HMS

Rachel Furner

Rachel Furner

Born in Plymouth, UK • Birth year 1985 • Studied Mathematics at Oxford University, UK • Currently studying for a PhD looking at using machine learning in oceanography, based at Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey

My grandma heavily influenced my love of mathematics – as a child she let me have as many sweets as I could count, so I began school with excellent counting abilities! She was also an avid fan of maths and logic puzzles and would do these with me, as a child she had me working on puzzles aimed at adults. As I went through school, I began to appreciate the reality of maths, how it was so much more than counting and arithmetic and instead more closely related to all these puzzles and problems I had loved solving.

I especially enjoy the way maths can be used to understand so much of the world around us and see it as a brilliant language to describe and understand physical processes.

I don’t recall ever deciding to study maths, it just felt like a given. For me it was such an obvious pathway that it never needed to be stated or chosen. And the more I learnt about maths the more I loved it. I especially enjoy the way maths can be used to understand so much of the world around us and see it as a brilliant language to describe and understand physical processes. For me, one of the most enlightening moments of my career was learning about fluid dynamics at university. I had already learnt a lot about standard mechanics (how forces act to move objects etc), but the idea that we could also understand things like the way the ocean changes and moves in an incredibly detailed and definitive way was incredible!

I finished my undergraduate keen to start ‘doing’ something rather than carrying on learning, and my interests led quite naturally to a job building computer models of the ocean for forecasting weather and climate. I loved the work; it was such a great application of the maths I had enjoyed so much. Sadly though, over time I found that being female in this environment was challenging. Many small but persistent issues grew to become more than just tiresome and got in the way of my love for my job. Little things like women being talked over, or not given as much credit as the men we worked with, and people asking questions of my male colleagues in areas where I was the expert. I then moved teams and went from having an incredibly supportive and encouraging manager, to one where I felt there were notable gender issues, and this coincided with a time where the senior leadership’s approach to gender issues were really in the spotlight, and I didn’t feel supported enough by their actions. Eventually I realised I dreaded going to work, and the time had come that I needed to change things. I looked at other jobs, and decided to leave research altogether, but my love of maths was clearly still influencing my decisions, and I started working as a coordinator for two mathematical research centres. It was the perfect tonic after a difficult time. I refound my love of going to work and the sense of satisfaction from it. I remembered how exciting and interesting maths was. And most importantly I had two incredible managers. They supported and encouraged me, reminding me of my skills and abilities. They asked whether I’d considered doing a PhD, and, while I had often thought about it in an abstract way, their remarks gave me the confidence to seriously consider it.

I quickly realised that while I might not be the ‘average’ student, I was far from old, and that there are so many people who don’t follow the traditional academic pathway.

At 33, feeling like this was a foolhardy thing to begin at such an age, but also super excited about the chance to spend 4 years absorbed in something for the pure interest of it, I began my PhD looking at using machine learning to model the ocean. I quickly realised that while I might not be the ‘average’ student, I was far from old, and that there are so many people who don’t follow the traditional academic pathway. Really, there is no average student. We all come to this with such a different perspective and history, and so many individual advantages and disadvantages. I found (as I’d hoped) that my background meant I have many relevant skills that have made things easier. But also, my fundamental knowledge was rusty, and my brain felt so slow at times when trying to pick up new things. Alongside this, it feels my life is much more complicated now than it was in my early twenties, and a number of difficult things in my personal life have impacted my work, and I’ve really struggled at times. Throughout this though, I try to remind myself of the privilege of being able to sit at my desk and spend my time thinking about something which I still find so incredibly cool – the way we can use this brilliant language of mathematics to understand the world around us.

I’m lucky to have had some incredible people support and inspire me along the way, helping me to get to this point – thank you to them all!

Posted by HMS in Stories
Joana Sarah Grah

Joana Sarah Grah

Born in Germany • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Düsseldorf, Germany • Occupation Scientific Associate

My decision to study mathematics was anything but straightforward. I always enjoyed maths classes throughout my primary and secondary school years. I also have to add that I personally believe this experience was significantly influenced by the fact that I had great maths teachers. Luckily, against a sadly very common (mis)perception of society I never felt that maths was not for girls. Maybe this was unconsciously strengthened by the female maths teachers I had in early school years. Shortly before my last two years of secondary school began, I decided against choosing mathematics as a major (which always seemed to be clear beforehand) because I did not enjoy the maths classes I attended in the preceding year. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the following two years of maths classes, which is among other things certainly due to the amazing teacher (and possibly first maths mentor) I had. From the beginning, he made quite clear that he did not really understand why I only chose maths as a minor, but he would motivate, encourage and challenge me even more throughout the two years. He also was one of the few persons I could consult when I was thinking about applying to study maths at university.

In the end, (…) I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked.

I was the first family member to attend university, let alone having received a university-entrance diploma, and so my family could not really provide me with a lot of advice or experience in this regard. However, they were incredibly supportive in multiple other ways throughout my studies and without their support I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.
In the end, after considering other options such as linguistics and language studies, I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked. At first, I thought it was sufficient to attend the lectures (like the classes in school) and go home after. This also fit snugly with the hours I had to work in my side-job. The ‘homework’ was surely very similar to the one at school and I would just solve the mathematical problems we were given by myself like I did in school. Preparing for the exams would certainly be similar to schooldays and I would not have to study too hard. It did not take too long until I realised that I was completely wrong. The first unsuccessful exams hit me quite hard and ultimately, I found myself in a situation that I had not known up to this point in my life. It was already pretty late to turn things around completely and after many thoughts and conversations, I decided to start all over again one year later.

It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life.

The further I got and also the more I was able to specialise in my studies, the more I enjoyed student life. I was lucky enough to have a strong and supportive network of fellow students and friends. What is more, especially in the final year of my Bachelor’s, I had two extremely dedicated, passionate and encouraging advisers, one of which was going to become one of my main mentors throughout my academic career. And this is the main message I would like to convey here. It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life. In addition to my Bachelor’s and Master’s supervisor, I had two incredibly supportive, heartening and inspiring women as a PhD supervisor and co-supervisor. I believe that my passion for women encouragement was significantly influenced by my main PhD supervisor who herself has given numerous talks on her own experiences as a woman in maths, her career path and her very personal journey to become an excelling mathematician and leader.

We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Already during my Master’s, I participated in a mentoring programme that was coined by a very committed (male!) diversity officer at our maths department. We had regular meetings in small groups of three mentees and one mentor who was a female PhD student. We were able to informally chat about positive and negative experiences, the decision whether to continue as a PhD student or search for a job in industry and how being a woman in a still male-dominated field poses some challenges. We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Without all of this amazing support and encouragement I am 100% sure that I would not have continued doing a Master’s respectively PhD respectively post-doc, as I have fairly often thought about quitting at various points in my career. In the end, persevering, listening to my mentors and believing in myself was worthwhile. Nowadays, I try to identify situations in which I observe sexism, female students and colleagues struggling with imposter syndrome, or simply the exhausting and competitive environment that academia sometimes is. Then I try to speak out or even manage to become a mentor myself.

My PhD research was in applied mathematics. More specifically, in one of my main projects I developed mathematical image analysis tools for an application in cancer research. In an interdisciplinary collaboration I worked with biologists that studied the efficacy of anti-mitotic drugs trying to slow down or prevent mitosis, the process of cell division, in cancer cells. I developed a graphical user interface that facilitated the automatic analysis of sequences of microscopy images showing the treated cells over time.

I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. 

I always liked collaborations in my academic career and I believe that against all stereotypes, at least applied maths is a very team-oriented discipline and it is essential to discuss lectures, papers and ideas with fellow students and colleagues. I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. Recently, I even quit research and started working as a scientific associate at university focusing on science communication as well as education.

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Tamara Grossmann

Tamara Grossmann

Born in Germany • Studied in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree M.Sc. • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation PhD Student

To be honest, I don’t really know where my fascination with maths has come from. None of my family members are doing anything related. But I remember an instance in first grade where we had a small test on multiplication tables and I got quite competitive to be the first one to finish. I think at that point I decided that I wanted to be good at maths. This didn’t really carry through all my school years, but maths kept being a subject I enjoyed. I became more interested again in secondary school when one of my teachers involved me in a maths club. Another student and I started working on a small project together which we presented at a youth research competition. This was probably the first time I really sat down and used the maths I’d learned so far to solve a specific problem. We ended up winning the local round. Ultimately, I think the support and affirmation from my teachers during my school years gave me the confidence to believe I was good enough to go on and study maths.

It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

After high school I went off to university excited and full of energy, just to realise in the first two semesters that studying maths was a lot harder than I anticipated. I barely passed my exams even though I had studied a lot. It was a big adjustment to the different way of thinking, and I needed to figure out what to focus on in order to pass my classes. However, in my mind there was no option to quit. I guess my competitive side from first grade came out and I saw it as a challenge to finish my Bachelor’s. Things got better eventually, especially when we started electing more specialised courses. Throughout, there were always little things that got me excited again about doing maths. Our department organised events every semester where alumni came to present the work they do now and the companies they work for. I remember someone talking about his work in imaging and the connection of mathematics and image processing. It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

“Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.”

During my Master’s, it became less about just getting through the degree and more about finding interesting courses and projects. The classes were smaller, and we had more contact to the lecturers. After one of my oral exams, I was asked about my plans and what I wanted to do next. I was startled, because I didn’t quite understand why a lecturer would be interested in this. I told him that I wanted to do an internship somewhere in industry before finishing my degree. I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after my studies, so this seemed like a good start. He offered his support in finding an internship position. Half a year later I summoned up all my courage to chase him up on his offer and asked if he’d know a company that would take interns to work in medical imaging. I think this got the ball rolling to get to where I am now. Through his and another professor’s support I started an internship at the university and with the supervisor I am doing my PhD with now. It is still astonishing to me that it took so little as a question, to start figuring out where I wanted to go next. The research group I did my internship at was very welcoming and many shared their stories and decision-making processes with me. This probably influenced me the most. From the outside you often just see these really smart people producing amazing work. But for me it was more encouraging to see their struggles and understand that in order to do a PhD you weren’t expected to know everything already or to be a genius. I think this would also be something I’d tell my 19-year-old self before going to uni. “Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.” I guess it’s something I’m still learning to this day. But I have found a group of amazing women that remind me we’re all doing the best we can, and a great research cohort that is encouraging with all the small achievements.

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Julia Kroos

Julia Kroos

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1988Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain • Lives in Cologne, Germany • Current Occupation: Applied Mathematician at Bayer

It started all in 4th grade. After being really bad at mental arithmetic, I started to enjoy mathematics for the very first time when concepts became a bit more complex. When I was 9 years old I decided not only to study but also do a PhD in mathematics. So after finishing the A-level, this was exactly what I did. Of course it was hard and different from the maths they teach in high school but I got to appreciate the pure and perfect way of mathematical proofs. However, it was not before the end of my Bachelor that I learned about the diverse applications of mathematics in Biology and Medicine. I never grew very fond of the theoretical part but just saw it as a tool you need to understand and master in order to apply the theory to real world problems. Even though I always had the dream of doing a PhD in mathematics, doubting my skills and abilities made me question this dream. What finally convinced me to continue research and start a PhD in maths was a very honest talk by a female professor at a meeting of women in maths. By coincidence I found the PhD position in Bilbao (Spain) in computational neuroscience and directly knew that this was my topic. 

The most exciting part of research for me was and is solving a problem. It is like a scavenger hunt: you follow traces, read instructions and do trials, which surprisingly involves a lot of creativity.

With the focus on personalised models for a phenomenon related to migraine, I got the opportunity to learn a lot of different strategies from numerical methods to solve differential equations, to curvature approximations and data processing. I worked with neurologists, physicians and medical doctors and learned a lot about interdisciplinary communication. The most exciting part of research for me was and is solving a problem. It is like a scavenger hunt: you follow traces, read instructions and do trials, which surprisingly involves a lot of creativity. Of course it is not all fun, running the simulation for the umpteenth time and writing papers is never going to be my favourite part.

Right when I started to write my PhD thesis, I fell sick and was all of a sudden experiencing personalised medicine from the patient’s point of view. It totally swept me off my feet because I had to pause my PhD for a while and could not stick to the schedule that I had planned. During this time I got a lot of insights in the diversity of medical treatments and was surprised by the differentiated treatment strategies. However, I also saw the potential for data-based fine tuning in the treatment strategies. After this forced break I focused even more than ever on the things that I really wanted: finish the PhD, see the world and find a job in mathematics with an impact.

The first of these points I tackled as quickly as possible. Even though I enjoyed research I could feel a weight lifting from my shoulders when I finally defended my thesis. The second point, traveling for a year after the PhD had always been a fixed idea in my head but talking to friends and family brought up a lot of doubts: would this look bad in my CV? Would this have a negative impact on my career? Would traveling alone be dangerous? However, after very encouraging conversations with professors and friends who had already travelled alone for a longer time, I just took the leap. I bought the plane tickets and went backpacking from Peru to Patagonia in the very south of Chile and through New Zealand by myself. In the beginning before leaving it was scary but in the end it was one of the best decisions in my life, and I learned so much about different cultures, traditions, people and communication that no book or course could have ever taught me.

After hiking the Patagonian highlands, starting as an applied mathematician in a pharmaceutical company is now my next big adventure.

The question if I want to continue research after obtaining my PhD already haunted me during my PhD studies, but when I got back from my big trip I finally knew the answer. I wanted to use my maths skills to help people in the medical sector. Consequently, I solely searched for maths jobs in pharmaceutics where I have just started as an applied mathematician. Changing from the university to a company opens up a totally new universe which I am still exploring but I am very curious and excited to better understand. So after hiking the Patagonian highlands this is now my next big adventure.

During my studies and my big trip I was very lucky to meet encouraging role models, supportive fellow students and inspiring like-minded people that helped me find my way – thank you all.

Posted by HMS in Stories