In mathematics and running, fourth-year Sarah Peluse puts up impressive numbers.
Sarah Peluse, ’14, has been putting math first since sixth grade, when she used to sneak out of her other classes to talk shop with her math teacher, Jan Robinson. “I didn’t really like school until I had this teacher for math,” says Peluse, who appreciated that Robinson taught “Socratically” instead of lecturing. “I just wanted to do math all the time.”
Peluse skipped seventh grade, and at age 15 enrolled at Lake Forest College, having exhausted all of the mathematics courses at Buffalo Grove High School and her local community college. It only took her two years to finish the math Lake Forest had to offer, so in 2011 she transferred as a third-year to the University of Chicago on the advice of the late Paul Sally after visiting his famously difficult Honors Analysis class on the recommendation of Lake Forest’s David Yuen, AM’85, SM’85.
“It really freaked me out when I was at Lake Forest because I was like 15 and there were girls on the cross country team [with me] who were 22 and they had tattoos and stuff and were getting married,” says Peluse. “But when I came here, I just felt like a normal student.”
She doesn’t act like one. In his 50 years of teaching, Sally said, he “never had a student who worked harder than Sarah.”
Peluse served as Sally’s assistant during her first year and learned from him how to study math: “You get the book and you work through it,” she says, “but when you get to a theorem, you try and prove it yourself,” covering up the proof.
Peluse spends a lot of time researching math by herself. Her specialty is analytic number theory—using ideas evolved from calculus to work with whole numbers, especially prime numbers—which isn’t even taught in the College. “I think the results are really pretty,” says Peluse. “Things about the primes seem really intractable. So I first got into [analytic number theory] because it was a mystery: how can you know these things?”
When Peluse is in the middle of proving a conjecture, she says she gets “a little obsessed” until she finishes. Last summer, she wrote a paper about prime power degree irreducible representations of the special unitary group. “I would just think about it all the time,” she says.
About math, she notes, “I like how everything in it is right. There’s a conclusion.”
Peluse was recognized in January by the Association for Women in Mathematics with the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Woman. Schafer, SM’40, PhD’42, was a founding member of the association, and the Schafer Prize is one of only two prizes presented to undergraduates at the Joint Mathematics Meetings.
Peluse works as hard at running for the track and cross country teams as she does at math, and with similar dedication—she ran for the Maroons at the Division III national championships in 2011 and 2012. “Her running log has the most meticulous and consistent records” of times and distances, says teammate Nicole Gorton, ’16. Plus, Gorton says, “that day it was minus 50, she ran outside.”
Participating in track and cross country has been the biggest positive influence for Peluse at the University, she says. She’s lukewarm about the Core, but among her nonmath courses she liked Baseball and American Culture. Peluse is an avid Cubs fan and spends breaks watching the MLB Network.
This fall Peluse will head to Stanford to pursue a PhD. “They’ve got a lot of professors and grad students working in number theory,” she says. “The math department seemed very friendly and collaborative.”
In her last quarter at the University, Peluse only enrolled in one class: Hebrew 103, to satisfy the University’s language requirement. She isn’t worried about filling her hours. “I’ll study math on my own and audit classes,” she says.