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Renu Laskar: Changing Obstacles into Opportunities

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:17 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:19 PM by AWM Editor ]

2002 AWM Essay Contest:
1st Place in Graduate School Category

By Jeffrey B. Farr

Everyone encounters obstacles while traveling life’s road. Reactions vary. While most struggle to some measure of success against these common barriers, a few experience such remarkable success against such overwhelming odds that they are inspiring examples to us all. For several decades now, Renu Laskarhas been one such model, overcoming obstacles and opening new doors of opportunity through her determined character, professional excellence, and genuine love.

Renu faced many barriers in obtaining her mathematical training, but, with steady perseverance, she turned each stumbling block into a stepping stone to new heights. Born in Bihar, India, into what she describes as "a very orthodox Hindu family," Renu first persisted against the cultural expectations for Indian women. Her grandmother and father, in keeping with societal norms, expected her to receive minimal academic training. Indeed, her mother never had any formal education and was engaged to be married at age ten. That was simply the way things were done.

However, it was in her mother that Renu found her strongest ally. When a telegram that told of a family member’s death arrived one day, Renu’s mother was not able to read the English writing. Upon hearing the contents, she was deeply saddened at the news and also at her inability to read. She determined that her three daughters would receive better training than she had. Buoyed by her mother’s support, Renu received a decent education through high school, but college was still out of the question. Undaunted, she received private tutoring from a family friend; it was during this time that Renu began to realize her love for mathematics. Renu’s father finally consented to her wishes when she surprised him by earning very high marks on the college entrance exam. Upon finishing college in 1958, Renu, with strong encouragement from her older brother, decided to come to the United States to pursue her Ph.D. in math.

Her father was supportive of this venture, but now the barriers were financial. Education in America was a very prestigious, but very expensive, undertaking. Obtaining a Fulbright travel grant and a fellowship offer from the University of Illinois, Renu was able to turn her dream into a reality. She finished her degree in 1962, and then returned to India to marry her husband, Amulya (who had been a physics student at Illinois). After three years at the Indian Institute of Technology, where she was the first female faculty member, and three years at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Renu came with Amulya to Clemson University in South Carolina, where she has remained for 34 years. Some years after Renu had left her childhood home, her father joyfully noted that his children and their spouses each held at least one master’s degree and that five of the twelve held Ph.D.'s. Renu’s hard work and determination not only overcame obstacles but also provided new opportunities for her and for others after her.

Renu took full advantage of the opportunities she had and set new standards for women in mathematics. She ranks among the top five women in discrete mathematics in the number of articles published. According to MathSciNet, she has over 100 publications --- with several more in the wings! Part of the reason for her success in this area is her immense collaboration network, which included such giants as R.C. Bose and the legendary Paul Erdos. She has extended her influence by supervising a dozen Ph.D. students, with the thirteenth scheduled to finish in December, 2002. In 1986 Renu and Steve Hedetniemi organized the Clemson University Discrete Math Miniconference, an event that has drawn an international audience each year since. Certainly, the quantity and quality of Renu’s professional activity is a lofty goal for every mathematician, man or woman, to strive after.

Finally, in both her private and public life, Renu has shown immense love to all around her. As a young girl, she very likely would not have succeeded with a belligerent attitude; however, the respect that she gave her father and grandmother, even as she disagreed with them, eventually won the day. To Renu, "family life is very important." Even though she has experienced tremendous mathematical success, Renu "never gave up everything for her profession." She was and is very faithful to her responsibilities both as wife and as mother of two boys, Joy and Raja. An evidence of this love was demonstrated two days after the 2002 Discrete Math Miniconference as a tired but happy Renu hurried to finish writing a test before racing down to Atlanta for the birth of her third grandchild. Her family members are not the only ones to benefit from her generosity. Since becoming the main Clemson contact and hostess for Erdos over thirty years ago, Renu has willingly opened her home to scores of visitors who stay anywhere from one night to nine months!

Renu’s gritty determination, mathematical success, and gracious spirit have combined to turn difficult circumstances into wonderful opportunities. Clearly (to use a favorite word of mathematicians), Renu Laskar has provided an inspirational example for women mathematicians, indeed, for all mathematicians, in the twenty-first century to follow.

About the author: Jeff Farr is a Ph.D. candidate at Clemson University. His interests lie in algebra and discrete mathematics. Specifically, he is working with his advisor, Professor Shuhong Gao, in the area of algebraic coding theory. Together, they are developing a new method for decoding algebraic geometry codes. Jeff came into contact with Professor Laskar during his first semester as a graduate student and has since become one of her nearly sixty collaborators.