HMS

Marina Murillo

Marina Murillo

Born in Cádiz, Spain • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics at Universidad de Cádiz, Spain • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Valencia, Spain • Associate Professor of Mathematics at Universitat Politècnica de València

Ever since I was in high school, I realized that I wanted to pursue a degree in science. Since I was a kid I loved reading mystery novels and discovering the murderer. Soon, I realized that I enjoyed solving problems and exploring their solutions and that was the reason why I studied mathematics. My high school teachers also inspired me and had a lot to do with my decision.

After graduation, I was not totally sure what to do because I had always liked teaching but I also wanted to do research.

At the beginning of my university studies, I was a bit scared because everybody told me mathematics was very different from the way  it was studied at high school. However, I enjoyed studying for my degree a lot and surprisingly, most of my classmates were women. During my university experience I was totally focused on my degree. After graduation, I was not totally sure what to do because I had always liked teaching but I also wanted to do research. So I started my PhD with the objective of being a university professor. I opted for pure mathematics during my PhD and I selected linear dynamical systems as my field of research.

The academic path is very hard. It takes a lot of time to obtain a permanent position and you must make sure you will be willing to live in different cities and not achieve job stability for a long time. However, it has its advantages.

During my PhD, I should say I had some doubts if I was doing the right thing and if I had taken the correct decision. The academic path is very hard. It takes a lot of time to obtain a permanent position and you must make sure you will be willing to live in different cities and not achieve job stability for a long time. However, it has its advantages. You can travel all around the world and meet a lot of people. Despite my doubts, I finished my PhD in three years and I got a postdoc position in Bilbao.

Now, at 33 (years), I am happy to have the opportunity to do what I love, to teach and research, while enjoying a decent salary and the desired stability.

As I mentioned before, I always had in mind my goal of working at the university, so when I had the opportunity to get a temporary position in Castellón I didn’t think about it. I moved there and although I knew that I did not want to spend my whole life there, I followed the necessary steps to achieve my goal. After three years and a long time earlier than I dreamed of, I got a permanent position in Valencia where I studied for my doctorate. Now, at 33 (years), I am happy to have the opportunity to do what I love, to teach and research, while enjoying a decent salary and the desired stability.

During my academic career I have had wonderful experiences and I am pretty sure that I have done the right thing, although I have encountered some difficulties. I have met some high-level mathematicians who treat young students with an air of superiority. This situation can be frustrating and makes you wonder if you are in the right place. However, I have also met some great mathematicians who have helped me a lot.

If I were to give advice to someone who wants to start an academic career, I would suggest that you take some time to think about whether you are willing to sacrifice time to gain some stability and travel around the world.

Mathematics is still a man’s field. Most of the top positions are held by men but, fortunately, today women are gaining prominence. Summing up my experience as a researcher, I can say that it has been positive. If I were to give advice to someone who wants to start an academic career, I would suggest that you take some time to think about whether you are willing to sacrifice time to gain some stability and travel around the world. If the answer is yes, I would definitely recommend that you follow your dream.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

Born in El Adem, Libya • Studied Pure Mathematics at University of Lancaster, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics Education, University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Lincolnshire, UK • Occupation Director of NRICH, University of Cambridge

My journey is a story of twists and turns. There never was a grand plan, just a love of maths to help steer the way.

I wasn’t the healthiest of children, I missed more school days than I ever managed to attend. It would have been easy to fall behind in my studies, but my headteacher had different ideas. Textbooks appeared in my home and my mum was roped in as my teacher. Perhaps rather frustratingly for her at times, my curiosity was never satisfied; I always wanted to try different ways of doing things. I loved playing games, but also inventing new maths games too! I’d even collect the numbered cardboard doors off my advent calendar to use in them in my latest creation.  Numbers had a special place in my life from a very early age.

Having decided that maths was the subject I wanted to study at university, the transition from school to university maths was not as straightforward as I hoped; coming from an all-girls school, it was a shock to find myself on a course dominated by boys. I’d never really associated maths as a ‘boys thing’ until that point. Maths had always been something I just enjoyed doing, but perhaps not everyone enjoyed the same opportunities as I had growing up.

Wednesday afternoons at University  were spent on the sports field or at a local teaching college. Although I love sport, my curiosity meant that I eventually tagged along with the teaching group one day – and never turned back! Our tutor challenged everyone to subtract two numbers and record our method – not exactly a tough challenge for soon-to-be maths graduates but I soon discovered that I was the only person in the room to use my chosen approach, and there were two or three other methods in general use around the room. When we were asked to explain our approaches, there was a discussion about ‘milk bottles on doorsteps’ which totally confused me. What did milk bottles have to do with subtraction?  Turns out that the ‘milk bottles’ were place value jottings. No wonder so many people complain that they find maths confusing!

[…] through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too.

At the time of that college visit, I was focusing on my thesis exploring the different ways mathematicians had proved the Pythagoras Theorem, and through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too (without referring to milk bottles). And, as a female mathematician, perhaps I could be a role model too. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place and I applied for teacher training.

[…] I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge.

As a maths graduate, I opted for a secondary teacher programme which came with a generous grant for signing-up to teach a shortage subject. Tutors required trainees to spend their first fortnight in a primary school, I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge. Even though it meant losing my ‘welcome’ grant, I switched to a primary course and I’ve never looked back. Primary teachers are incredibly hard-working individuals who need to cover a wide range of subjects and inspire their charges all day, every day. They are amazing people. I soon found myself leading maths in my school and supporting the teaching of maths in other schools nearby by sharing useful resources. At that time, I became an advocate for the types of maths resources designed by NRICH which challenge and engage young learners.

After joining my local authority’s maths team, I helped to set up schools’ maths competitions and lead parental engagement events – opportunities for families to enjoy problem-solving and rethink commonly-held negative views about maths. By volunteering to lead maths masterclasses introducing some of my favourite undergraduate classes such as topology and networks, I hoped I could also act as a role model for younger female students. Ever curious, I began reading more widely about maths education and signed up for my Masters and later my PhD at Cambridge (where I investigated different approaches to calculation, of course!). Today, my love of maths means that I get to work in one of the world’s finest maths departments at the University of Cambridge, helping to support school teachers to inspire future mathematicians and researching ways to increase diversity in my chosen subject as the Director of NRICH – a project which had inspired my classroom teaching. It’s such a privilege working with the NRICH team, and we’ve got exciting plans for the future. Watch this space!

Posted by HMS in Stories
Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

From El-Khiam, Lebanon • Birth year 1994 Studied Financial Mathematics at the University of Kent, UK  • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from the University of Reading, UK • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation Scientific Knowledge Exchange Coordinator in the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and part-time as a Study Skills Tutor (STEM) in the University of Cambridge Disability Resource Centre, and Associate Lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, The Open University

As a part of the Newton Gateway to Mathematics team at the Isaac Newton Institute (INI), I get to be involved in many important projects that bridge the gap between the mathematical sciences and the real world. A particularly exciting part of my job is that I get to work with the V-KEMS partners to develop study groups, where industry stakeholders pose problems to a group of mathematicians who then go on to work on these for a few days. The atmosphere at the INI is something really special and unique – it’s a place that brings together people from across the world to solve all kinds of maths problems, be it in person, or virtually. 

My role at the INI isn’t research-based, nor does it have any form of student interaction, but I find this works perfectly well with my part-time commitments supporting students with disabilities and learning difficulties at the same university, and with working as an Associate Lecturer at The Open University. I love the flexibility that working in academia gives you. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD (…) to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research (…).

My maths journey starts in 2010, when I began my A-levels. During GCSE, I struggled to get a B and so it was my family who pushed me to take Maths at A-level to open up opportunities. Surprisingly, I happened to excel in and enjoy it, so I focused most of my energy on Maths and got an A! I decided to continue into university with the subject that I was doing best at and that paid off as some of my favourite memories come from my time at the University of Kent. Studying Financial Mathematics meant that I was exposed not only to Maths, but also Statistics, Actuarial Science and Operations Research, which is something that broadened my knowledge of the potential applications of maths. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD because I studied Financial Maths and that even if I did a Maths Masters, it still wouldn’t be possible, to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research, that I got some certainty in my abilities. In fact, I’m in the process of collating my second paper from my PhD research on optimisation methods for data assimilation. I do know that my challenges are nothing compared to others who have battled through illnesses and losing loved ones, especially so during the pandemic. So, I consider myself amongst luckiest who only had to deal with personal challenges. I have had a lot of support along the way, but I still felt the need to avoid the dreaded ‘how’s the PhD going?’ question for years out of the fear that I will not make it. I think the way that I got through it is by building up confidence in my work and persevering even though I felt that the outcome might not be what I was hoping for and working towards. 

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment.

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment. As a Muslim, I need to pray at certain times during the day, so when I go to conferences, I would arrange my travel in such a way that allows me to do so, and I would take time out during lunch – when everyone else is networking – to pray. I would also need to ensure that my dietary requirements are met. In the UK, it’s been very easy to do so both during my studies and now. I am really grateful that when I mentioned that I needed to start praying in the office because the sunset is sooner, my colleagues offered me their offices! They have been really keen to make sure that I’m completely comfortable, which is something that I greatly appreciate. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I travelled abroad – I even visited a university which had removed their once purpose-built prayer room. But overall, it’s not been too much of a struggle wherever I’ve been. 

I think as a woman in maths, the main thing that I’ve noticed is that there are many more men than women participating in conferences and workshops that I’ve been to. I know that this is something that the INI are actively tackling, which is great to see and be a part of. The advice that I would give to a woman who is looking to pursue a career in mathematics is to persevere. There are going to be points where you’re told, either directly or indirectly, that you’re not good enough and that you don’t belong here, and it may come from people that you don’t expect it to, but if you know that it’s your ultimate goal to stay in academia, or to simply complete a PhD then I’d say just keep going with it and stay strong as only good things come through hard work and perseverance. 

Posted by HMS in Stories
F. Ayça Çetinkaya

F. Ayça Çetinkaya

Born in Ankara, Turkey • Studied Mathematics at Ankara University, Turkey • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from Mersin University, Turkey • Lives in Rolla, MO, USA • Occupation Associate Professor of Mathematics at Mersin University Turkey / Visiting Scholar at Missouri University of Science and Technology

“What is behind your decision to undertake a doctorate?” That was the question I was asked during my PhD interview. I remember myself saying “I feel like I’ve got more to offer as a mathematician and I am really passionate about learning more.” This was almost ten years ago. After that interview, I started my PhD, finished it four years later and learned a lot.

Luckily, I was persistent enough to keep going until that magical moment of realization had arrived. It was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle (…).

Not until the end of my second year at college did I become aware of the fact that I was going to be an academic. To be honest, after high school, when I first started studying mathematics, I was feeling insecure about figuring out all those abstract concepts and I found it quite difficult to understand the exact way of conceptualizing. Luckily, I was persistent enough to keep going until that magical moment of realization had arrived. It was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle and feeling relieved when it all came together. 

During my Master’s and PhD, I wasn’t fortunate enough to be surrounded by the most helpful and sympathetic people. I was a young woman who was trying to find her path in a discipline that is not very feminized. However, I had the world’s most encouraging, genuine, and thoughtful family who has always been a great source of support during tiring times. 

Although I do appreciate many things about my job (…) I still try not to define myself by my career.

I am now a visiting scholar at Missouri University of Science & Technology, Department of Mathematics and Statistics. I am enjoying every second of this journey and I am thrilled to be a part of this favorable atmosphere which allows me to develop myself in several important aspects I could not even imagine. My current research is about boundary value problems for differential equations. The study of these types of problems is driven not only by a theoretical interest, but also several phenomena in engineering, physics, and natural sciences can be modeled in this way.

Patience, curiosity, a lot of energy, good manners, courage, and the desire to move forward are the essentials for not only mathematical studies, but also for life itself. Although I do appreciate many things about my job — such as attending national and international conferences, collaborating with other mathematicians, being able to manage my own time, mentoring students, and teaching — I still try not to define myself by my career. I am a true believer of body and mind unity, and as far as I am concerned, exercise is the most crucial part of this agreement. I also have a huge appetite for literature and exploring the world. In the end we all live one life. Why not get the most out of it?

Posted by HMS in Stories
One Day in the Life of a Software Developer

One Day in the Life of a Software Developer

by Carolin Dirks

To be honest, most maths students who are just about to finish their studies have no specific plan of what kind of job they want to pursue after graduating. Up to that point, they might have realised what they did not know in their first semester, namely that there are plenty of opportunities in different areas of industry and academia for a mathematician besides the “obvious” choices, like the financial sector and insurance companies. Artificial intelligence, automation technology, big data, deep learning, computer vision – just a few fields of great interest for modern industry, and all of them are very closely related to maths. Most of them seem to promise a much more exciting job opportunity than an insurance company – with so many possibilities, why did I finally decide for a job as a software developer in an insurance company? The short answer: Because it offers a huge lot of fun, exciting tasks, complex mathematical and computational problems, and besides, great colleagues and an outstanding working atmosphere.

Let’s have a look at the long answer. For me, during my last years at the university it became clear that I wanted to be a software developer. Solving specific tasks using logical skills and computational tricks and contributing to something “useful” were the important parts for me, in addition to a strong desire for a preferably stress-free and enjoyable working atmosphere, while I did not really care about the specific application behind my work. The job advertisement at a big and well-known German insurance company sounded exactly like what I was looking for, next to the very good reputation of the employer regarding the labour conditions. So I took the chance, honestly without a specific imagination of how a “typical day” as a software developer would look like.

Now, 1.5 years later, I am still not able to say what a typical day looks like, simply because every day can be very different. Every day can pose different tasks and new challenges, with almost no repetitions, with lots of new things to learn, with lots of new insights – and the more I understand how things work, the more I can participate actively in new areas of responsibility. A developer is not only the aimless “executor”, but also needs to keep an overview of the whole software architecture, stay in touch with the “client” (in my case, the company itself, especially those who are going to work with the new software after its release) and other departments and work together with the rest of the team in order to develop a viable product. Thus, the best way to describe what I am really doing is to divide my tasks into three “areas”: The learning part, the conceptional part and the implementational part.

Carolin Dirks

My first year in my new job was dominated by the learning part. A mathematician is typically not educated in many practical skills, a mathematician is educated in independence, learning receptivity and frustration tolerance – in being able to understand complex problems and find smart solutions by her- or himself. Basically (and hopefully not sounding overbearing) a mathematician is able to understand almost every problem, and this is in my opinion one of the main reasons a mathematician is hired. Consequently, I needed to learn a lot, about programming languages and especially about state-of-the-art tools and technologies in software development. This was a whole new world for me – before, I had literally only implemented “plain code” without a suitable development environment, without fancy testing tools and without connecting to databases. And for me, there are very few places which are more suitable for getting a wide insight into so many different fields connected to development. Learning is not only considered to be necessary, but also promoted – and everyone in my department is encouraged to spend time on learning. Additionally, we have the philosophy that, roughly speaking, every developer in my team should be basically able to do every task – of course everyone has some kind of focus, based on his or her knowledge, but everyone is also encouraged to undertake tasks where he or she is a complete beginner.

Today, learning new things is still a daily business in my job. Another part which becomes more and more important is the conception and discussion of particular features of the new software. The “clients” (in our case, the “specialist department”, those who, in contrast to me and my team, know how an insurance as a product needs to work) decide about new features they want. This can be a very small and simple request like “I want this button to be green instead of blue” or a big new feature like the possibility for the customer to report a damage case. The developers (like me) discuss the technical requirements and details, check if everything is technically possible, roughly figure out which parts of the software are affected and what has to be done and wrap everything up in one or more specific tasks. In addition, the developers can contribute their own ideas or write “IT-only-tasks” (tasks which do not bring a visible new feature, but are necessary for some other reasons).

Consequently, the last part is the implementation part – namely solving the tasks. This (mostly) means implementing new pieces of code, integrating them into the complete software (after a quite strict reviewing process by other developers) and writing automated tests for the new features. One task can take from a few minutes (like the green button) up to several weeks, often accompanied by further discussion rounds with the “insurance experts” or with other developers. Besides, a task can be done completely alone or even in a team of several people – in every case, the whole team discusses everyone’s tasks in a daily meeting together, where problems can be put on the table or opinions can be exchanged. All in all, everything is based on teamwork: If you don’t know the answer to a question, lots of phone calls and sometimes a whole bunch of people staring at the problem later always lead to a solution.

All three parts together make this a perfect job for me. As an applied mathematician, I am still able to make use of the skills I acquired during my studies and still solve complex problems. The job does not only require programming skills, but also the ability to “delve into” specific issues and to analyse all sides and effects of a problem, while always raising new challenges and opportunities to learn new things – but without the pressure of exams and the question of “what should become of me” in the future.

Posted by HMS in Blog
Angela Tabiri

Angela Tabiri

Born in Tema, Ghana • Studied Mathematics at the University of Glasgow, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Accra, Ghana • Occupation Lecturer

Growing up in Accra, Ghana, I loved mathematics. I found joy in solving mathematics questions but I did not envision a career in mathematics as a thing for me. My older sisters studied business courses at the university so I decided to follow in their footsteps and applied to study Business Administration as my first choice course at the University of Ghana. Fortunately or unfortunately, I could not gain admission for my first choice program and had to settle for my second choice which was mathematics and economics. Nevertheless, I loved the challenge mathematics presented. I had to spend hours after lectures revising lecture notes and solving exercises. I found this thrilling.

My motivation for giving back to the community where I grew up was to give students from less privileged backgrounds access to quality education.

After undergraduate studies, I went to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Ghana for postgraduate studies. It was at AIMS that I got exposed to different fields of mathematics. From AIMS Ghana, I went to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) for a postgraduate diploma in mathematics. The program at ICTP was very challenging but it helped convince me that I could pursue mathematics further.

After postgraduate studies, I became conscious of the opportunities available when one studies mathematics. Prior to this, most of us thought anyone who studied mathematics at the university would end up as a teacher. This is not to say that teaching is not a good profession, I love teaching. When I realised the many opportunities available after postgraduate studies, I volunteered as a mathematics teacher in a junior secondary school in my community. This would inspire the young students that mathematics is not impossible to study as perceived and one could pursue a career in mathematics. In subsequent years, I volunteered as a mathematics teacher for at least a month and donated books to the library of this school. My motivation for giving back to the community where I grew up was to give students from less privileged backgrounds access to quality education.

My research interest is in noncommutative algebras which are abstract analogues of subtraction and division.

I was awarded a Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship in 2015 to pursue PhD in Mathematics studies at the University of Glasgow (UofG). In 2019, I graduated with a PhD in Mathematics from UofG, returned to my home country Ghana and started working as a postdoctoral fellow at AIMS Ghana. I am currently a research associate and academic manager for the Girls in Mathematical Sciences Program (GMSP) at AIMS Ghana. I decided to pursue a career in academia because I love teaching and doing research.

A summary of my research interest is as follows. Consider the operations of addition and multiplication, it does not matter the order in which you perform them. That is, 2 + 3 = 3 + 2 and 2 × 3 = 3 × 2. In mathematics, we call this the commutative property. However, the operations of subtraction and division are not commutative. That is 2 − 3 is not equal to 3 − 2 and 2 ÷ 3 is not equal to 3 ÷ 2. We say that subtraction and division are noncommutative. My research interest is in noncommutative algebras which are abstract analogues of subtraction and division. For any shape that you can draw on a flat surface whereby the shape can be described by an equation, we investigate whether we can put a noncommutative structure on the shape to make it a quantum homogeneous space. This area of research is abstract but our hope is that there will be useful applications of our results in a few years time.

Our mission is to inspire young girls about the diverse career options available when you study mathematics and our vision is to see girls being confident to pursue a career in mathematics and related fields.

I am passionate about supporting and promoting women in mathematics which ties in well with my new role as the academic manager for the GMSP. The GMSP is a hybrid 9 month program for high school girls from Ghana to nurture their talents in the mathematical sciences. We meet students monthly online for masterclasses with experts in different fields of mathematics. Then during vacations from school, the students visit the AIMS Ghana campus for residentials where minicourses in mathematics, industrial visits, interactions with mentors and extracurricular activities are undertaken.

I am also the founder of Femafricmaths, a charity that promotes female African mathematicians. We host guests by interviewing them about their journeys with mathematics and share the videos on the Femafricmaths social media pages. Our mission is to inspire young girls about the diverse career options available when you study mathematics and our vision is to see girls being confident to pursue a career in mathematics and related fields.

There are few of us and we need to ensure that barriers are removed so more women can pursue careers in mathematics.

Mentors have played a critical role in my academic and professional journeys. Ken, Ulrich, Prince and Chelsea have been phenomenal mentors who mentor me every step along the way. I have also benefited from the Women in Noncommutative Algebra and Representation Theory (WINART) research group. This is a collaboration between women in mathematics from different universities. I learnt a lot working with this research group comprising both early career and established mathematics.

It is important to be intentional about creating opportunities for women in mathematics. There are few of us and we need to ensure that barriers are removed so more women can pursue careers in mathematics. I was awarded a Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship for my PhD studies. This fellowship is for women in STEM from developing countries to enable us to study at top universities abroad and return to our home countries to support teaching and research. It would have been challenging to find other sources of funding for my PhD if I had not been awarded this fellowship by the Schlumberger Foundation.

Link:
Femafricmaths – Female African Mathematicians

Posted by HMS in Stories
Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico • Birth year 1983 Studied Mathematics at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI, USA • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in North Adams, MA, USA • Occupation Mathematics Professor

My love for math faded during my high school years. Being undocumented, living in the United States was challenging. Even though I was doing well academically, I thought I might never have the opportunity to attend college. I was sad, and at that time I turned to art as an outlet to deal with the challenges I was facing. I spent most of my senior year in high school in an art studio. I spent countless hours learning to draw, paint, and sculpt. I even dropped out of my calculus class just so that I could have more time to do art. I do not regret that choice, even though going a year without math courses hurt my mathematical skills. At the time, I needed something to help me deal with the anxiety and sadness I was experiencing, and art served me well. 

There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school.

After graduating high school, I was able to enter community college. How that was possible is a story for another day, but the main thing is that, upon entering the program, my mathematical skills were well below calculus. My first college math course was intermediate algebra, where I (re?)learned how to factor polynomials. I vividly remember that day’s lesson where the professor said “To factor x^2+5x+6 we need to find two numbers that add to 5 and multiply to 6.” I immediately raised my hand, proudly announcing that numbers did not do that. How can two numbers multiply and add to something different? Luckily, the professor was very kind and she allowed me to think of examples. After discovering that 2 and 3 did the trick, I felt such joy in understanding something that I had taken for granted: numbers are amazing and in fact multiplication and addition are two distinct things! From there my story began to take shape. 

After intermediate algebra I took all of the math courses the community college offered and later transferred to a four-year college to continue studying math. There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school. So, on I went! 

My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live.

I always knew that I would like to be a teacher. There is something so beautiful about seeing someone understand something. Most people call that an “aha” moment, and it truly is special. I also knew that education is a path out of poverty and into opportunity. Being an immigrant, I knew firsthand that having options is one key component to a happy life. So, I have always wanted to help others reach their goals and attain their dreams. However, it was not until almost the completion of my PhD that I decided to be a college professor. Finding this as a career option was great because it has allowed me to continue learning while doing research and teaching students. Creating new programs and platforms that provide mentorship and support for students from groups who have been historically excluded from higher education has also been deeply fulfilling. This outreach work keeps me grounded and reminds me that there is still a lot of work to be done in order for everyone to have meaningful and positive experiences with mathematics. My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live. 

Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in.

Being an immigrant, previously undocumented, and a Latina woman meant I rarely saw people like me in mathematics. Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in. Sadly, it took a long time to find a community of scholars who shared similar backgrounds and heritage. Yet this motivated much of my past work and inspired me and Drs. Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Alicia Prieto Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa to co-found the organization Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences. Our goal is to share and amplify the contributions of Latinx/Hispanic scholars in math. We do this through a variety of means including Hispanic Heritage Month (in the US it is celebrated between September 15 and October 15) events, a podcast, and even a new book — Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians. The book’s chapters will be freely available one per month starting in September 2021 and our hope is that this book provides a way for those within the community to learn of our stories while also giving advice to those who want to learn more about us and how to support our work. Although there is much work to be done so that those from historically excluded groups feel valued and uplifted in mathematics, I am hopeful that initiatives like Lathisms are making this reality possible.

Links:
Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences
Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians

Posted by HMS in Stories
Carolin Dirks

Carolin Dirks

Born in Steinfurt, Germany • Studied Maths at the University of Münster, Germany • Highest Degree Doctorate in Maths • Lives in Steinfurt, Germany • Occupation Software Developer at LVM Versicherung (insurance company)

When I started studying maths, I was frequently asked what I was planning to do after graduating. “Who wants to hire a mathematician? Do you want to end up in a boring job working in the financial sector or in an insurance?” Of course, like most of my fellow students, I did not have a satisfying answer to these questions. Today, after several years of studying and struggling with lots of formulas, proofs and theorems, I have learned two very important lessons: First, that there are thousands of opportunities in very different branches of industry and academia a mathematician can take, and second, that having an inspiring and exciting job and working for an insurance is not a contradiction.

And what came next finally took me to the decision to stay with maths for the rest of my life: I realised that I was not the worst student (though not the best either), and I was fascinated by the clarity and pure logic of mathematical problems, forming a huge contrast to the, in my opinion, very unclear analysis of poems and classic literature (sorry to those who would disagree with this point).

In my experience, studying maths is a decision made out of the interest for logical structures, for clarity and puzzles, but not for a particular future job. Unlike many others, the presence of this interest was not clear to me until I reached the last years of high school. Thus I cannot claim that I had always been fascinated by mathematics, though I was never a bad student, my interests lay elsewhere – largely in learning languages, which I still try to spend some time with beside my current job. This changed due to a sudden and, at least in retrospect, very fortunate coincidence: When I had to choose my advanced courses for my last two years at school (every German academic high school student has to decide for two), due to organisational reasons I ended up in the advanced maths class. For a few weeks, I was quite depressed, being sure that I would be the most stupid student next to all those maths geniuses. And what came next finally took me to the decision to stay with maths for the rest of my life: I realised that I was not the worst student (though not the best either), and I was fascinated by the clarity and pure logic of mathematical problems, forming a huge contrast to the, in my opinion, very unclear analysis of poems and classic literature (sorry to those who would disagree with this point). Out of this fascination I finally made the decision to study maths, without having a specific career aspiration and even without having any idea about possible careers.

Although in my opinion, society made great progress in overcoming gender-specific obstacles, I also made the experience that women interested in computer stuff are still a bit unusual. This caused me to be suspicious – would I be good enough, would I be able to establish myself in this branch and would I find a job as a mathematician?

At the university, I fought my way through the first few semesters without a specific plan – but instead with lots of very close new friends with the same mind-set, since studying maths is not least a matter of team work. In my fourth semester, I first encountered the field of numerical mathematics, which, roughly speaking, can be explained as the area of intersection between maths and computer science. I realised how closely related these two fields are: Computer science can be used to solve lots of mathematical problems, while every computer program uses the “language” of mathematics and logics. I was fascinated by the variety of applications and decided to concentrate on this field in my further studies. And slowly, very hesitantly in the beginning, I started thinking that maybe I could become a software developer. Hesitantly because up to this point, I never had any points of contact with computer science in my life, not because I was not interested, but simply because it never came to my mind. Although in my opinion, society made great progress in overcoming gender-specific obstacles, I also made the experience that women interested in computer stuff are still a bit unusual. This caused me to be suspicious – would I be good enough, would I be able to establish myself in this branch and would I find a job as a mathematician? To find the answers to all these questions, I needed to try it out – so I tried, and it was worth it.

Before this rough idea could emerge to a specific plan, a few more years had to pass by. After graduating, I was still insecure about what I wanted to be. Not only, but also not at least in order to postpone a “final” decision, I decided to stay at the university and do a PhD, despite again fighting with my doubts of being good enough. This turned out to be a great idea – I was now able to contribute my own ideas and, in this way, further develop my interests and strengths, all the time attended by a great, supporting and understanding scientist. And although I was for sure not the best student (thanks to my supervisor’s patience at this point), I finally made it, having learned one of the most important lessons in life: You can do it if you really try.  

At this point in my life, I knew what I wanted: To use my mathematical logical knowledge in combination with my (at this point, quite acceptable) programming skills to contribute to something “tangible”, something someone could really make use of […].

After finishing my PhD (and now, with a particular plan, namely to become a software developer), I applied for my first job outside of academia. At this point in my life, I knew what I wanted: To use my mathematical logical knowledge in combination with my (at this point, quite acceptable) programming skills to contribute to something “tangible”, something someone could really make use of (sadly this is something missed by many maths students during their studies). The explicit sector was not important for me, since I found for myself that those really deep and specific programming problems are fascinating no matter if the application behind is just a web-enabled water boiler. So I thought, why not an insurance company? The job advertisement sounded very interesting. The company was looking for developers for a completely new contract software, which would be used by the insurance agencies all over Germany. This promised not to be the boring insurance job every first-year maths student is afraid of, so I took the chance. Retrospectively, I am very happy about the path I took, and proud of having had the courage to take it, regardless of my doubts and fears of not being good enough. Although this is something several maths students have in common, most of my former fellow students also share the ability of tenacity, they do not give up easily, but make their way and realise that it works – in the end, the struggle was worth it and I would strongly recommend to just give it a try.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Sofía López Ordóñez

Sofía López Ordóñez

Born in Quito, Ecuador • Studied Mathematical Engineering at Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador • Highest Degree M.Sc. in Mathematical Optimization • Lives in Quito, Ecuador • Occupation Teaching assistant and Ph.D. student

My math story started with questions, as many other math stories, I suppose. In the early years of high school, math exercises were fun and challenging. I enjoyed solving them, but I never thought I would study math as a career years later. By that time, I wanted to become an engineer, like my dad, and hopefully work at a hydroelectric power plant. But somehow, math was like gravity, and I felt more and more drawn to it. Hence, I decided to study math at Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Ecuador at the end of high school. Looking back on it, I think I was lucky. Pursuing a career in math was not common in Ecuador. I had the support of my parents and I also was encouraged by my math teacher. However, I had no idea of what math was really about.

I enjoyed the vitality of the formal math language, which brings the possibility to precisely describe a deduction process and articulate a definition from an intuitive notion.

I found the early stages of my undergraduate studies challenging and, sometimes, difficult. However, I was amazed and triggered. I enjoyed the vitality of the formal math language, which brings the possibility to precisely describe a deduction process and articulate a definition from an intuitive notion. The beauty of the simplicity and richness of math made me stay. Nevertheless, the inflection point in my math story happened when I started to work as a research assistant in a project at the Research Center for Mathematical Modeling in Ecuador, ModeMat. In this project, I worked on the numerical solution of visco-plastic fluids. These fluids have a dual behavior; they move like a solid or like liquid depending on the stress imposed on them. I found the mathematical formulation of these fluids fantastic. In this process, I learned the fundamental laws underlying fluid dynamics, optimization methods and I improved my coding skills. This was the starting point of a journey that led me through a Master’s program in Mathematical Optimization and then, like the flow of a Newtonian fluid, to the Ph.D. program in Applied Mathematics. Being part of the Research Center, ModeMat, has shaped part of my life. I have grown up there from an undergrad student to a Ph.D. student under the supervision of four great advisers: Pedro, Sergio, Juan Carlos, and Luis Miguel. Their guidance during the Ph.D. has been essential and valuable. 

I am confident things are changing. At the moment, in my Ph.D. program, we are more women than men.

Nonetheless, I have realized that every time I was part of an international conference, unconsciously I ended up choosing a woman from the Academy as a role model. This unaware action, years later, made me realize how important visibility is. There were few academic women at the math department while I was an undergrad student; therefore, I had the chance to only have one math woman professor. I am confident things are changing. At the moment, in my Ph.D. program, we are more women than men.

I am in the last year of the Ph.D. This journey has not been like the stream of a calm river. Like a visco-plastic fluid, sometimes I have moved like a solid, slowly and without any change in my progress and, sometimes, one just flows like a liquid in a stream of exquisite results. The chance to write about my story came in an opaque moment of uncertainty and lack of confidence. It took me a while to sit and write it down. However, I have genuinely enjoyed it. This retrospective exercise helped me to reconcile and reconnect. Right now, I am focused on this last year of the Ph.D. and interested in a Postdoc. My thesis is still related to visco-plastic fluids. Therefore, in some sense, I think I kind of accomplished my teenage dream. I am not working at a power plant driven by water but I have a better understanding of the fluid dynamics laws to comprehend the power of water. Finally, I would like to take the final words of Natasha Karp’s math story (which I enjoyed a lot reading) as advice: “Enjoy your journey but don’t expect to know exactly where you are going and keep growing and challenging yourself’’. I think that’s what I will do.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Maylin Wartenberg

Maylin Wartenberg

Born in Braunschweig, Germany • Studied Math (diploma) at the Technical University in Braunschweig, Germany • Highest Degree Doctorate in Math (Dr. rer. nat.) • Lives in Meine, Germany • Occupation Professor at the Hochschule Hannover – University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Department of Business Information Systems, Field of Data Science

Analytical thinking has always been easy for me. Therefore, I enjoyed the rules and patterns that occur in math from early on. Luckily, I recovered quickly after the German high school greeted me with the minimum pass mark “adequate” in the first two math exams in 7th grade. In 9th and 10th grade, we had a very strict “old school” teacher who left a lasting impression. We always had to stand up to greet him, and if you used a swear word in class, you had to wash the glasses in the chemistry room during the next break. He was strict, but he liked me and I learned a lot. In 11th grade I spent a high school year in the US and after this year I wanted to take math as one of my advanced courses. That was a tough decision because all I did at the American high school was statistics whereas in Germany everyone had started with curve sketching. After my return to Germany, the first exam in 12th grade was about this topic. I didn’t know anything about it and I had 6 weeks of summer break to study. A former very kind teacher helped me with the material and I studied by myself and achieved a good mark. That was a major milestone to my decision to study math, since I was able to teach myself the topics of almost a whole school year. But I still wasn’t sure. Math or psychology?

After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

Both sounded very attractive to my 19-year-old self. The plans to move to Braunschweig with two of my friends were already settled and I finally chose math because it was giving me a wider range of options on what future opportunities to follow – because I had no clue what to do after my studies at that point. In the beginning we were quite a few students, but in the end only 4 of us were left in pure math – 25% women 😉. I chose most of my courses in abstract math – algebra, combinatorics – and did as little applied math as possible. I really enjoyed the study of group and ring structures and the book Algebra by Serge Lang was always by my side. I already dreamed of becoming a professor myself.

Yet, in the end, the question what to do with all the knowledge I gained crept more and more into my consciousness. That is why I didn’t pursue a strictly academic career, nevertheless I still wanted to secure the option, and chose a PHD position in business at Bosch (formerly Blaupunkt) in Hildesheim. No more group and ring theory, suddenly I had to write code in C++ for algorithms in navigation systems. I had avoided any computer science so far, thus, I was thrown in at the deep end. But I never regretted this step because I discovered that coding is not all at all as difficult as I thought – after all it’s logical – and I learned a lot about working in a bigger company. After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience (…).

I stayed home with her and somehow managed the defence of my doctoral thesies with a 5-month-old baby and still deprived of decent sleep. After 8 or 9 months at home, my brain started asking to be challenged again, and I began to apply for jobs in industry. As a young mother I wanted to start part time, but as a woman holding a doctorate in mathematics that was not as easy to get as I hoped. After a long search, including several offers with 40 hours and more, I was finally rewarded by starting a job at VW Financial Services. My one-year-old daughter was able to stay at the company’s own childcare facility and I started with 27 hours a week as a systems analyst in the business intelligence department in IT. In almost 10 years I made my way from analyst, to project lead, to team lead all the way to head of two sub-departments and got enrolled in the management trainee program – most of this in part time including a maternity leave when I had my second daughter in between. Then, suddenly, another option which had gotten a little out of sight but was still a silent dream popped back in.

And that is my way to my current position as a professor in business computing, especially data science. I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience – all of that with the advantage of being my own boss, still doing interesting projects with different companies, giving talks about AI for lay audiences (schools, senior clubs, …), and guiding young people on part of their own story.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Thi Mui Pham

Thi Mui Pham

Born in Hanoi, Vietnam • Studied Mathematics at RWTH Aachen in Germany • Highest degree: Master of Science in Mathematics • Lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands • PhD candidate in infectious disease modelling at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in Utrecht (The Netherlands)

I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Germany, lived in the UK for about two years in total, and moved to the Netherlands for my PhD four years ago. Having lived in various countries, I always saw myself as a cultural hybrid – bridging the gap between different cultures and traditions. My PhD topic similarly connects two different but intersecting disciplines:  I develop mathematical models to tackle the spread of infectious diseases.

When you would have asked me what my future job would be when I was 10 years old, my answer would probably have been “a detective”. I loved solving puzzles and finding solutions to a problem. What I particularly enjoyed about maths was its simplicity: In its pure form, you only need your mind and maybe a pen and a paper.

I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world.

After graduating high school, I decided to pursue a Maths degree at university. The reason was simple: I was eager to learn more about how to solve abstract problems through logical reasoning. Despite its reputation, you do not need to study maths as a lone wolf. A lot of my university time included working together with fellow students, discussing various solutions, and looking at a problem from different angles. Studying maths at university level was not always easy for me but I had a lot of fun, and I think that’s what counts in the end. When I was about to finish my degree, I felt a bit lost as I realised that I never really had a particular job or career in mind, and I had no real plan for my life. I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world. However, I had no idea how exactly I could combine these two interests.   

By chance, I came across the 80,000 Hours non-profit organisation that tries to guide graduates towards a career that fits their personality but also “effectively tackles the world’s most pressing problems”. This gave me an impetus to contemplate more thoroughly my career choice and I started to do research on the applications of maths to address real-world problems. I quickly learned about the serious risks that infectious diseases pose to our world and how mathematical modelling can provide valuable insights into the field. Luckily, I was able to find a PhD position in infectious disease epidemiology in Utrecht. In hindsight, accepting this position was one of the best decisions in my life as I can genuinely say that I am very happy with my work, my research group, and in particular with my supervisors. They gave me just the right balance between guidance and freedom, and a positive environment to thrive.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools.

When I started my PhD my main topic was to study the transmission dynamics of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools. It has been a very challenging time as my workload has doubled but at the same time, I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to use my skills to ‘do good’ while truly enjoying my work.

The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems.

Infectious disease modelling is rather versatile: It requires translating biological problems into the language of mathematics, analytically investigating the research question using the developed model, and finally translating the results back to the real world to obtain implications for infection control policy. The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems. Maths used to be underrated and maybe even underappreciated but by showing people how mathematics can be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, I hope we can spread a little bit more love for mathematics.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Christina Graf

Christina Graf

Born in Vienna, Austria • Birth year 1994 • Studied Mathematics at Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria • Highest Degree Master’s in Mathematics • Lives in Graz, Austria • Occupation University Assistant at the Institute of Medical Engineering, Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria

As far as I can remember I have been in love with math. In school, I always did my math homework first, and I actually procrastinated a bit to spend more time doing math without having to move on to further homework. I was interested in many things as a kid and I was always enthusiastic – this enthusiasm never left! But honestly, I did not realize that being a mathematician could be my job description one day. My mom is a teacher -yes math- so I thought about math only from a teaching perspective for a long time. My dad was a radiologist and I considered becoming a doctor myself. I knew what his daily work and workload was like and I was fascinated by this clear boundary setting between „good“ and „bad“ (he specialized in breast cancer detection and divided tumors he found in “the good, the bad, and the ugly”). Funnily, clear decisions also occur in math! So, for a long time my plan was to apply for medical school after graduating from highschool and my parents generously supported me, not only in terms of financing, but – more importantly – emotionally. 

That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

I was in 11th grade when my mom said, more incidentally: „You know, you always start with your math homework!“. I think she had no idea what she started with that! So, I slightly started thinking: „Could math be an option?“ My social environment was not so supportive, I heard comments like „It is so damn hard, do you want to do it?“ or „Mathematicians just do programming“ (and I hated computers during that time). But I am not a person who is easily influenced and when someone doubts my ability to do something, I usually get in the „I am gonna show them“ mode. During that time I learned that I need to have the faith in myself that others might not have in me! I often sneaked into my mom’s office to read some applied math books and soon she found her missing books on my bedside table. That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

So my plan changed and my new aim was to go to a technical university. My parents were extremely supportive from day one, believing in me, but also always telling me that I had the option to leave to do something else if math did not turn out to be the right thing. With that in mind, I started university, as motivated as I could ever be, completely oblivious to what will follow. The first months were hard, there is nothing to gloss over here, but not a single second I thought about leaving, I just loved it.

I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now.

The years went by, I received my Bachelor’s degree with plenty of ups and downs and enrolled in the Master’s program. During this time I was not entirely happy with what I was doing. I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now. Ultimately, I was unsure if math was still the right subject for me. So, during a Sunday afternoon in the university library where I was unhappy with doing my homework, I scrolled through other institutes‘ webpages, interested in what they do. I spent a few minutes on the webpage of the Institute of Medical Engineering – the curiosity in medicine never left – and there was an open Master’s thesis sounding mathematical, but with an actual application of that. On the next day, I met with the PI (who is my PhD supervisor now) and soon after, I started working on my thesis. I just loved it from day one. I finally felt like being „home“, I could use all the fancy math skills I learned and I could actually utilize them for real-world problems. Eight months and some exams later, I graduated and received my Master of Science in mathematics with specialization in technomathematics. I did not need to think about what to do next for too long, as I knew exactly that I wanted to continue with math. And so I started working on my PhD at the same institute after two months of traveling the world.

I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

For my PhD, I’m working in the field of optimal control for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Here, I’m optimizing radiofrequency (RF) pulses, which form the basis of every MRI scan. Goals of the optimization include making the RF pulses shorter, reducing the scan time, and reducing the energy it produces, among others. It allows me to combine mathematical methods with a medical application, namely Magnetic Resonance which is used to obtain images of the human body. During my PhD, my enthusiasm for this subject has not decreased – I grew even more fond of it. I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

At the moment, I have the strong tendency to stay in academia; frankly, I can‘t think about anything else. While writing these lines, we are at the end of the third „Covid-19 wave“ in Austria and I really feel this desire to leave the country and go abroad. Due to Covid, I was not able to travel to international conferences, but as always, this is not an excuse, but a motivation to get going again. I am excited to leave my home and ready to take every opportunity that is presented to me. For the future, I’d like to make the world a little bit better with my knowledge and what I do. Furthermore, I would like to continue sharing the joy of mathematics with my students every day.

Posted by HMS in Stories