June 5, 2002: Features


Poised and passionate, Lillian Pierce ’02 strives for excellence in every endeavor

By Kathryn Federici Greenwood

Photos: Left, the Alice Adams White School, built by Lillian’s father; right, the family dressed for a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. Pierce’s mother is seated on the far left; her brother Niles ’93 is in the back row, second from right; and Lillian is seated, second from right.

Overachiever doesn’t accurately describe Lillian Beatrix Pierce. She doesn’t just aim for the top, she strives for perfection, whether taking an exam or playing a violin concerto.

A math major, she’s accumulated a stunning record, snagging awards for her academic excellence every year and last winter winning Marshall and Rhodes scholarships and the Pyne Prize, the highest honor for an undergraduate at Princeton. Along the way, she has maintained an above-4.0 G.P.A., earned a perfect score on many a test, and graduated as valedictorian of her class.

Pierce is anything but typical — even at Princeton. Her thesis adviser, Elias Stein, who has taught at the university since 1963, says, “I have never seen a student like her.” On top of taking a courseload heavy in math and science and establishing herself as a leader in the musical community on campus, she’s made time to tutor fellow students and even to volunteer. Her daily planner is jam-packed. Pierce, who was also named one of this year’s Glamour magazine top 10 college women, says, “I just want to do my personal best. This makes things doubly difficult — you can never finish competing with yourself.”

Pierce has worked hard to take advantage of every opportunity at Princeton — her parents would say too hard. And that unremitting drive has had its price.

During her first year at Princeton, says Pierce, “I stopped sleeping. I got so tired that I couldn’t eat any more. I was too exhausted to have the motivation to eat. I lived in the infirmary for quite a while. At the same time I was having trouble being with a roommate. I realized that I needed privacy if I was going to be able to work as hard as I wanted to.

“There was one semester sophomore year where I was staying up all night three nights a week. I really felt ill all the time. I had that much work and I had it every week. I spent the first three years here feeling horrible, to the point where I couldn’t walk anymore. It was pretty awful actually. And my hand hurt from writing because sometimes I had to write 40 pages of math out in one night. It was painful even to keep using the pencil.

“It wasn’t really fun.”

Despite her exhaustion, she says, when she realized that she was “so close to being a good candidate for a Rhodes, I felt like I couldn’t stop.” (Her older brother, Niles ’93, now an assistant professor of applied and computational math at the California Institute of Technology, won a Rhodes and graduated as valedictorian of his class.) The moment she found out that she had indeed been chosen as a Rhodes Scholar, “I felt I hadn’t relaxed in about a decade.

“At some point I became addicted to working. Junior year when I went home for Christmas vacation, I realized that I felt so disconnected from people, I felt weird being around my family members. And that was horrifying. I was very careful the next semester not to let myself get that involved in math. I think math can be very addictive.”

Although obviously and justifiably proud of their daughter, Pierce’s parents worried about her. “I’m not sure it’s really advisable to work as hard as she does,” says her mother, Elizabeth Pierce. “Lilly Bee felt as though at many times that she was about to disintegrate from exhaustion. We wouldn’t recommend her experience to anyone — the way she did it. I wish there had been another way.”

Pierce is finally getting some rest in her senior year, sleeping about five hours a night. “I think I overdid it earlier, and now I get tired really easily,” she says. But she continues to squeeze so much into every 24 hours because, she explains, “I felt I had to use all my opportunities. I’ve always felt like if professors are trying so hard to teach me, that if I scored less than perfect on their exams, they might think they did something wrong. And so if by working harder I could do better and learn more, it seemed like it was worth it to do that.”

This intense 21-year-old was brought up in what Pierce and her parents call a “peaceful, idyllic” home life in Fallbrook, California, about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. She spent her earliest years painting, listening to music and reading books, collecting leaves and rocks, and “never watching TV,” says her mother, who is talkative and enthusiastic. With two older siblings, Niles and Alice, already in school and a brother, Marshall, three years younger, Pierce had her mother all to herself for a few years. By age three, she asked to play an instrument, but her parents made her wait another year, when she began studying both violin and piano.

Regular schools never worked for Pierce, though she did try them from time to time. For half of kindergarten, she enrolled in a private school, but, she says, “I was already playing violin very seriously at that point. And I was reading faster than anyone else in my family. It made more sense to stay home and practice.” She entered public school for first grade, but lasted only six weeks. “I quit because I was doing math maybe four or five years ahead of schedule, and it just wasn’t fair to the teacher to expect her to accommodate that,” Pierce explains. So she stayed home and read books, practiced the violin and piano, and went to museums. She enrolled in public school again for the third grade, but again wasn’t happy. “Basically,” Pierce says, “it was always my father who wanted me to be ‘normal,’ ” and encouraged her to continue to try school.

Determined to create a richer learning environment, her parents decided to start a private school. Her father, Michael, a contractor, cut down some tangelo trees and built a small building on their one-acre lot. Her mother, a certified teacher, taught Lillian, Marshall, and several other children in what they called the Alice Adams White School, after Lillian’s great-grandmother. The school calendar was divided into six-week sessions. During the first five weeks they studied foreign languages, biology, history, philosophy, math, and public speaking. In the sixth week the students produced plays — by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and others — or a magazine — an anthology of poems they had written, for example, or a collection of family memoirs. They also learned Renaissance and medieval instruments (Pierce’s parents, both musicians, collect period instruments and belong to a Renaissance and medieval performing group), and published a newspaper, Wizard’s Weekly Words, written by hand and illustrated.

The school operated for four years, Pierce’s fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth grades. She tried public school again for part of sixth grade, but she didn’t stay for long and ended up teaching herself at home, reading, and practicing violin. She attended public school for all of ninth grade, and taught herself again at home for 10th grade. For her junior and senior years of high school, she took courses at Palomar Community College, accumulating more than 90 credits.

During the years Pierce spent at home, learning from her mother or teaching herself, she says, “Rather than learning anything in particular, I really just learned how to learn. I learned that I loved reading things and knowing things and figuring out things. It was just a happy existence.

“Until I was 16 or so, I never had to take an exam. I never had anyone question that I knew something or aggressively try to find out if I’d done my work. The trust I was given to manage my own day and do my work made it so that once I was in a competitive academic environment, I still felt like I loved doing work. And I knew I’d be doing work even if I didn’t have a final exam in a few days.”

Pierce wasn’t just a bookworm. She studied ballet from age 7 to 14. She illustrated a children’s magazine called Stone Soup. She painted with watercolors, even showing her work at a local gallery. The money she earned selling her paintings helped her pay the tuition for two summers at the Tanglewood Institute, a renowned program for young musicians that is associated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Her parents made Pierce choose between violin and piano when she was about seven because they felt she was spending too much time practicing — two hours on each instrument every day. Violin won. By age 11, Pierce had started playing professionally and joined an adult community orchestra at Palomar Community College. The youngest member of the group, she nonetheless became an assistant concertmaster. She also performed in orchestral concerts and in community musical productions. “It was a really intense life,” she says. Often, she would sight-read the music the day before a performance. “Music for me has always been a very visual experience,” Pierce explains. “When I’m playing a piece from memory, I just look at the music and get the picture in my head and then read it out of my head.” Music, she goes on, “turns the auditory world into the equivalent of everyone else’s visual world. Hearing music I see spatial relationships and I think that notes have colors to them.”

Pierce traveled an hour each way once a week to take lessons in San Diego, practiced as much as four hours a day during her high school years, and up to 12 hours a day during the summers (which she found was too much, leaving her fingers, hands, and arms in pain). For two summers, she toured in Germany with the International Institute for Music, a camp for preprofessional young musicians from Europe and the U.S.

Getting ready for an important concert could take months or longer, says Pierce. Over that time, she worked through the music, focusing on “each millisecond” and listening to “every single detail.” “I tend to get more and more dissatisfied with the way I sound the more I know a piece,” she says.

But it all came together the month before the performance. “I love hearing the notes change and become more perfect,” she says. Still, “about a week before a really big concert, I’d get nauseated and nervous. And then the day of the concert I went into a funny, almost catatonic state. I would sleep a lot. I would lie on a bed and listen to a recording or just think about the piece in slow motion. I would be drowsy and quiet. And right before the concert I would even feel like I was deaf, like I was cut off from the world entirely. Then I would go on stage and everything would happen just as I wanted it.”

During her sophomore year at Princeton, after playing a Vivaldi concerto with a symphony orchestra in Pennsylvania two days before an organic chemistry exam, Pierce realized that she didn’t have “enough time to get the rest, calm, and focus in order to play very demanding solo concerts” — even though she did pull off both the concert and the exam.

Since then, she hasn’t played a solo concerto with a full symphony orchestra, but she still gets on stage. She has served as coconcertmaster of the Princeton University Orchestra and cochair of its governing board, and she has also played with the Princeton String Quartet, the Richardson Chamber Players, and the Nassau String Quartet, which she founded. This winter she organized a series of four “In Memoriam” concerts by the University Orchestra to bring the healing power of music to audiences affected by the events of September 11.

One of the best violinists ever to attend Princeton, Pierce brings “intelligence, passion, personal grace, and natural ability” to her craft, says Michael Pratt, conductor of the University Orchestra. She could make a career of music, he says. But Pierce says she has realized that “musicians aren’t necessarily happy.” Still, she adds that music will always be a part of her life, like brushing her teeth: “I can’t imagine a day without music.” And this summer, she’s looking forward to “switching my focus entirely to music.”

For a time, Pierce, who has conducted research in the chemistry department and at Cal Tech, considered pursuing an M.D. and Ph.D. and using her expertise to conduct research that would lead to disease-fighting drugs. But as she learned more math, “I realized that math was so beautiful. It has enough to keep me busy.” Her senior thesis examines certain results of the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics today. At Oxford she’ll pursue a master’s in math, after which she hopes to return to Princeton for her Ph.D. and eventually become a professor. Before heading to England, she will work this summer for the National Security Agency near Washington, D.C., where she carried out classified research on mathematical problems two summers ago.

Thanks to years of performing in front of audiences, Pierce is gracious and graceful and poised. Known as Lilly Bee to her family and close friends, she likes helping her neighbors with math problems and is a peer tutor for organic chemistry. A member of the Noetherian Ring, a group of women mathematicians, Pierce participated in the first year of a mentoring program at Princeton for younger female math students. She also has served as a volunteer for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and as a nurse’s assistant in the campus infirmary.

Her social life, unsurprisingly, has taken a backseat to her other pursuits. When she does find an hour here and there, she lifts weights and swims and prefers getting together with a few close friends. “Coming to college and being in a place where it was expected that you drink was different for me,” says Pierce, who’s a nondrinking member of Charter Club. “I didn’t have the social language that a lot of the other kids had. I don’t have anything against drinking, I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

That “cut me out of the Street scene,” she says, adding with a smile that she’s considered “abnormal — which I am.”

But her friends say her achievements haven’t gone to her head. “She’s extremely humble,” says Charlie Wells ’02. Pierce underplays her numerous accolades, he says, so that you can easily forget “how amazing each one is individually.” She’s not collecting honors to boost her résumé, he adds; “she’s interested in the material.”

“She’s incredibly self-effacing,” says Charles Kitcher, a junior at Columbia who met Pierce at a performing arts school in California. Every time she wins another award, she tells him it was “a fluke they chose me.”

Pierce is “clearly one of the most remarkable people to have come through Princeton,” says Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel. “She is unabashedly joyful about learning, grateful for the extraordinary opportunities afforded by the university, and humble about her own gifts and accomplishments.”

“There is a side of Lillian that many people never see,” says Wells. “Because at Princeton she has an ‘Organization Kid’ schedule, and because she wins an award about once a week, people pigeonhole her as a driven academic achiever. But when class is not in session, Lillian can change gears. She and her family put on plays. She draws, and reads, and writes letters — in beautiful script on homemade paper. She is not a one-dimensional person.”

Even with her tight schedule, she makes time for other people, and, says Wells, she “has the ability to maintain a remarkable steady demeanor. She’s always available even when she’s busy,” he says. “She’s just a kind person. She has a natural empathy for others.”

One day a friend of Wells’s who delivers newspapers on campus dropped a stack at Butler College. When he returned some time later that day, he noticed that the wind had scattered the papers around the courtyard. Before he could start retrieving them, he saw someone picking them up. It was Pierce.

Kathryn Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.



• Pyne Prize winner, 2002

• Rhodes Scholar, 2002

• Marshall Scholar, 2002 (declined in order to accept Rhodes)

• Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, cowinner 2001, for the student entering the senior year with the highest overall academic achievement

• USA Today 2001 All-USA College Academic Team (First Team)

• One of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women, 2001

• Barry M. Goldwater Scholar, 2001

• Freshman First Honor Prize, 1999, for the single student with the highest academic achievement during the first year of study

• President’s Award for Academic Achievement, 1999-2000

• President’s Award for Academic Achievement, 1998-1999



More seniors who are making their mark in and out of the classroom

Jon Harris ’02 produces new magazine

When Jonathan Harris ’02 travels abroad, he doesn’t just follow a guidebook and snap pretty pictures. He carries a sketchbook, a bulky, handmade journal with thick, unlined paper that holds his written impressions, mementos, and his artwork — he carries a set of watercolors everywhere. Harris filled 60 pages when he spent three weeks in Myanmar last summer. “The act of drawing focuses you in the present tense and really demands that you notice what’s happening,” says Harris, whose travel experiences and artistic ability helped spark a new magazine, Troubadour, which in a sense is an extension of his sketchbooks. Bursting with gripping photographs and beautiful illustrations, Troubadour is a literary journal aimed at promoting cross-cultural awareness through the narratives of students, alumni, and faculty members.


Sarah Seo ’02 studies former comfort women in Korea

In the process of researching the plight of the Korean women who were sex slaves to Japanese soldiers during World War II, Sarah Seo ’02 realized that a historian can pursue a cause and help people at the same time. But she also came to understand that there’s a fine but crucial line between activist-historian and humanitarian. “You need to maintain boundaries to protect the personhood of the people you’re helping,” she says. For her senior thesis, Seo studied the feminist movement that has championed the Korean women once known as comfort women, and she has become an activist herself. The movement, which took shape in the late 1980s, has brought to light the “silent history” of these women and has sought legal recompense and a formal apology from the Japanese government.


MoBio major Scott Vafai ’02 links diet and Alzheimer’s

Photo by Denise Applewhite

You could say Scott Vafai ’02 made the most of the academic opportunities at Princeton. Since freshman year he’s conducted research in Jeffry Stock’s molecular biology lab, published two papers in scientific journals, and with his senior thesis put forward a theory that explains one contributing factor of Alzheimer’s. What he discovered — a biological link between high homocysteine in the blood and Alzheimer’s — could lead to new drugs for the treatment of the disease. “It’s the best thesis I have encountered in 20 years of teaching at Princeton,” says Stock, his adviser. Not bad for a 22-year-old.


For more information on these three students and their work, visit PAWPLUS at www.princeton.edu/paw/plus.

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