By Will Zimmerman
Lia Rotti (ΦBK, Tufts University)— world-beating track athlete and 2023 NCAA Woman of the Year NESCAC Conference Nominee—was not happy about being sent off to track practice. Nor was she alone. Jen Rotti (ΦBK, Tufts University), her identical twin sister, was making an even bigger fuss.
“In particular, I hated the running part,” Jen recalls of her 8th grade self.
“It was our mom who pushed us to join,” adds Lia. “But we really hated it. We did not want to go. Did not want to compete.”
And yet their mother, Dr. Sharon Fine, kept bringing them back to the local rec camp, to practices that began and ended on the track, and, invariably, involved copious amounts of running.
In time, the animosity dissipated, and the girls found their niches. For Lia—the long jump and triple jump, later pole vaulting and javelin throwing, too; Jen was initially attracted to the hurdles—”It’s still running, but you have obstacles in the way that take your mind off the running part,” she said—but later joined her twin in the long and triple jump events.
Lia and Jen entered the realm of Tufts’ athletics with a different set of expectations—the former was recruited by Jumbos’ coaches, and the latter walked on as a freshman—but the sisters shared what their former coach called a “graceful competitiveness.” Stephen Fleagle, who worked with the Rotti twins for two seasons, was struck by the exceedingly high standards both women held themselves to—standards that extended well beyond their athletic endeavors. “You can almost guarantee success from student-athletes that have their type of work ethic,” Fleagle said.
Taking those sentiments a step further, Jen described “a sibling rivalry that never felt like a rivalry.” By continually upping the ante, the sisters pushed each other to unparalleled heights and distances—literally. And all that work paid off. To their name, the Rottis hold Rookie-of-the-Year Awards, copious NCAA All-American citations, school records galore, and the crown jewel of collegiate athletics: a national championship. But, their successes on the track and field never came at the expense of their academic ambitions.
As with many other matters concerning the Rotti sisters, those ambitions are more alike than they are different. Jen just put the pieces together a little bit earlier.
For her, pursuing a degree in biology had been the plan since high school. Jen had previously thrived in AP biology, and began down the path towards a degree in the discipline as early as her freshman year.
Lia, for her part, entered college uncertain about what she wanted to study. Sciences had always seemed a strong suit, but she had other interests she wanted to explore too. She says that the broad-based liberal arts opportunities offered at Tufts—including divisional requirements in the arts, writing, and humanities—were part of the university’s appeal.
As a sophomore, Lia enrolled in Real Analysis, a mathematics course that challenged her “to think about math more deeply,” she said, and “to appreciate and question everything about it.” Studying the theory that lay under the application of the tools she was utilizing in her other sciences classes, such as calculating integrals and derivatives, led to her declaration of an applied mathematics major.
In pursuit of the degree, Lia delved into mathematical applications in fields like physics, finance, and logistics. Over and above these studies, it was the intersection of mathematics and biology where her passion brewed strongest.
“Our mom was a doctor before she adopted me and my sister,” Lia said. “When we were growing up, she was also the medical director of the healthcare system in our area, so she was always on call . . . . There were a lot of days when [we hardly] saw her.”
Lia thought for a beat, then added: “Seeing how hard doctors work—yeah, it was inspiring.”
The summer after taking a mathematical modeling course, Lia was approached by one of her professors, Arkadz Kirshtein, and invited to assist in a research project; with a small group of students, he was building a model to better understand pancreatic cancer. Lia proved to be a highly capable and efficient asset to the team, but Kirshtein was most affected by the motivation behind her work ethic. “It was something she wanted to study more,” Kirshtein said, “not just because it was interesting research, but because this knowledge was actually helping people.”
The project coincided with a health decline back at home. Lia and Jen’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer while they were in high school, and her health was now deteriorating.
“It led to me really wanting to work in healthcare,” Lia said. She started graduate school this fall at Boston University’s School of Public Health where she’s pursuing a PhD in biostatistics.
Her sister is not far. Jen’s embarking on her own career in health sciences no more than 20 minutes north in Boston’s West End. At the Soukas Lab in the Massachusetts General Hospital, where researchers work to demystify age-related diseases from diabetes to cancer, Jen is part of a team exploring the mechanisms behind the lifespan extending drug Metformin.
The women look back on their time at Tufts fondly, remembering their induction ceremony into ΦBK as a unique milestone. “It was special because I got to share the experience with my twin,” Jen said. “Being a member of ΦBK means being passionate and committed to hard work and excellence in all our pursuits.”
As for their athletic pursuits, the days of serious competition are now behind the Rotti sisters—not that there’s a whole lot left to be accomplished. Their bounty of accolades are made all the more impressive considering that it wasn’t so many years ago that their mother, with a kick in the butt sprinkled with a healthy dose of tough love, opened door number one—to an athletic career so illustrious only a parent could dream it up. And that’s to say nothing of door number two. On the other side of this one lay lab coats and data sets, patients and solutions. Much to Jen’s merriment, here, there’s less of a mandate on running. The standards remain as high as ever, though, and the demands, perhaps even greater. But inspiration and motivation are never far away. Really, anything but—she lives in the adjoining bedroom.
Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an Interdisciplinary Degree in Journalism, Film, and Creative Writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter several weeks before his graduation.