Tyler Perini wants to be the mentor he never had
Tyler Perini — or, as students call him, Dr. P — is a Pfeiffer Postdoctoral Instructor in Computational and Applied Mathematics who also researches multiobjective discrete optimization at Rice. He grew up in Atlanta and did his undergraduate at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where he studied applied math. He later returned to Atlanta to Georgia Tech and received his Ph.D. in operations research.
For Perini, his love for math is coupled with a passion for teaching, which he said he discovered early on in his life and continues to motivate him.
“I've certainly had many teachers that were very important to me going through middle school and high school. I just really loved watching them do what they do,” Perini said. “When I was in high school, there was a Future Teachers of America club. So I joined that and was active in that club … I was always looking for ways to tutor and get active in teaching. It's a passion I found pretty early on.”
Outside of his academic pursuits, Perini enjoys playing volleyball, which he says has allowed him to seek out communities in his area, especially those aligned with his queerness.
“When I started in Atlanta, I played in a gay men’s volleyball league, and that was a great way to form friendships with the gay community,” Perini said “It's been huge for my mental health, physical health and just social well being.”
Perini said that STEM fields struggle from a lack of open LGBTQ representation, making it difficult to find queer mentors in the field.
“I cannot say I've never had an LGBT professor, but I can say I've never had an openly LGBT professor … It's not a visible identity,” Perini said. “But it makes it extra hard, then, to find any kind of mentor in the field who is LGBT.”
The underrepresentation of the LGBTQ community is even worse at the graduate and professional levels, Perini added.
"If you look in the humanities [department], it is very easy to find LGBTQ mentorship there at the graduate level, at the professor level and so on,” Perini said. “In STEM, it is challenging. Undergraduate LGBT groups [are] usually pretty active and easy to interact with … Once you become a Ph.D. student, and you’re looking for the same type of community, it starts to vanish really quickly."
By sharing his LGBTQ identity, Perini hopes he could fill the gaps in representation within the field, becoming a mentor for a younger generation of STEM students.
“The only thing pulling me back [from sharing my identity] was myself and the fear of losing a job in academia,” Perini said. “But if I can’t be myself anyway, what’s the point? I chose myself over [my] dream job and I encourage others to join me.”
Perini also notes that he has a special relationship with Rice, where he has been able to teach heavy theory, even in an introductory class, due to the strength of the students. This has enabled him to both work with students on projects and improve his teaching pedagogy.
Reflecting on his time at Rice, Perini says that interactions with his students have given him comfort in the midst of an otherwise stressful job.
“Ranging from small ways to big ways, students have said nice things to me and complimented my classes, my teaching … all those little things really add up,” Perini said. “Any post-doc or early career professor going through a hard time, it [can be] difficult. Those things add up and they really help make a difference.”
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