Student Spotlight: Stephanie Alcantar

"The answer is that from the moment I became interested in mathematics I started loving literature."

Stephanie Alcantar

Sometimes two very unlikely things have more in common than once believed. Upon taking a closer look we discover they participate in a hushed relationship. You may think it odd two such vastly contrasting disciplines as literature and mathematics could marry inside the house of logic and academia, but this is precisely what Stephanie Alcantar—Graduate School Dean’s Fellow, PhD candidate, poet, mathematician, and sunset and coffee enthusiast—has dedicated her studies to demonstrating. She is both a storyteller and a calculator. The story she wants to tell you is math and literature’s unlikely love affair.

Alcantar graduated in 2011 with a bachelor of arts in applied mathematics at the Universidad Juárez del Estado de Durango in Durango, Mexico. After completing her MA in Spanish at the University of Cincinnati, she entered UC’s doctoral program in romance languages and literatures. Her dissertation is titled, “Redefining the Limits of Language and Representation. A Semiotic Study of the Use of the Mathematical Concepts Infinity, Center, and Limit in Literature.” Her hypothesis is this: the combination of mathematics and literature provides special benefits to creative writing, specifically to language. In Alcantar’s own words, “Literature must resort to [mathematics] to help blur its limits of representation and expose the reader to an unprecedented experience. Math drives language to unexplored grounds.”

Her studies focus on hybrid texts, which is to say, texts that “develop new meanings and aesthetical experiences.” Such texts include poetry, short stories, and theater. Authors include Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Juarroz, Agustin Fernandez Mallo, Elena Garro, Jose Angel Valente, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The three mathematical concepts she applies to literature are infinity, center, and limit—representing sets theory, geometry, and calculus, respectively. 

Alcantar, already a published author of five poetry books, has recently published a book on her research, “The Order of the Infinity: A Rereading of a Borgesian Topic.” The book, a winner of the Mtra Pilar Alanis Pulido Award in Durango, Mexico, depicts Jorge Luis Borges’ use of mathematical concepts in his literary works. Still, Alcantar knows her purpose goes beyond. She wishes to accomplish even more; to unbind the constricting walls between mathematics and the arts, to show that mathematics is not separate from art but necessary for art.

That being said, you should be aware that Stephanie Alcantar already knows what you’re thinking. Why both math and literature? Why even try relating the two? Stephanie’s answer is endearingly simple, yet sophisticated: “I think it is essential to give up separating humanities from science… When I was a child I was told I needed to choose between being a scientist and being an artist. The truth is, you can be what you want or need to be.”

Alcantar says that something with no name, something powerful and striking, has continuously led her to math and the arts. “I have always seen mathematics around me, in the waiting lines in the airport, in the unopened disc florets of a sunflower, in the shells that the sea brings to its edge. In the same way, I have always been surprised finding art on every detail, on the humblest leaf hanging on a tree… The answer is that from the moment I became interested in mathematics I started loving literature.”

And the University of Cincinnati is the place Stephanie has found to pursue her life’s passions. Alcantar says that since day one she knew she was in the right place, that the university’s constant support has encouraged her to dream even bigger. And as a Dean’s Fellow her graduate experience has only blossomed. She says, “From the moment I received the news that I had been selected [as a Dean’s Fellow] I have felt a deep happiness and a great responsibility.”

Honored to be seen as both a Dean’s Fellow and thriving student making a difference, Stephanie wishes to share some wisdom to other aspiring students. “Work hard. Believe in yourself. Then go out there and show the world how it’s done. It is not easy and it will never be, but that’s OK, because only behind hard efforts you may find the way to make a difference.”

Now approaching her final year of study, Alcantar has many plans and hopes for the future. More books will be devoured—her favorites range from Anne Frank to J.D. Salinger to Fernando Pessoa. More work will be done—the PhD student dreams of furthering her academic career as a teaching professor. She will continue her research just as she will continue her love of life and the little things. Through her work and passions, she shines.

“Coffee and sunsets, just like literature and math. Give me both or nothing. I need both to survive.”

Written by Danniah Daher, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office