers conducting research in the University's chemistry department as well as for the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C. She is tutoring as a peer instructor in mathematics and chemistry. She is co-concertmaster of the Princeton University Orchestra. She is writing a play and organizing a five-day art camp for children this summer. She is working as a nurse assistant at the McCosh Health Center. And she just took up kung fu.

Admitting that it's a challenge to manage her time and to get enough sleep, Pierce said, "I've decided that Princeton has so many opportunities that I'm going to go ahead and devote these four years to taking advantage of them."

Coming to Princeton

Pierce first came into contact with Princeton in a common way her older brother, Niles, graduated from the University as valedictorian in 1993. But her admission process was anything but common.

Pierce and her younger brother, Marshall, attended classes at home with four other students in a private school run by her mother, a credentialed teacher. At different times, she tried attending a public school, but found the math instruction lacking and the time for practicing her violin limited.

She started playing the violin at age 4 and, by ninth grade, she was playing concerts professionally. At age 16, she began taking courses at a nearby community college, accumulating more than 100 credits by the time she was 18.

One university refused to look at her application because she already had attended college. Another told her she would have to finish in two years.

After spending most of her life in a non-traditional educational atmosphere, Pierce yearned for a more traditional college experience. Princeton welcomed her application, looked at her SAT scores, reviewed a letter from her mother instead of a high school counselor, and the rest is history.

Pierce has enjoyed the university setting so much that she's decided to make it a career. "I want to be in academia," she said. "I have been so inspired by my professors here that I think it would be a wonderful opportunity to get to pay back for the education I've received by trying to educate some other people. It's a very difficult job."

Pierce is considering concentrating her mathematical studies in either analysis or algebra. She also is very interested in molecular biology. Eventually, she plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. and to conduct research "with clear medical implications."

"One of the things I think about most is the possibility of using specially designed proteins to cure diseases like Alzheimer's, AIDS and others that are really going to be affecting shocking numbers of the population," she said.

Benefiting from both

Pierce said her study of mathematics inspires her work in the arts and vice versa. "I think using your brain to do the hardest work it possibly can is probably good for the rest of your work," she said of her academic pursuits.

"Music and art help everything else I do," she said. "I've even used funny studying techniques, like listening to a different type of music for each subject so that when I take the test, playing the music in my head instantly recalls other things. Music has been most important to me because it trained me to have a fairly photographic memory."

Making music

In addition to being co-concertmaster of the Princeton University Orchestra, Pierce is co-chair of the Orchestra Committee, serving as a liaison between students and administrators. She also has performed as a soloist with the Delaware Valley Philharmonic in Pennsylvania and with the Grossmont Symphony Orchestra in California. Last fall, she founded the Nassau String Quartet, a new student ensemble.


Erez Lieberman, also a junior mathematics major, was named to USA Today's All-USA College Academic Second Team. He was recognized for coordinating and winning a grant to fund research on electrochemical grinding, an economical, non-polluting industrial cutting technology. He also is religion chair of Yavneh House and a published poet.


"Lillian is, simply, one of the finest students I have ever had in my 23 years at Princeton," said Michael Pratt, conductor of the University Orchestra. "She is a superb violinist who could easily have attended any conservatory in the world. We get many, many bright and gifted students at Princeton, as one can imagine, but even in this rarified atmosphere, she stands out as a very special student and person."

Because of the other demands upon her time, Pierce said she doesn't get to practice as much as she'd like.

"I really have to focus to make up for the hours of practice I've lost," she said. "Playing music is work for me, but a different kind of work. It's the alternator in the car engine. It's doing one kind of work, and fueling another kind of work."

At this point in her life, Lillian Pierce can use all the fuel she can generate.


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