Math Whiz Plus More
The numbers, even in the mind of Breanna Shi ’20, don’t quite add up. Looking at this particular equation, such a successful outcome was, in her words, “improbable.”
Yet, there Shi is, a mathematics whiz already on her way to a master’s degree while defying odds and creating new equations of achievement — at the age of 20.
“I definitely do see this as different,” Shi said without a hint of boastfulness.
This fall, with that master’s degree in math to be completed over the summer from the University of Minnesota, Shi will head to Georgia Tech University to pursue a doctorate in bioinformatics, with full tuition paid and a stipend, plus she will conduct machine-learning research in a customized lab as a GEM Diversity fellow.
Bioinformatics is a science field that uses computation to better understand biology. GEM represents a network of leading corporations, government laboratories, and top universities and research institutions that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to receive graduate education in applied science and engineering.
For Shi, whose mother is Puerto Rican and Jewish, the fellowship could support her for the next five years.
Similarly, Shi’s master’s degree is coming by virtue of the University of Minnesota Diversity of Views and Experiences Fellowship Program, which recruits and supports academically excellent students with diverse ethnic, racial, economic and educational backgrounds.
And all is being achieved with this as a backdrop: Shi attended two high schools, at least partly because of needed family moves, and she spent considerable time living in a Kissimmee, Florida, trailer park with her four siblings while both parents, at one point, were working at the Walt Disney World Resort.
“I’m glad that people did push me,” she added simply in assessing her success, mostly pointing to her parents, Julie and Craig Shi. Her mother returned to school later in life and is a 2011 alumna of Stetson’s MBA program (graduating cum laude and on the Dean’s List). Her father served as inspiration in life and in death.
When she was 15, he suffered a fatal heart attack in her bedroom while they were talking.
“My dad and I were very close. … He is the reason I decided to go to college at 15 [beginning dual enrollment the semester after his death],” she said, noting that he was pursuing a degree in criminal justice from Florida State University when he died. He was a Polk County Correctional Officer, highly respected both by coworkers and those who were incarcerated.
At Stetson, young Shi stood out for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her age. Through that dual enrollment, she graduated with her diploma from Auburndale High School and her associate’s degree from Polk State College at the same time — at age 17 in 2018 — before arriving at Stetson that fall.
At that time, Fazal Abbas, PhD, then a new assistant professor of mathematics, could not have known Shi had been a phenomenon at Polk State, becoming, among other distinctions, the first female math tutor at the tutoring center. She was only 16, “which was unheard of at the time because they didn’t hire people who were under 18, and I got the job,” she described.
Abbas, who had just arrived from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, initially taught Shi in an algebra class and then began working with her on an astro-physics project. Prior to Stetson, Abbas had worked closely with other talented students, and he witnessed something special in Shi: maturity, professionalism and passion to go along with her math prowess.
“She’s very respectful, and she’s a very good listener, and also very disciplined. There are multiple qualities,” Abbas said. “And she is confident — she can talk.”
Those qualities were on full display, Abbas noted, at the January 2019 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore, a huge annual academic gathering. In past years, Abbas regularly had invited top students to join him at the event, as a way for “gifted students to get exposure” and possibly earn graduate-school scholarships.
There, students made poster presentations and competed for attention. Shi shined. For her presentation, she received “Excellent,” the highest rating. Also, she met with admissions representatives from a variety of graduate schools nationwide.
“That’s how I got interested in going to grad school; it was at that conference,” she said before adding, “It was the first time I saw snow, so that was interesting.”
In 2019, Shi again was a big hit, this time at a conference for the National Council of Undergraduate Research, ultimately receiving a 2019 Stetson Undergraduate Research Education grant. And she returned with Abbas and other Stetson students for the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings, where she also emerged as a helpful, compassionate leader — characteristics of her father.
“My father was the kind of person who could NEVER just pass someone by on the side of the road that needed help,” she said. “ He once saw a fire on the side of the road and stopped our whole family to try and stop it with a wet towel until the fire fighters arrived. He was fearless and never let anything or anyone stop him. He is a huge part of who I am today.”
Abbas saw great confidence in his prized student.
“She has the ability to showcase in front of others,” commented Abbas, who continues to work with her on research projects. “While some gifted students might be shy or reluctant, she excelled when given the chance. She saw her value.”
Not surprisingly, on campus Shi had been a regular at Stetson’s popular Uncouth Hour, a weekly open-mic event where the university’s community of artists share their works of art and literature. Shi sang. “That was like the night when I didn’t have to be a math person,” she commented. “I’m a performer.”
Abbas wasn’t Shi’s first mentor/adviser. At Polk State, one summer algebra class was all math professor Li Zhou, PhD, needed to be convinced of her potential. “He was like, ‘You need to do mathematics,” Shi recalled.
Earlier, at Gateway High, a geometry teacher took special interest and made an impression, said Shi, who remembers being “good in math” since middle school.
As a result, Shi’s options in education now have multiplied. Before choosing Georgia Tech, she strongly considered a scholarship offer from Lehigh University in its doctorate program for computer sciences.
At Georgia Tech, Shi’s research will center on analyzing the genetic codes of certain fish, as those codes correlate to aggressive behavior. In straighforward terms, she explained: “Because fish are simpler than the human brain, we can actually analyze the fish and learn things about human aggression.”
Shi won’t turn 21 until August. So, then what follows her doctorate degree?
A continued path in research is a possibility, but Shi also would like to teach as a professor — to make “math interesting while inspiring others.”
Abbas sees inspiration from her in another form.
“My hope,” he said, “is that her story motivates other students to follow.”