Zvezdelina Stankova ’92 Carries on a Bryn Mawr Tradition: Excellent Teaching in Mathematics

Posted April 6th, 2011 at 1:02 pm.

photo of Zvezdelina Stankova by Laura McHugh (for the Mathematical Association of America)

photo of Zvezdelina Stankova by Laura McHugh (for the Mathematical Association of America)

Zvezdelina Stankova ’92, a professor of mathematics at Mills College and the University of California, Berkeley, was one of three university math teachers to receive the 2011 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award. The award, presented by the Mathematical Association of America at the joint annual meeting of the MAA and the American Mathematical Society, recognizes math professors whose effectiveness in teaching reaches beyond the bounds of their home institutions.

Stankova joins Annalisa Crannell ’87 on the list of Bryn Mawr alumnae who have won the award, which was instituted in 1993. Both Stankova and Crannell had an early role model in another Haimo Award winner, Bryn Mawr's Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics Rhonda Hughes, who won the award in 1998. In fact, Hughes shared the award podium with Stankova at the conference: she was the very first recipient of the M. Gweneth Humphreys Award for Mentorship of Undergraduate Women in Mathematics, given by the Association for Women in Mathematics.

In addition to teaching on the undergraduate level, Stankova fosters mathematical potential in over 200 San Francisco Bay Area middle- and high-schoolers every year through the Berkeley Math Circle. Founded in 1998, the Berkeley Math Circle is modeled after similar after-school programs in Stankova’s native Bulgaria.

Math circles are extracurricular programs where children focus on problem solving not covered in standard school curricula. Stankova, who holds a B.A./M.A. degree in mathematics from Bryn Mawr and a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry from Harvard University, says it was her fifth-grade math circle teacher who gave her the opportunity to realize that she had talent in the field of mathematics.

“Everyone can achieve a certain level and understanding and success in any topic,” says Stankova. “It is not written in stone that one will be successful in math, but everyone can be successful at their own level. In Bulgaria that is what the math circles are about: giving students an opportunity to achieve their potential.”

While Stankova’s talent for math was visible at an early age, it was the opportunities presented to her as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr that propelled her to the next level. With strong recommendations from Hughes, Stankova was accepted to the most prestigious math Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in the country, at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, in the summers after her junior and senior years.

“Rhonda recognized that I could go to the Duluth program; it was very personalized attention,” said Stankova.

She credits both Hughes and her M.A. advisor Paul Melvin for showing her what it takes to be a good teacher. She's not alone in admiring their skill: mathematics is a fixture on the list of the top five majors at Bryn Mawr. Typically, about eight percent of Bryn Mawr's undergraduate degrees are awarded in mathematics, a figure that dwarfs the national average of about one percent.

Stankova, clearly an effective teacher in both the secondary and undergraduate classrooms, is carrying on that tradition.

Since she began teaching at Mills, the number of math majors per year has more than doubled. The personalized attention she received as a student at Bryn Mawr translates well into the small, liberal-arts environment at Mills. It also allows her to reach students despite the large class sizes at research universities like U.C. Berkeley. In addition to founding the Berkeley Math Circle, Stankova also coached the U.S. Mathematical Olympiad Team for the International Mathematical Olympiads for six years. She herself won silver medals twice on the Bulgarian team as a high school student.

In 2004, Stankova became the a co-recipient recipient of the first Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member.

Stankova says that she did not realize the value of her Bryn Mawr education until she had attended other academic institutions. She says that networking is one of the most important ways to develop one’s career. The connections within the academic world of mathematics that Stankova made at Bryn Mawr have undoubtedly done just that.

It was Stankova’s advisor at Duluth, Joe Gallian, who nominated Stankova for both the Alder and the Haimo Awards.

“If I hadn’t gone to that summer research program, who knows!” quipped Stankova.

By Katherine Bakke
Reporting contributed by Antonia Kerle

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