Fourth-year Sarah Peluse wins Schafer Prize for excellence in mathematics

Sarah Peluse, a fourth-year student in the College, has been recognized for her excellence in mathematics and her contributions to the field with the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize. The prize, awarded by the Association for Women in Mathematics, is based on her special research projects and on her performance as an undergraduate woman in advanced mathematics courses.

The late Prof. Paul Sally, who taught mathematics and directed Undergraduate Studies in Mathematics at the University of Chicago for 50 years, recommended Peluse for the honor. “I have never had a student who worked harder than Sarah,” Sally said in an interview a few weeks before his death.

Peluse has been blazing her way through mathematics classes for over a decade. She started college at age 15, hungry for a challenge that she wasn’t getting in high school. Within two years at college, she had finished all of her original school's mathematics courses.

Peluse soon joined UChicago as a transfer student. “There are a ton of mathematics classes here, and my peers are dedicated and interesting,” she said.

She said her other classes at UChicago were an unexpected benefit of the transfer. “I have enjoyed the discussions in many of my non-math classes,” she said, noting that a surprise favorite was “Baseball and American Culture: 1840–Present.”

Among the people on campus who celebrated her win of the Schafer Prize are members of the Maroon cross country and track teams. “I can’t say enough about Sarah as a good citizen and wonderful teammate,” said Chris Hall, coach of women’s cross-country and track.

Peluse is in her third year of running for the Maroons. Her scores in many long distance events, notably the outdoor 10,000 meters, earned her recognition as an All-Academic athlete last year in Division III. Her coach said she is “wired to be a long-distance runner.”

“She can handle a high workload of training and has a marathoner’s stride,” Hall said. 

The student athletes on the team balance rigorous courses with an equally demanding practice and competition schedule, an ability that Peluse has mastered. “I would see her doing math problems for fun,” Hall said. 

Peluse has spent her summers researching mathematics with like-minded students and professors around the country. At Williams College she researched multidimensional continued fractions, and at Emory she researched congruence properties of Borcherds product exponents and irreducible representations of the special unitary group, among many other projects. She has published her research and presented it at the Joint Mathematics Meetings for three consecutive years.

She says she is particularly grateful for the support of her former mentor, Prof. Sally, who took great care to cultivate her mathematics skills. “I went to him for advice about classes, research opportunities for undergraduate students, and how to approach graduate school,” she said.

Peluse hopes to continue studying analytic number theory after she graduates this spring. She will pursue a PhD in mathematics and prepare for a career in academia.

She will accept the prize from the Association of Women in Mathematics at the Joint Mathematics Meetings on Thursday, Jan. 16. It is named in honor of Alice Turner Schafer, PhD’42, who spent much of her career trying to increase women’s participation in mathematics.

Speaking to the challenges for women in a historically male-dominated field, Peluse said she has found strong backing for her ambitions at UChicago. “Everyone here has been very supportive,” she said. Among Peluse’s many current projects, Peluse works as a research assistant for Maryanthe Malliaris, a model theorist and assistant professor of mathematics. Peluse says her research and travels have brought her into contact with “many talented women who are good at math, and who never feel bad about it.”