Month: March 2023

Christina Schenk

Christina Schenk

Born in Wittlich, Germany • Birth Year 1986Studied (Applied) Mathematics at Trier University, GermanyHighest degree PhD in MathematicsLives in Madrid, SpainOccupation Postdoctoral Research Associate

Honestly, I do not really know when my passion for science, and in particular math first manifested itself. But from my experience, I can definitely say that being surrounded by the right people and mentors plays a big role in continuing in this direction and not steering towards following one of your other passions.

[..] in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along.

My favorite subjects in high school had always been math and languages. It was after high school that I was thinking about combining the two subjects but I did not see myself becoming an elementary, middle, or high school teacher which probably would have been a natural choice. I tried several other options realizing internships and applying for study programs but in the end in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along. It was after a gap year in Australia that I remembered one of my math middle school teachers telling me that I would be the right person to study math. Despite not agreeing with him at that point in time, in the end, I decided to give it a try. I went from a Bachelor’s to a Master’s to a Ph.D. degree in (applied) mathematics.

[..] I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

On the way, I kept learning languages and following my other interests especially learning more about other cultures and getting to know more of the world. After my Ph.D., I decided to go to the US for a postdoc where I stayed for about two years. Then I moved to Bilbao, Spain for another postdoctoral position. After almost two years there, I decided to stay in Spain and move to Madrid. This is what brought me to my current position. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at IMDEA Materials. Here, I mainly develop models and algorithms for the acceleration of materials discovery for finding materials alternatives that are for example more sustainable. This means for instance that they are more inspired from nature, less toxic and do not deplete important limited resources. Having a background in applied mathematics, over the last 10 years I have had the opportunity to apply my mathematical knowledge in many areas reaching from cardiovascular stent design to optimization of fermentation processes to modeling cell metabolism to control of disease transmission dynamics to materials discovery. Looking back at my career decision, I think I would have been happy with studying computer science or engineering as well but it definitely had to be a science subject and I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile.

There have been tough phases and I definitely cannot say that I have never thought about switching careers. But I think that I have always enjoyed the challenges that my career path has brought along, maybe not always at the moment but overall, I believe that from facing challenges you learn the most. An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile. Mentorship programs can give a lot of support on the way to keep you focused on your path and dealing with many of the given challenges. I am definitely very grateful for those mentors along the way that supported me and encouraged me to follow my passions.

If I had the opportunity to talk to my 20-year-old self, I would have told her: “Never regret anything, be grateful for the good things that every decision brought along, follow your passions, hold on to your core values, do not let your fears rule you and most importantly enjoy the process and live in the moment without holding on to the past or having fears about the future. You do not choose your destiny but you choose your company. You will find your way. Do not get lost in too much work, there are also other important things in life and remember success is one thing but you do not want to die one-day having regrets, such as not having shown enough care for your beloved ones and not having followed your other dreams and passions.”

Posted by HMS in Stories
Anna Konstorum

Anna Konstorum

Studied Biology/Bioinformatics at McGill University, Canada, and University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and Mathematics at University of California, Irvine, USA • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in United States • Occupation Research Staff Member at Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses

I came to applied mathematics slowly, and circuitously – but sometimes that makes for the best stories. When I was young, I fell in love with the complexity of biological processes, and thus I chose to study biology for my BSc. My grandmother was a math teacher and I have fond memories of us playing all sorts of educational math games growing up, which instilled in me a joyful, non-competitive view of math. But I never saw myself as a mathematician, it was just something I enjoyed ‘on the side’.

I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light.

It was only when doing my Master’s, when I took a course focused on using dynamical systems to study the life sciences, that I came to see that mathematics needed to be more than a hobby for me. I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light. And, I felt then, everything clicked. That my love for math and complex systems such as biology were not separate, but actually completely intertwined. It was this realization that led me to do my PhD in mathematics. I performed research modeling interactions of growing tumors with their microenvironment and took classes in a wide range of mathematical subdisciplines. It was very difficult as I knew I had less experience with mathematics than many of my peers, but I also had complementary skills in working on real-world scientific problems, which gave me a unique vantage point to think about the methods I was studying. When I kept my focus on the subject matter, I knew I was where I needed to be. It was one of the hardest, but most rewarding experiences in my life.

I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms.

Something you come to understand by taking a strong pivot, is that both you and the world have the capacity to honor a new stage in your life and career, especially if you approach the challenge thoughtfully and creatively. I had come to understand that for me, the next stage that I wanted to reach was to expand my applied mathematics capabilities to new domains in addition to the life sciences. And, really, I was ready! Studying the life sciences from a mathematical perspective prepares you to handle a variety of complex data problems. The field is full of extremely noisy data – but data that has, if you chip at it long enough, fascinating patterns and meaning underneath the noise. I now get to do just that as a Research Staff Member at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses (CCS/IDA). I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms. I’ve used approaches ranging from applied dynamical systems (PDEs and ODEs) to, more recently, unsupervised learning methods employing matrix- and tensor-decomposition frameworks. I also hold an adjunct faculty role in the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida, which allows me to continue to collaborate on projects in mathematical and systems biology.

I wish I had known to take advantage of all [professional societies] have to offer earlier in my career.

What I’ve come to realize is that your unique interests and capabilities, even when they may not fit easily into a clear label, do have a place in this world where they will be valued. My background in mathematical biology has given me a unique perspective on the challenges I face in my current role, both from a mathematical and applied sense. And it makes for some fun intersectional research.

Finally, I’d like to make a quick shout-out to the power of professional societies. I wish I had known to take advantage of all they have to offer earlier in my career. Societies like the American Mathematical Society (AMS), Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and Society for Mathematical Biology (SMB) all provide opportunities to network via conferences and meetings, and to learn more about opportunities in and outside of academia utilizing the skills you learn. You don’t need a minimum degree to join – just an interest to connect with like-minded researchers.

Posted by HMS in Stories