Professor Emeritus Leonora Kohan lived life with “brio” an Italian word from the 18th Century describing vigor, gusto, zest, enthusiasm, vitality, dynamism, spirit, and energy. She was my teacher, mentor, friend, and I loved her.
Leonora was one of few female students of her time enrolled in graduate math courses and overcame overwhelming odds rising from Assistant Professor, Professor, and awarded the prestigious title, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics.
I was honored to be named the custodian of her personal effects within her will. It was bittersweet to box up her belongings within her large cozy corner office with beautiful bay windows overlooking the Charles River. The office included a fireplace, sitting room, and wall to wall bookshelves. The beautiful office was a perk associated with being a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the most prestigious university in the United States. She suffered from metastatic breast cancer and succumbed to the disease just as my mother and her lover, Deidre.
The story of Leonora’s life was depicted in her photo album and extensive vinyl record collection ranging from classical to bebop, folk, and “British Invasion” rock. Her bookshelves were lined with volumes of mathematical titles with a special shelf reserved for an impressive collection of poetry including Browning, Dickinson and Bronte bequeathed to her by Deidre who taught literature. Leonora’s photo album revealed her parents fleeing Poland from the Nazi’s and settling in the lower East side of New York. Her father sold rags from a push cart and made his way into the fabric business. Her mother taught classical piano to the gentry of New York. Leonora excelled in mathematics and was a stellar student admitted to our Alma Mata at seventeen where she received her bachelor’s, masters, and doctorate degrees. Towards the back of the photo album, I find photos of Leonora and Deidre traveling the world together and attending anti war or women’s rights protest marches. The photos also include them happily at home in Martha’s Vineyard. I developed an undergraduate’s crush on Leonora and she was my inspiration and mentor as I studied mathematics as an undergraduate and graduate student. I was invited by Leonora to join her small clique of female professors and graduate students meeting regularly to enjoy tea, book readings, dinner parties, and music.
I thumbed through the LP record collection finding an album by Simon and Garfunkel which was one of her favorites. I carefully removed the shiny LP from its album cover and carefully placed it on the turn table. I watched the stylus gently raise, glide over the spinning vinyl album, and landing on, “The Dangling Conversation”:
It’s a still life watercolor
Of a now-late afternoon
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room
Leonora was a tall thin woman in her seventies with salt and pepper long wavy hair. She had beautiful green eyes. Leonora spent her career studying the application of mathematics to economic markets to better understand how they function. She was an instrumental and only female member of teams earning Nobel Prizes which required her intellect but kept her out of the limelight as the awards and accolades poured in. She never complained or expressed resentment. Leonora was soft spoken and sensitive but was also a no nonsense woman not suffering fools especially men.
I grew up on a farm growing wheat and raising cattle in the Midwest. I knew each of our farm animals by name. My wardrobe consisted mostly of a pair of overalls and work boots. I was an only child and my father treated me like a son never failing to introduce me to something others might find beyond the reach of a girl. I drove tractors, birthed calves, and repaired farm equipment. Dad always placed his large hands around my shoulder and say “good job”. I felt his love and pride radiate through his strong arm. My mother was petit but strong willed. Neither of my parents finished high school but had common sense intelligence with strong work ethics and an unbending sense of right and wrong. I wasn’t interested in boys. I found them to be dirty, crude, and uninteresting but I didn’t resent them because they were simple farm boys. My mother never expressed doubts about my sexuality nor did she force me to act girly but encouraged me to pursue my intellectual pursuits. I was a problem solver, interested in making farm work easier and more efficient. I spent my spare time star gazing with an old pair of binoculars. The expansive star filled sky made me feel insignificant in the grand scheme of life yet I was hopeful I could make important contributions eventually finding my own little place within the universe.
School came easily to me. I won the National Merit Scholarship and was invited to attend the most prestigious university in the US at no cost to my struggling parents who could only afford to send me to state college with the hopes that I might study agricultural science and return home
to work the farm. I entered a State high school science competition and my project involved the application of Euclidian geometry to farming. Applying Euclidian geometry to a myriad of farm parcels of differing sizes, irregular shapes, and arriving at more efficient harvesting maneuvers was the challenge. I was able to test my hypothesis because my father had a friend on the County road crew who gave me a crash course on surveying and lent me his surveying equipment for the weekend. My father utilized my hypothesis by following my handwritten route in which to drive his tractor which saved time, fuel, and generated a greater production of wheat harvested. I wrote a computer program which I tested with a satellite image of our farm validating my computer program and hypothesis. My computer program was not only applicable to wheat harvesting but any crop utilizing equipment or human labor. My entry to the State high school science competition was titled, “Efficient Harvesting Hypothesis” and was awarded first prize.
I was invited to enter the “Super Bowl of Science” for high school students known as the “Regeneron Science Talent Search”. I knew the competition would be stiff. 1800 papers were submitted. Later that year, I was notified that I was one of forty semi-finalists and flown to Washington, D.C. where I was interviewed by the judges including Nobel Laureates and Leonora Kohan. The judges were exacting in their questions always seeking to validate the hypothesis and science behind the projects submitted. The judges were tough in their questioning but fair. My entry made it to the top ten finalists. My nine competitors were formidable and I believed my entry involving farm work would be dismissed summarily. First Prize was awarded to an all male team from Massachusetts who had completed compelling mathematical and computer programming work on the foundations of early crypto currencies. I was genuinely happy for them and was rebuffed when extending my congratulations. I was awarded Second Prize and was dumbfounded. When I phoned home to tell my parents, my father answered but became too emotional to speak handing the telephone to mom who congratulated me and assured me the award money would be placed in my scholarship fund.
At the conclusion of the award ceremony, Leonora introduced herself and extended her congratulations confiding in me that she voted my entry for first prize. She told me the first place team included the son’s of the academic elite, genius prep school students, and Massachusetts was perennially one of the top ten states with finalists in the competition. She apologized for the winning team’s arrogance but warned me that women in STEM should learn to accept and gain strength from the misogyny. Leonora urged me to accept her prestigious college’s offer of admission and extended an invitation to become my advisor should I major in mathematics.
When I returned to high school, I was a celebrity to the faculty but still an unpopular “geek” to most of my classmates. When the Senior Prom arrived, mom sewed me a prom dress but I received no invitation. My father took me to the Prom. As my teachers approached, they complimented me on my brilliance informing us I was the only student from my high school and possibly the only student in our state’s history to achieve a perfect score on the SAT and science achievement tests not to mention the only student in our state’s history to win second prize in the prestigious “Regeneron Science Talent Search”. It was ironic that the Prom Queen was required to read a letter from the Governor of our state congratulating me for winning second prize and making the citizens of the state proud. The Principal approached the podium and announced that I was named Valedictorian of my high school graduating class. There was only scant applause from my fellow students. At that moment, I decided to accept the offer of admission from the most prestigious university in the Country. Soon after, Leonora called me to congratulate me on my decision and took the opportunity to speak with both of my parents assuring them I made the correct choice. She later forwarded me papers she wrote concerning the “efficient markets hypothesis” and suggested I consider serving as her research assistant when I arrived on campus in the fall.
The “efficient markets hypothesis” holds that competition in financial markets creates equilibrium prices and strategies to “game” or beat stock, bond, or currencies markets are futile. Leonora’s research centered on methodologies minimizing the uncertainty in financial markets and increasing the opportunity for profit. Her strategies, if proven, would provide valuable tools for investors.
I spent the summer working on the farm but with a keen eye on our cattle herd with Leonora’s research in mind. I’d watch the patterns of the cattle at feeding time and ask why “outliers” (cattle) would not follow the pack racing for the feeding bin at feeding time. Were they employing a strategy as if being last to the feeding bin would offer a competitive advantage? Did their strategy include avoidance of competition for a better position at the bin and the opportunity to graze upon the tastier oats and hay which lie at the bottom of the feed bin? I became fascinated with the outliers who wouldn’t follow the herd and began a journal with my speculations on the outliers feeding strategy.
When I arrived at the university, I was competing with the best undergraduate minds in the world. I majored in mathematics and computer science and was one of only few female students in the courses. Many brilliant mathematicians are capable of performing complex calculations and deriving ingenious solutions to mathematical questions but doing complex mathematics elegantly is genius which exemplified Lenora Kohan. Leonora and I met twice weekly discussing my subjects, tutoring, but most of all, receiving her encouragement to keep persevering in a largely male, highly competitive, academic discipline. Leonora and I established the WSSN–Women’s STEM Support Network which met weekly and the camaraderie was instrumental in my success as an undergraduate.
My four years as an undergraduate raced by. My parents took a bus to Cambridge for my graduation. They met Leonora who told them I was the “most promising student she ever had” with “boundless” career prospects. Since I was selected Valedictorian, my parents sat in the front row proudly wearing their “Sears finest” alongside the President of the United States who delivered the commencement address. As I delivered the Valedictorian address from the podium to my undergraduate peers, I suggested they seek a job over the summer which would get their hands dirty, make them sweat, and they would feel the satisfaction garnered from a hard day’s work molding them in many positive ways not the least of which would be greater appreciation for their future educational and professional endeavors. I saw my father, the strongest man I ever knew, weep and my mom holding him closely with tears flowing down her face.
Graduation would be the last time I saw my mother who died of breast cancer. At the reading of mom’s will, I was informed that she spent a portion of my Regeneron Science Award money and engaged a top patent lawyer to legally protect my Efficient Harvesting software. I phoned my father every Sunday when I knew he had returned from church. Although he sounded like the strong and determined father I knew, something in his voice told me he wasn’t the same man without my mother. He died of a heart attack within a year of mom’s passing. I returned home for the final time to bury my father alongside his beloved wife and sell the family farm. I placed the sale proceeds in a trust fund for a future use.
I proudly accepted the offer of admission to the graduate school at my university where I would earn both a Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degree in mathematics. I was invited by Leonora to collaborate with her on her efficient markets studies. The Master of Science degree would require only one year to complete and involved taking graduate level courses in mathematics and serving as a teaching assistant. The most important task to be completed within this year was to arrive at a thesis for my doctoral degree. Leonora was encouraging me to work with her on efficient markets study which would become the basis of my doctoral thesis but I was intrigued by the burgeoning field of “crypto currencies”. Crypto currency is an electronic or digital form of money not consisting of paper or coin. It permits users to make transactions between each other anonymously without a central bank. Instead of a central bank keeping track of payments, crypto currency uses an electronic ledger called a “Block Chain”. Transactions are communicated to the Block Chain through software “nodes” which are updating the block chain continuously.
I was inspired by the outliers feeding strategy on our farm. It was my hypothesis that embedding the nodes with software capable of tracking and predicting even anonymous users spending habits was possible. My doctoral thesis would be the creation of software which tracked the outliers on the crypto currency “farm” and incentive them to join the “herd” by spending crypto currency.
When I met with Leonora to present the thesis for my doctorate, I wasn’t met with the disappointment I expected in not choosing to engage in Lenora’s efficient markets studies but encouragement. Leonora was aware of crypto currencies and said she would complete some “due diligence” on her own before approving my thesis.
About a month had passed and I was invited to Leonora’s office. She approved my doctoral thesis and informed me a team at the prestigious science university across the Charles River was already hard at work on a crypto currency. This team was creating software designed to be embedded into the block chain to track demand, anticipate it, and raise prices accordingly which would have great value to investors. The team was backed by funding from an investment bank which formed a joint venture with the team and university. Leonora and I agreed that my creation of software to identify and attract the “outliers” had as much potential because the outliers are future customers with a massive population. Leonora had a keen business sense she inherited from her father. She suggested that I keep my study independent of outside investors and involve the University only when my software was tested and ready for publication. Leonora informed me that the team across the Charles River was comprised mostly of the same arrogant boys who won First Prize at the Regeneron Science competition besting my entry. Leonora and I shared an intense desire to win “First Prize” this time.
My doctorate study required four years of intense full time effort. I was under a great amount of time pressure because not only did I have to prepare my doctoral thesis but Leonora informed me that a peer review conference was to be held by the competing team just prior to the release of a paper revealing their crypto currency. If we had a better crypto currency, it would be best to present it immediately after the peer review.
The success of my thesis wouldn’t have been possible without Leonora’s strict adherence to empirical study. She challenged me to prove each of my hypotheses and the mathematics backing them more than one way so that each could be defended leaving no doubt regarding their correctness. Leonora exercised “tough love” as she guided me through the completion of my doctorate. She had an extraordinary mind for mathematics with the unique ability to do complex mathematics elegantly with the fewest of steps; each step a logical conclusion from the previous. Had she the opportunity to enter the field of mathematics in more progressive times, she would have earned a Nobel Prize. Deidre contracted breast cancer. Despite the emotional toll on Leonora, she never missed a beat arriving on campus each day, completing her work, and collaborating with me on my thesis. Although Deidre received the best cancer treatment at the most prestigious medical school in the Country, Deidre died from the same metastatic breast cancer which killed my mother. Leonora was heartbroken. Deidre died on a Friday but Leonora was back at her desk on Monday. I admired Leonora’s ability to grieve but compartmentalize her pain and keep moving forward.
I was contacted unexpectedly by a prominent national trade group consisting of corporate farming conglomerates inviting me to present my Efficient Harvesting software at their annual meeting in Kansas City. Watching my parents struggle on their small family farm, I grew to despise corporate farming conglomerates that were responsible for the demise of family farms and decided to ignore their invitation. Leonora urged me to attend the conference because my software had the opportunity to increase crop production around the world and it was my moral obligation to reveal my software which was legally protected by the patent my mother obtained years before.
I presented my findings to the trade group. Soon thereafter, I was contacted by the legal departments of the largest corporate farmers in the US with offers to purchase my software. Leonora suggested that I tell them I wasn’t ready to discuss a sale as I was busy completing my doctorate noting these offers would increase with my rebuff. The conglomerates weren’t patient and their CEO’s were extending opportunities to meet with me in person. Leonora suggested I tell them that I’m too busy to travel but I would arrange a single day for all interested companies to meet with me in Cambridge. I scheduled a day of back to back meetings with the CEO’s of each company who were uncomfortably aware of their competitors waiting in the hotel lobby for their turn to present an offer. At the end of the long day of meetings, Leonora met me at the hotel bar. I needed a glass of wine to relax because my head was spinning with offers to purchase my software at prices so large any Wall Street investment banker would be impressed. I was a simple farm girl who watched her parents struggle and never could imagine being so wealthy. Leonora savored her wine basking in the delight of watching the alpha males of corporate agriculture trip over each other to buy a woman’s ingenious solution to efficient farming. She told me time was on my side and to focus on completing my thesis because the offers would increase in value.
I completed my doctoral thesis in three years just in time to present it immediately after the peer review conference held by the competing team. In defending my thesis to the committee composed of the brightest minds in mathematics and computer science in the world, each criticism or question had already been anticipated and explained through the use of the elegant mathematics I learned from Leonora. My thesis was lauded and my doctorate awarded. Leonora confided to me that it was the briefest doctoral thesis defense she ever recalled. I cried the day I received my PhD in mathematics because my parents weren’t there to share it with their loving daughter, Briana.
My thesis became the topic of increased interest by the Chairman of the mathematics departments at both universities, the university Provosts, and the competing team’s investment bank. Enormous pressure was placed on Leonora to get me to agree to join the competing team. The competing teams tactic to get me to join was that our conclusions weren’t as “strong or valuable” but a crypto currency including my outlier tracking software would “add value” to the competing teams “superior” crypto currency. Leonora dismissed their argument as an old alpha male negotiating strategy. She suggested I ignore the investment bankers who were really driving the joint venture proposal. Leonora told me she was convinced my crypto currency outlier software was indispensable and the investment bank would capitulate leaving me to pursue my own crypto currency or be forced to make me a better offer. Leonora believed my independence would create a bidding war and told me to tell the investment bank I was “entertaining other offers”.
The pressure from the Chairman of our mathematics department and the university Provost increased and had Leonora not been a Professor Emeritus, the university may have threatened her tenure and withdraw my post doctoral fellowship forcing me to capitulate. The Women’s STEM Support Network had grown to over one hundred women at our college and the science university across the river. WSSN arranged a party to celebrate the awarding of my PhD. Word spread throughout the members about the pressure from the university administration and both universities were peppered with criticism and condemnation about their treatment of a brilliant female STEM PhD. The investment bank ran for cover not wanting a national scandal with negative publicity as did both university administrations.
Without Leonora’s encouragement and experience working in a male dominated field, I don’t believe I could have stood up to the alpha men on the competing team, the Department Chairmen, Provost’s, investment bankers, and corporate farmers all whom were formidable and employing a “winner take all” approach to negotiation. Leonora told me that had I agreed to join the competing team backed by the investment bank, they would have taken all of the credit and most of the profit leaving me only with “crumbs”. Leonora suggested the lesson to be learned from this experience is that as women; we can harness the arrogance and the “winner take all” strategy of the male and use it against them by introducing more “bulls” to the negotiations. The strongest ‘bull” will emerge and if women control the negotiations, they’ll reap the profits of the competition between the “bulls”. The irony is that the victorious male will think he was the “winner”. I appreciated Leonora’s cattle herd analogy.
Leonora was becoming fatigued earlier in the day and appeared weak. She missed her first day of class. I was informed she had been admitted to the medical school hospital. Leonora was connected to multiple IV lines and was happy to see me. She reached for my hand but her grip was week. She told me she had contracted a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer and her prognosis was fatal. My best friend and mentor died within two weeks. At Leonora’s traditional Jewish funeral attended by a small group of close friends and family, I decided to move forward with my crypto currency software and name it “The Brio”. If it became a bit coin or a paper currency, it would have Leonora’s effigy on it.
I accepted a position as a post doctoral fellow which enabled me to continue my crypto currency studies with generous pay and benefits. I was contacted by the investment bank funding the competing team’s work who admitted the addition of my outlier tracking software would make for a better crypto currency. They asked me to sell my software to them. I remembered Leonora’s cattle herd “bull” analogy and knew that the addition of more “bulls” into the negotiations increased my negotiating leverage. I told them I was reviewing competing proposals which placed the smug investment bankers on their heels. With the assistance of a business school colleague, we placed a discrete “request for proposal” to a handful of the top investment banks in the world. It didn’t take long for multiple offers to purchase my software to arrive. The competing team’s investment bank capitulated not only offering me the highest price but agreeing that if a crypto coin or paper currency was produced, it would have Leonora’s effigy on it and would be called “The Brio”. The price I accepted for the sale of my software was staggering and eclipsed even the purchase offers put forth by the corporate farming conglomerates. The money was placed within the trust fund I established with my Regeneron Award money. I was a very wealthy woman and was resolved to use my money to create educational programs encouraging girls to enter STEM and agricultural science courses. I also decided to generously fund breast cancer research programs.
I reviewed the proposals to purchase my Efficient Harvesting software from the corporate farming conglomerates and employed the same strategy I utilized with the investment bankers. I introduced more “bulls” into the “herd” which drove up the price of the offers. I was already a wealthy woman and didn’t need their money. It was distasteful to see these corporate farming conglomerates fight and claw to purchase my software without any concern for feeding more people but solely making money. I told them I’d reach a decision in thirty days.
The contemptible greed I encountered with the investment bankers and corporate farming conglomerates made me long for the simple life of farming. I contacted the mathematics department at the state university not far from my parent’s farm and was offered a tenured professorship in mathematics. I purchased a small cattle and wheat farm which would permit me to farm part time as I longed for the rich soil caked on my boots, sweat on my brow, and the satisfaction which comes at the end of a full day of work on a farm. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to star gaze through the old binoculars I kept and find my tiny place within the universe.
I sold the Efficient Harvesting software for $1 to “The World Food Program” (WFP) branch of the United Nations addressing worldwide hunger provided the UN agreed to license the Efficient Harvesting software to the corporate farmers and utilize the enormous royalties to feed the hungry throughout the world for the life of the patent. I was humbled when I was awarded the “World Food Prize” which is the UN prestigious award recognizing individuals who increase the quality, quantity, and availability of food throughout the world. I accepted the award on behalf of my parents, Ralph and Judith.
I close the last box of Leonora’s personal effects. Rain pelts the window of Leonora’s office and I notice the Varsity crew team is in rare form as they sail down the Charles River despite the pouring rain reminding me of Leonora’s “brio” like a sleek scull sailing through life as the lyrics to Leonora’s favorite song end:
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow, I cannot feel your hand
You’re a stranger now unto me
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
The borders of our lives
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA.