Selection as valedictorian a family affair for the Pierces


Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- On a spring day nine years ago, Lillian Pierce remembers watching proudly with her family as her brother, Niles, gave the valedictory address at Princeton's commencement.

Lillian Pierce
 

 

She never imagined that she and her sibling would someday switch places. On June 4, Niles will be watching proudly in the audience when Lillian speaks as this year's valedictorian. Officials believe it is the first time in University history that a second member of the same family has been chosen for the honor.

"I wanted to come to Princeton from the first moment he got accepted, but I didn't actually think I could turn out similar to him," said Pierce, a mathematics major from Fallbrook, Calif., who, also like her brother, has won a Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford University after graduation. "It was the same way with the Rhodes Scholarship. I felt like what he had done was fantastic and I wanted to work as hard as he had, but I didn't know if I could achieve it."

"I guess I used to tease 'Lilly Bee' a fair amount as a brother nine years older," said Niles Pierce, an assistant professor of applied and computational mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. "Now my friends get to tease me about how much better she is at everything than I was. It's a tremendous pleasure to enjoy her artistic and academic talents with a sense of quiet wonder."

Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel told faculty members at the meeting during which Pierce was nominated that "It is simply impossible to imagine a person better qualified to represent the class of 2002 and the University as this year's valedictorian."

Pierce, who was home-schooled by her mother, has earned many honors since arriving at Princeton. She was recognized with the President's Award for Academic Achievement following her freshman and sophomore years. She was awarded the Freshman First Honor Prize and was the co-winner of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award as the student entering senior year with the highest overall academic standing. She was named a Barry Goldwater Scholar in 2001 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa following her junior year.

Earlier this year, she was named the co-winner of the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on a Princeton undergraduate. She has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and declined a Marshall Scholarship for next year in order to accept the Rhodes Scholarship to study pure mathematics at Oxford. She has been recognized by USA Today with selection to the 2001 All-USA College Academic First Team and by Glamour Magazine as one of the Top 10 College Women in 2001.

Also an accomplished violinist, Pierce has served as co-concertmaster of the Princeton University Orchestra, founder and first violinist of the Nassau String Quartet and soloist with professional orchestras. Michael Pratt, conductor of the University Orchestra, has described her as "a superb violinist who could easily have attended any conservatory in the world."

Pierce has participated in summer research in theoretical chemistry at Princeton, in molecular biology at the California Institute of Technology and in mathematics at the National Security Agency. In addition, she has been a nurse's assistant at McCosh Infirmary, a tutor in math and organic chemistry and a mentor to young women with an interest in mathematics.

Elias Stein, the Albert Baldwin Dod Professor of Mathematics and Pierce's thesis adviser, called her "truly a modern embodiment of the 'Renaissance man' ideal." Pierce said that working with faculty members like Stein, who recently was named a winner of the National Medal of Science, has been the best part of her Princeton education.

"I'm really grateful that Princeton has such high-class thinkers who are so close to the students," she said. "In particular, I'm just amazed that I've gotten to do my thesis with Elias Stein. It's really been incredible to get to take classes from him and do a thesis with him."

Pierce's senior thesis addresses problems related to the Riemann hypothesis, "one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics." In particular, she focused on the pair correlation of the zeroes of the Riemann zeta function, an area said to be on the frontier of recent research on the interrelations between analysis and number theory.

Pierce said that completing the thesis has whetted her appetite for the work she plans to do next year at Oxford. Rather than taking more classes, she'll be devoting all of her time at the university to conducting research.

"If you had talked to me about this in December, I would have said I was scared to death of doing research," said Pierce, who will earn a master's degree at Oxford. "But doing the thesis made it clear to me that it's tough, but it's really enjoyable. I could keep on taking classes, but I'm really drawn to working on one problem for a long period of time."

Looking back over her four years at Princeton, Pierce said she's "trying not to forget how terribly hard I had to work. People think I've done it very easily. That's not true -- it's been very difficult. But it's all been fun, too, because I love learning. I love that kind of work."

She said the most challenging aspect of her Princeton education has been learning to ask for help. "Especially because I'd been home-schooled, I'd never been able to ask questions of anyone because there just wasn't anyone who knew," she said. "I'd really become accustomed to just sitting and struggling and finally understanding it. So when I came here it was inconceivable to me that I got to ask professors to help me. It really felt like cheating. Through freshman year, I was still pretty vehement about not asking people for help. Now I realize that it's really important -- it's part of the learning process."

Pierce said she realized how important her relationships with faculty members and graduate students had become when she was writing acknowledgments for her thesis. "So many people in the math department have stopped to answer a five-minute question or a two-hour question," she said.

She also enjoys taking on the role of the mentor and answering other people's questions. "I really love the fact that I can tutor freshmen and sophomores and even juniors," she said. "It's incredible to see the same textbook that I started with as a freshman and have it all just instantaneously clear."

As absorbed as she has been in her mathematical studies, Pierce has been adamant about making time for music. "Music has really been crucial, in particular when I get depressed about studies," she said. "Music steps in and becomes very important."

In fact, when asked about a favorite memory of Princeton, Pierce without hesitation mentioned her senior recital in May.

"One thing that has really bothered me about coming to Princeton is the idea of sacrificing music and not going to a conservatory -- making that decision that I'm not going to be a musician," she said. "I think I've always sort of pretended that I've never made that decision and that I could still be a musician.

"Especially over the past two years when I've been doing a lot more math than I have been doing music, I've felt badly about that," she continued. "So as my senior recital was approaching, I just thought, 'Maybe I'm not a violinist any more, maybe I can't actually do this.' But I did! Afterward, I realized I'm going to be a mathematician but I really haven't sacrificed music. I can still perform and have it turn out the way I want."

Pierce said she has especially enjoyed the high-caliber musicians among her fellow students. "People who got accepted at conservatories come here, and I got to play with them," she said. She plans to keep up with her music at Oxford, perhaps switching to Baroque violin, an instrument that is played differently because it does not have a chin rest and has a different kind of bow.

Before traveling to England in October, Pierce characteristically has a full summer planned. She will again work for the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., until mid-August. Then she will return home to California to stage a production of "Pygmalion" with a six-member acting troupe with which she has been affiliated since 1992. Finally, she will perform Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" in a concert with an orchestra in her hometown.

"It turns out that Fallbrook is hiring an orchestra to play with me as sort of a going away present," she said. "I told my father, 'I'd love to play this concert,' and he said, 'Let me call up the music society,' and it worked."

Pierce credits her family's support over the years with enabling her to achieve what she has. She is the daughter of Michael and Elizabeth Pierce and has, in addition to brother, Niles, an older sister, Alice, and a younger brother, Marshall.

After her two years at Oxford, Pierce plans to return to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics and to become a university faculty member. Princeton's doctoral program is at the top of her list of possibilities.

"It's really tough to leave Princeton," she concluded. "It feels like a home-- not just physically but intellectually. I've felt like I've started thinking since I came here."

 
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