October 27, 2021

$2 Million Gift Will Establish Engelberg Fellowships in the Mathematical Sciences for Students

HONORING A CAREER & LEAVING A LEGACY: The Engelberg Fellowships in Mathematical Sciences pay tribute to the research achievements of Ora Engelberg Percus, the mother of CGU faculty member Professor Allon Percus.

Claremont Graduate University (CGU) announces a $2 million gift to create an endowment that will provide fellowships for students in the university’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS).

The endowment honors the memory of pioneering math researcher Ora Engelberg Percus, the mother of IMS Math Professor Allon Percus. The funds from her estate provide an opportunity for the institute to compete for highly talented students who might not have considered CGU for financial reasons.

“The Engelberg Fellowships in the Mathematical Sciences will expand opportunities to excellent students who otherwise might not be able to attend, particularly those from underrepresented and nontraditional groups in the mathematical sciences,” said Percus, adding that he hopes fellowship recipients will display the same tenacity, intellectual rigor, and firm resolve that helped his mother achieve success at a time when universities did not embrace women among their faculty.

Despite the obstacles, she persisted, Percus said, noting that “she was never one to suffer fools gladly, particularly fools in positions of authority.”

From Tel Aviv to Manhattan: An Extraordinary Life

Ora Engelberg Percus, who had served as an officer in the Israeli military, immigrated in 1960 to accept a fellowship offer from Columbia University. After completing her PhD in mathematical statistics in 1965, she lived in the same apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 55 years until her death in 2020.

Her husband, Jerome Percus, was a mathematical physics professor whose research interests often intersected with hers, and he became her closest scientific collaborator. “Each had deep, deep respect for the other—well-merited respect. They were always talking math to each other,” Allon Percus said.

Two of Ora Engelberg Percus’s research interests proved prescient many years later—one on voting outcomes and the other on the spread of viruses.

“In mathematics, as in many other things, it is sometimes better to be the second person who discovers something. When you’re first, no one really knows what to do with your work,” Percus said. “I think one of the challenges my mom faced was that she was often the first.”

In collaboration with her husband, she embarked on a research program in mathematical immunology, developing models to describe and predict the interaction of viruses and immune response. “It was only days after her death that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in full force, putting modeling efforts of this kind in the highest demand,” Percus said.

PARTNERS IN LIFE & SCHOLARSHIP: Jerome and Ora Percus in China.

Creating New Opportunities

Students who attend CGU’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences possess the kind of intellectual curiosity that drives the search for answers to real-world challenges. Many have spent years in the professional world and bring with them a wealth of experience, often outside traditional mathematics boundaries—as have several of the institute’s professors.

Percus believes that the Engelberg Fellowships will attract even more highly talented students, including those who might have considered CGU but went elsewhere because of financial considerations. He also hopes that the gift serves as a catalyst for others to invest in the institute, which an external review team lauded last April as being a superb outlier in the area of mathematics graduate education.

“This gift will open doors to students to join one of the nation’s premier mathematics research communities,” said University President Len Jessup. “We are grateful that Professor Percus chose CGU to honor his mother’s memory and accomplishments.”

Percus noted that he was simply a conduit for the gift and not a philanthropist. The funds came from his mother’s estate and reflected her investment acumen: She purchased Apple stock in 1983.

“She often reminded me that I had suggested that she sell it 20 years ago,” Percus said. “I have no idea why she decided to keep it when the share price of Apple was in the basement. But I guess that if you have enough experience studying ballot problems and seeing how likely it is that candidates who are behind during most of the count can pull ahead later on, you learn to take large dips in the stock market with a grain of salt.”