It Was About Following Your Dreams


             I never thought I’d interview someone who played Carnegie Hall for this series. But there I was, sitting across from Ria Persad, who did just that after winning an international piano competition. Though it may seem surprising considering her achievement of one of the highest honors in music, the reason Ms. Persad was at Auburn in the first place had nothing at all to do with music. If it had, I don’t imagine she would be meeting with someone from the College of Sciences and Mathematics. Actually, she was here to lead the inaugural STEM Done Differently Symposium, which she titled The "Predictable Chaos" of Climate: From Theory to Practice, in which she described climate modeling and the myriad of factors that affect it. I wanted to hear about the winding path that brought her here today, her story, from her upbringing to attending Princeton to the founding of her weather forecasting company, StatWeather. Hers is a narrative of creativity, of hard work. It is a story of seizing opportunity, cultivating skills and the resulting multifaceted success. It began in Trinidad.

            “We were really poor,” Ms. Persad began, before continuing to say that despite living in a third-world environment, she was a happy kid. However, just before she was to begin elementary school in Trinidad, she and her mother traveled through Ellis Island and settled in Harlem, New York. Her mother was single, teenaged and made her money as a babysitter, but despite significant challenges, had great intentionality behind developing her daughter’s academic skills. “I don’t know how she did it, we were still dirt poor,” she reminisced, “but she always had lots and lots of children’s books for me.” Then, young Ria’s English skills were still early in the developmental process, but her voracious appetite for reading outside the classroom, a diet of about 20 books a month at this point, aided in improving her English proficiency. Inside the classroom, she saw school as a wild adventure into a world with which she wasn’t yet familiar, and that drive to learn never left her.

            In the early 1980’s, she and her mother moved to Southern California, near the Los Angeles area. Her mother had married her step-father by this point in time and had also learned a trade, namely bookkeeping, and her step-dad was in maintenance. Still being relatively poor, Ms. Persad was thus enrolled in the public school system. The words she used to describe the LA public school system at the time were, “not that great,” but she worked hard, continuing to supplement her in-school learning with study at home. Through this extra-curricular study, she developed an early passion for math and science. “Ever since I was five years old,” she told me, “ever since I learned that people went to the moon, I was like, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I grow up!’” She was seriously interested in space, and described it as simply being “in” her. She continued to cultivate this interest outside of school, and by the time she reached middle school, people had taken notice. Indeed, she was so fascinated by, and frankly advanced in, earth and space science that one of her science teachers at the time provided her with one of the first truly great scientific opportunities of her life. “He knew a scientist over at Caltech, at the Jet Propulsion Lab,” she informed me, “an astrophysicist. And her name was Eleanor Helin.” For those of us not particularly well-versed in the world of astrophysics, Eleanor “Glo” Helin was a prolific researcher of near-Earth asteroids. She was so important to this field of study in fact, that she has an asteroid named after her (specifically the Mars-crossing asteroid 3267 Glo) and received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal. Prior to her reaching her teens, Ms. Persad was already involved in the study of asteroid and cometary orbits. “It was just so wonderful.”


That Was My Gift


            Before long though, her parents decided to move back East. Settling in Boston, Ms. Persad was near the prestigious Boston Latin School, a magnet school founded in 1635 which boasted such legendary alumni such as Samuel Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Despite doing quite poorly on the entrance exam, she scored highly on the supplementary IQ assessment, received a strong recommendation from her school in California and candidly informed me that the school had a diversity quota to fill, all of which culminated in her acceptance. “They gave me a chance, and I was the flunky going in,” we laughed, “and I graduated valedictorian of my class.” Early in her journey there, the head of the mathematics department told her she would be a mathematician. “At that time, I didn’t even know what that was,” she confessed, but through dedication, lots of failure in her early math club meetings and support from her teachers and mentors, she persevered. “Other people had a quicker mind than me,” she said, acknowledging she may not be a human calculator, “but I worked hard and thought outside the box. That was my gift.”

            Additionally, before graduating valedictorian of Boston Latin School, Ms. Persad had already begun accruing college credit. Her school had a partnership with Harvard University, and through summer programs and dual-credit opportunities, she had taken two years’ worth of math and computer science classes. As such, she was quite prepared to pursue her undergraduate degree, which she did after being accepted into Princeton. Whereas she excelled academically, she did not always feel like she fit in with the culture. “I felt kind of alienated,” she informed me, “I was kind of a nerdy kid.” When she was there, Princeton’s culture was highly involved with Greek life, i.e. sororities and fraternities, and many students came from a very wealthy background. Neither of these aspects aligned with Ms. Persad’s experience. “I was working full-time and going to school full-time,” she told me, which she did not see happening with many of her classmates. With frustration, she continued that many of these people “seemingly squandered [their education] away, and had everything at their feet. It would make me sad and make me think, ‘isn’t life unfair.’” She noticed that some people’s constellation of privilege allowed them to skate by while others, like herself, worked with fervent determination to accomplish what they did. Yes, unfair indeed.


persad.jpgRia Persad


            In addition to all the hard work she put into her work in the classroom and into her job, Ms. Persad had the opportunity to apply her academic skills outside of the classroom in what she called one of her “greatest inspirations,” a work-study internship she completed at Princeton under Professor John N. Bahcall. She remembers him talking about where they got their data, the Telescope, and her role specifically was to complete what is sometimes called grunt work, like graphing and examining the quality of the data. “So I got the data… and the data was horrible,” she explained. “When you image it, and when you look at it, it was all fuzzy and blurry. So what I did is I went on my bike, and I was like, ‘I have to go and find this telescope. I think it’s broken.’” One night, she spent hours riding around the Princeton campus, searching and searching for this telescope to see if there was something obvious that could be quickly repaired or adjusted to improve the quality of the data they were receiving. After all, it should be easy to find, a telescope collecting the sort of data that it was sending to them to analyze would have to be huge! Alas, despite looking all night, her search was unsuccessful, so she returned to work the following day to get to the bottom of what was going on. “This telescope was the Hubble Space Telescope. I was one of the first analysts to find it was broken!” Not bad for the work of an intern. “I was just on this job because I have to make ten bucks an hour to help pay for my school, I didn’t know what the impact of this was! I felt kind of foolish, here I was, thinking it was some diddly little telescope on campus,” we laughed. “It was so impactful, now that I look back on it. I laugh, but we were the pioneers of that stuff.”

            With this internship experience and a Princeton degree, Ms. Persad was poised to explore what was most meaningful to her. She had cultivated the mind of a mathematician and a scientist, but there existed another facet of her mind, as well: The mind of an entrepreneur. “It was in my head,” she said about the idea behind her company that she founded in 2009, StatWeather, a new solution to the long-standing problem of inaccurate weather forecasting. Then, all she had to do was get to work. “The running joke is the weatherman is always wrong,” she said, accurately. The way that current models of forecasting work, she explained, takes into account mostly satellite observations which are then run through a set of equations, thus producing the weather forecasts we are familiar with. Her way, devoid of these equations, uses a compilation of historical weather data and neural network AI to predict the way that weather may behave in the future. “The whole thing about my forecasting was to recognize patterns that had happened in the past and identify if there was some chance that it might repeat itself. It’s simple to comprehend,” she told me, which is theoretically true, though some areas have up to 150 years of pertinent data to examine. Indeed, the creativity, let alone the mathematical and scientific prowess, required for eschewing the accepted method and inventing one of her own was great, and this creative ability is something Ms. Persad consistently uses to her advantage.


The Possibilities That Are Out There


            In a related vein, her creativity spans far beyond just the scope of mathematics or scientific problem solving. “You know, math and music, they both have the patterns, the logic of it. There was a lot of correspondence with those two things.” Maybe it was that similarity, or perhaps it was the similarity of her personal dedication to greatness within the two, but Ms. Persad is an undeniable virtuoso of the piano. For a very long time, she had to put developing this skill on the back-burner. She was moving around a lot, spending a lot of time on her studies and later her work. Frankly, there aren’t always enough hours in the day to fit in everything she would have liked to. In fact, from the time she was about 18 until she was in her 30’s, she hardly touched a keyboard at all. “Even though it had been so long since I had played the piano,” she mused, “when I got back into it, it was like a fish going back into water.” Despite this instant reconnection on her part, the path of a classical pianist still presented hurdles for her to overcome. Indeed, being that she wanted to begin entering recitals and competitions, she had to start where everyone did, the bottom. “I had to start at the recitals with the seven-year-olds, where I’m like the big kid!” We laughed, but it was true. After two or three years working lower circuits, she worked her way up to becoming eligible for international competition. Disciplined practice schedules of high-difficulty pieces became a consistent presence in her days, which paid off when she was selected as a winner of that competition. And the prize? A featured performance at Carnegie Hall, where a writer for the Oprah Magazine was in attendance. “That piece that they wrote, it was about following your dreams,” she said, smiling.

            On that note, she continued, “When you have dreams, you should follow them. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away, it doesn’t mean that this is even the time for it, but you can still keep it in your heart. If it’s always there, is going to come out. There’s going to be a time for it.” With patience and a watchful eye for the opportunity, in some form, to present itself, Ms. Persad asserted that the achievement of one’s dreams is simply a matter of time. In that vein, she also works to enable the next generation of mathematicians to achieve their dreams through mentoring. About her philosophy behind mentoring, she told me she emphasizes skills that may seem a bit removed from success in math. “I think people skills are important. Even if you’re great at math, I don’t think that’s enough in this competitive world.” Interviewing aside, mathematicians, regardless of specific discipline, largely work as part of a team. Having the ability to be personable and effectively participate as a member of a group are skills that are extremely important and are sometimes not highlighted as frequently as they should be, but they are aspects of a job candidate that show them to be a cut above the rest. “It’s a skill,” she said, “and you can develop that.” In addition, having a set of skills that complement one another, for example being able to code to supplement skills in mathematics, is an extremely valuable asset in today’s highly competitive and evolving world of work. She briefly mentioned a young woman she had spoken with in Auburn’s Mathematics Department who is trained not just in math, but in economics as well. This constellation of expertise, she told me, could lead to a lucrative career in finance, something not always thought of when pondering the path of a mathematician. The final aspect of job searching that Ms. Persad provided in our discussion was that sometimes, getting a job is really just a game of numbers. With the proliferation of online applications, it’s impossible to know if your resume will even reach human eyes or if it’ll be sequestered to a metaphorical black hole because it doesn’t happen to contain the correct keywords an algorithm is searching for. “Apply to like, 300 things,” she said, “and don’t feel bad. Because that’s what I had to do.” Indeed, that strategy seems to have paid off for her just fine.

            Just before our conversation ended, Ms. Persad emphasized that the time we are in now is the greatest time to be involved in the STEM fields. Technological innovation is exploding, it’s hard to predict what new tech will appear in the next year or two, let alone in the upcoming decade. “It is so exciting, the possibilities that are out there. I’m just telling people to go for it,” she said, “and it’s really limitless. I think STEM is the most exciting thing around right now.”








By Matt Gonzales


I'd like to thank Ria Persad for sitting for an interview with me.