Stories

Marta Pittavino

Marta Pittavino

Born in Cuneo, Italy • Birth year 1987 Studied Mathematics at the University of Turin, Italy • Highest Degree PhD in Biostatistics from the University of Zurich, Switzerland • Lives in Venice, Italy • Occupation Assistant Professor with Tenure-Track in Statistics at the University Ca’ Foscari Venice

I have always been passionate about exploring the world of numbers and graphs, finding their intricate patterns and relationships fascinating.

Thanks to my scientific high school education at “Liceo Scientifico Giuseppe Peano”, I was exposed to all the historical and classical branches of mathematics, including Algebra, Geometry, Analysis, and more, with a high degree of knowledge and depth. I was taught important methods for solving equations and performed well in these subjects.

Mathematics was like a game to me: MatheMagics, a sort of puzzle where connecting different pieces represented solving equations, revealing the solutions behind them and the underlying functions.

My Master’s thesis involved developing an epidemiological model to represent a disease in goats.

I pursued Mathematics for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. My Master’s thesis involved developing an epidemiological model to represent a disease in goats. It was particularly brilliant, receiving two academic recognitions: the Best Master Thesis in Mathematics of the current Academic Year and the Caligara Prize, awarded to Interdisciplinary Master Works with an applied focus. These two awards gave me the ‘wings’ to fly toward the beginning of my academic path.

Therefore, I moved to Switzerland to pursue a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics at the University of Zurich, focusing on the study of Additive Bayesian Networks (ABN) for System Epidemiology. ABN is an innovative methodology that deals with multivariate data, analysing the interconnected and hidden relationships between variables. This marked my first step in transitioning from applied mathematics to statistics.

Mathematics and Statistics are two sides of the same coin, each indispensable and valuable.

Mathematics and Statistics are two sides of the same coin, each indispensable and valuable. On one side, there is the rigour and elegance of formulas, accompanied by foundational knowledge and methodology. On the other side, there is evolution through the modernity of digitalization and concrete applications. Statistics, particularly when applied, is a subject primarily developed using statistical software for data analysis. Additionally, data visualisation is a crucial initial step in comprehending the context. When conducted directly with a tool, it is the outcome of digitalization.

I have always compared my PhD journey to a hike. The peak of the mountain represents the completion of the thesis, or equivalently, the submission and even better, the publication of a scientific paper. I often had the impression that reaching the highest point of the mountain was not possible. This feeling was often demotivating. Overcoming this required strength, determination, and a bit of ambition to finish the task and not give up on the goal. However, the immense satisfaction of completing the PhD ultimately rewarded all the previous effort.

I continued this journey with a PostDoc in Applied Statistics for Nutritional Epidemiology at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Lyon, France. The project focused on studying the relationship between two types of cancer and B-Vitamins intake, involving the development of a Bayesian hierarchical model that accounts for the complexity of the data, including measurement error, disease models, and their intake distribution.

As I began sharing my knowledge, passion, and experiences with them, the joy and gratitude reached their zenith when I observed the students understanding new topics and expressing profound appreciation.

Postdoctoral positions are particularly delicate as they involve a transitional phase in one’s career. At the conclusion of the contract, there may not be a conferred title or a guaranteed position. Therefore, the qualities of strength, determination, and ambition mentioned earlier become even more critical. These attributes are essential for persisting with the research project and not succumbing to challenges, thereby maintaining the original objectives.

After spending a couple of years in France amidst the challenges of academic life, I returned to Switzerland and took on the role of a Scientific Collaborator. This position swiftly evolved into a Senior Lecturer role. Over the course of 6 years, I was affiliated with the University of Geneva, where I taught various courses in Statistics and Mathematics at both the Bachelor and Master levels, delivering lectures in both English and French. Additionally, I served as the Scientific Coordinator of the Master program in Business Analytics. 

The first time I embarked on teaching, I felt utterly lost during the preparation phase, a mix of thrill, excitement, and emotion engulfing me afterward. The moment before entering the classroom consistently brought a sense of forgetting my own knowledge, a feeling that dissipated upon seeing the students in front of me. As I began sharing my knowledge, passion, and experiences with them, the joy and gratitude reached their zenith when I observed the students understanding new topics and expressing profound appreciation. These moments stand out as the happiest and most rewarding aspects of my day, constituting a meaningful part of my teaching career.

In this current position, my focus has been on investigating statistical techniques and analyses for demographic studies, particularly on the ageing of the European and Italian population.

During the period in Geneva, my research interests transitioned from biostatistics to philanthropy, exploring specific statistical methodologies highly relevant to that discipline. My shift in research interests expanded further during my role as an Assistant Professor at the University of Florence, a position I held for 10 months just before transitioning to my current role as Assistant Professor with Tenure-Track at the University Ca’ Foscari Venice. In this current position, my focus has been on investigating statistical techniques and analyses for demographic studies, particularly on the ageing of the European and Italian population.

From epidemiology to philanthropy and demography, these are just a few examples of the myriad applications of mathematical and statistical methods. As Galileo Galilei once aptly stated, ‘The Book of Nature is written in the language of Mathematics‘. This encapsulates the secret and magic of this wonderful discipline.

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Anastasia Molchanova

Anastasia Molchanova

Born in Siberia, Russia • Birth year 1989 Studied Mathematics at Novosibirsk State University in Novosibirsk, Russia • Highest Degree PhD (Candidate of Science) in Mathematics • Lives in Vienna, Austria • Occupation REWIRE Research Fellow (Postdoc) at the University of Vienna

My path in mathematics was both easy and challenging at the same time. Coming from the distant town of Oljokminsk in Yakutia (it is a north-eastern part of Siberia), with a population of less than 10,000 and no neighboring cities within a 500 km radius, I was fortunate to have a supportive family, teachers, and colleagues who guided me along the way.

(…) An unexpected phone call brought a life-changing invitation — an opportunity to attend a summer school 600 km away from my home (…)

My love story with mathematics began in primary school when a wise teacher recognized my hidden potential and offered me additional classes designed for the brightest students, even though I was not among them. Then, during middle school, my math teacher encouraged me and other talented students to participate in numerous math competitions, where we submitted our solutions by post. Thanks to this, at the age of twelve, an unexpected phone call brought a life-changing invitation — an opportunity to attend a summer school 600 km away from my home in the regional center, Yakutsk. The journey from Oljokminsk to Yakutsk is usually far from being easy. You need a plane ride, a 12-hour ship journey in the summer, or a more than 12-hour car ride during winter (once such a winter trip took me three days due to harsh weather conditions!). Nonetheless, my parents didn’t hesitate for an instant and supported me wholeheartedly.

(…) Mathematics was never a subject that came effortlessly to me; it constantly pushed me beyond my comfort zone

Arriving at the summer school, reality fell short of my grand expectations. I discovered that I was not the top student among my peers, and my vulnerabilities as a teenager made me an easy target for bullies. However, amidst these trials, a remarkable teacher from St. Petersburg entered my life, seeing a glimmer of potential within me. And so, I got invited to join another summer school in St. Petersburg. At that moment, my obsession with mathematics was ignited, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to pursue a math program at the university.

In my research field, Applied Analysis and Modelling, I have been fortunate to collaborate with passionate individuals who foster a culture of friendship and support. And this unwavering support continues to inspire me, though I encountered numerous obstacles throughout my academic journey. Indeed, mathematics was never a subject that came effortlessly to me; it constantly pushed me beyond my comfort zone. While I excelled in my university studies, the research realm presented its own challenges during my PhD and postdoc. Thus, I have to admit that I often made “easy choices” to maintain a straightforward career path, which makes me sometimes wonder if I was truly choosing mathematics or was simply afraid of change.

(…) I believe that with our collective efforts, we can inspire a generation of aspiring mathematicians, cultivating a system that celebrates the brilliance and potential in every individual

Reflecting on my experiences, I have realized that my struggles lay not only within myself but also within the academic system. The unrelenting pressure to prove one’s worth affects your mental well-being. Receiving numerous rejections makes you question your abilities and leaves you feeling inadequate. Moreover, the “bottleneck” effect in academia — a surplus of opportunities for pursuing PhD and postdoc positions but limited permanent positions available — creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability in your life. And my hope here is that we, people in academia, can unite and strive for positive change to cultivate an academic environment that nurtures creativity, inclusivity, and fulfillment.

My journey through mathematics has taught me invaluable lessons in resilience, perseverance, and the power of a strong support network. I can proudly say that each challenge of my path has shaped me into the person and mathematician I am today. I maintain an unwavering optimism about the future of academia. And I believe that with our collective efforts, we can inspire a generation of aspiring mathematicians, cultivating a system that celebrates the brilliance and potential in every individual.

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Kira Wetzel

Kira Wetzel

Born in South Korea • Studied Data Management/Information Systems (Master of Science), Education (Master of Arts), and Behavioral Science (Bachelor of Arts) at three different universities in the United States. • Highest Degree Master of Science • Lives in San Jose, CA USA • Occupation Data and Analytics Management and Lecturer at UC Berkeley

Chapter 1: A Love for Math

I have always been fascinated by numbers. From the moment I learned how to count, I was hooked. Math quickly became my favorite subject in elementary school, and I eagerly awaited the Math Minutes exercise every day. There was something thrilling about solving equations, finding patterns, and unlocking the secrets hidden within the numbers, and quickly.

As I progressed through school, my passion for math only grew. I found solace in the logic and structure it provided. While other kids dreaded math class, I relished the opportunity to dive into complex problems and unravel their mysteries. My brain seemed to have a natural affinity for the subject, and I loved the feeling of accomplishment when I arrived at the right answer.

When it came time to choose a major in college, however, I made a somewhat unexpected decision. Instead of studying pure mathematics, I opted for math education. I wanted to make math more accessible and easier to understand for others. I believed that by becoming a math teacher, I could help students overcome their fears and discover the beauty of numbers, just as I had.

Chapter 2: Thinking in Algebra

Teaching high school math was both challenging and rewarding. I loved seeing the light bulbs go off in my students’ minds when they finally grasped a difficult concept. However, as an introvert, the constant demand for live interaction every day was beginning to take its toll. I realized that if I continued down that path, I would eventually burn out.

After a few years of teaching, I decided to make a transition into data management. It allowed me to utilize my analytical skills in a different way while still working with numbers. What surprised me was how well my brain adapted to this new role. I found that my problem-solving abilities translated seamlessly into the world of data.

As I analyzed and processed information, it felt like I was working through an algebra problem. I approached each task as a system of inputs and outputs, seeking patterns and connections. This way of thinking became an incredible framework for tackling unknowns and finding innovative solutions. My love for math had given me a unique perspective that served me well in my new field.

Chapter 3: A New Direction

To further solidify my expertise in data management, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in information management and analytics. The additional knowledge and skills I gained opened up new opportunities for me. I had no regrets about my career path. In fact, my background in math education turned out to be an asset in influencing and teaching at work.

The scariest thing about transitioning was actually the change in working environments. Office environments are incredibly different than classrooms and the dynamics between people are different. There is no option to go to your classroom and hide. The agendas and goals are different. In the office, highly cross functional teams of people are responsible for the success of the project.

Currently, I lead a team of analytics engineers, analysts, and industry strategists. Our main focus is developing data foundations and curating information that aligns with our company’s business strategies. Alongside this responsibility, I am also dedicated to developing leaders within my team. I firmly believe that investing in others and fostering their growth is crucial for long-term success. I’ve learned that this isn’t always the case for others, but it will be for me.

Chapter 4: Battling Gender Bias

Throughout my career, I have encountered the harsh reality of gender bias. It is pervasive, and the intersections of gender further compound the disadvantages faced by marginalized individuals. Closing the gap requires us to be intentional in our efforts. We must take our seat at the table while saving a seat for others. It means having the difficult conversations and addressing the unspoken career setbacks that are often less concrete but nonetheless hinder progress. 

I have experienced oppression and setbacks, even from other women, in the workplace. It has been disheartening, but I have used these experiences as lessons to shape my behavior and align myself with my North Star. If we cannot support one another, how can we possibly advance as a collective? I have made a conscious choice to accept slower advancement if it means providing greater opportunities to others. My decisions are guided by what is best for our community, not just for myself.

Chapter 5: Surrounding Myself with Allies

Looking back, I realize that the one thing that would have greatly helped me on my career path is self-confidence and strong women allies. It took time and experience to develop the belief in my abilities, some of that came from not having sponsors or mentors that were truly invested in me. Additionally, surrounding myself with strong women allies has made a tremendous difference in my agency and resiliency. The support and camaraderie we share have empowered me to navigate the challenges of the workplace with greater strength. I don’t feel alone and I can call upon a strong network to help me.

As I continue my journey, I am committed to making room for others at the table. I strive to foster an inclusive environment that encourages growth and amplifies diverse voices. By doing so, I hope to contribute to a pipeline of growth that uplifts individuals and propels our collective success.

Epilogue

My love for math has shaped my life in ways I never could have imagined. It has taught me to think critically, approach problems systematically, and find joy in unraveling the mysteries of the world. Through my career as a math teacher, data manager, and leader, I have found fulfillment in both sharing my knowledge and empowering others.

As I move forward, I will continue to champion gender equality and work towards dismantling the barriers that hold us back. I will strive to be the mentor and ally I wish I had when I was starting out. By embracing our unique strengths and fostering a supportive community, I believe we can create a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

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Robyn Shuttleworth

Robyn Shuttleworth

Born in Melrose, Scotland • Birth year 1993 Studied Mathematics at University of Dundee, Scotland • Highest Degree Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Redwood City, California • Occupation Scientist II, Altos Labs

I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to study at university when I was in high school, I just knew for sure that I wasn’t finished with education. I really loved mathematics and biology, so it turned into a battle of the sciences. I went to one university visit (the one I happened to attend!) and toured both departments. The head of the math department started his presentation with “…mathematics graduates earn on average 10% more than any other graduate”. This one statement sealed it for me, and I decided to pursue a degree in Applied Mathematics. My reasons for pursuing mathematics came from quite a shallow and impulsive place, but I’ve grown to learn that that’s okay and you can’t always choose what motivates you. Assuming studying mathematics meant I would be working with numbers for the rest of my life, I imagined myself being an accountant or an actuary and I decided to take courses in business and accountancy in my first few years at university. Whilst this was okay, it didn’t enthrall me the way I had hoped. Fortunately, towards the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I joined a team of scientists in developing genetically engineered detection strategies for cystic fibrosis patients (very different from the classes in accountancy I had previously envisioned being my future). I was excited by the ways I could contribute as a mathematician, and it brought me back to my love of biology. Soon after, in my final year of undergrad, I chose my honors project in glioblastoma modeling. I learned so much about tumor growth and treatment strategies, and I knew this was only the beginning of my journey in mathematical biology. So, when the opportunity arose to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer research, I pushed hard for funding, and one month after graduating, I started reading papers for my Ph.D. in multiscale modeling of cancer progression. I developed mathematical models to describe how tumor cells interact with their microenvironment and explored the mechanisms used to invade the surrounding tissue. Throughout my Ph.D. I attended lots of conferences which gave me plenty of opportunity to present my work and I made lots of great connections. Networking with other scientists was one of the best parts of my graduate studies and I still maintain many of these relationships today.

I was excited by the ways I could contribute as a mathematician, and it brought me back to my love of biology.

I found my Ph.D., for the most part, very enjoyable. I loved the challenges that came with researching a new area and the undeniable feeling of success when you got some exciting new results, or you finally managed to debug your code! Alongside this elation, I did find some of my time difficult, but I must admit that those grievances have been mostly forgotten and feel like a distant memory. It was so important to me to have a strong support system, and I cherished my evenings and weekends with family and friends. Taking time for myself and detaching from the research helped keep me sane and motivated throughout my studies.

After three and a half years in my Ph.D., I was ready to move onto the next stage of my career. I set my sights on finding a Postdoc position, with only two stipulations; it had to be in the field of mathematical biology, and it had to be outside of the UK (another example of my unconventional motivation). With this in mind, I found a position at the University of Saskatchewan in the field of Cryobiology. I loved learning new math modeling techniques to apply to cryopreservation processes and I found that I was able to use a lot of my previous knowledge in this field. Although this switch in fields presented me with the challenge of effectively starting over and requiring a ton of reading (and auditing undergrad biology classes!), it was extremely fulfilling to use math models to predict the optimal experimental conditions for successful cryopreservation.

Fast forward three years, and I found myself in a familiar position: loving what I currently do, but ready to explore a new field and further develop my knowledge and skills. I had always envisioned myself in academia, however, through a chance encounter on social media, I came into a position within industry in the field of cellular rejuvenation. I now build mathematical models of cellular reprogramming and rejuvenation processes to help us understand what makes us, and our cells, “healthy”.

I had always envisioned myself in academia, however, through a chance encounter on social media, I came into a position within industry in the field of cellular rejuvenation.

I’ve consistently changed fields throughout my career, and I have learned something different from each of them that I carry with me to the next. The opportunities I have had are some of the most worthwhile and rewarding roles and ones I have immensely enjoyed. Whether I am investigating how tumors grow, finding the optimal way to freeze and store an organ, or helping us age gracefully, I would not wish to be anywhere else but at this forefront of scientific discovery and advancement.

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Gitta Kutyniok

Gitta Kutyniok

Born in Bielefeld, Germany • Birth year 1972 · Studied Mathematics and Computer Science at University of Paderborn in Germany • Highest Degree Habilitation in Mathematics • Lives in Munich, Germany • Occupation Professor for Mathematical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence

I had never planned to become a professor of mathematics, and if someone had told me when I was young, I would have said: This is impossible. Due to my excitement for mathematics in school and the fact that my mother and my grandfather were both teachers, I first wanted to become a high school teacher myself. And this is how I then started my studies, choosing computer science as a minor. Although the change from high school mathematics to university mathematics was difficult and required a lot of hard work, I enjoyed my studies very much. I however could not get excited about didactics for high school teaching, hence I switched to diploma studies in mathematics. And since at the University of Paderborn, it was quite easy to pursue a diploma in computer science at the same time, I enrolled in this as well.

(…) In retrospect, this period trained me to follow my own path and be very independent.

In my last year, a professor working in abstract harmonic analysis approached me with an offer for a Ph.D. position. I was hesitant about whether this was the right career path for me. Eventually, I accepted the offer but quickly realized that not pure mathematics was my passion but applied mathematics. Hence, in agreement with my supervisor, I chose a more applied topic and got assigned a second supervisor in Munich. This arrangement was not optimal. However, in retrospect, this period trained me to follow my own path and be very independent.

One of the reviewers of my Ph.D. thesis then offered me a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Since I was hesitant about what to do next, I embraced this opportunity, taking it as a chance to see whether I am good enough for continuing as a post-doc. My time as a Visiting Assistant Professor was again hard, since I had never taught a course before, and I now even needed to teach in English. But research-wise a whole new world opened to me; having now collaborators with similar interests as myself, namely the area of applied and computational harmonic analysis. I then spent another year in the US with a research fellowship at both Washington University in St. Louis and again at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It was a very productive time for me, leading to a Habilitation in Mathematics at the University of Giessen in Germany.

I overcame my shyness and approached [some professors in the US whose work I had always admired] for an invitation (…).

Due to the uncertainty of obtaining a professor position in Germany, I applied for a Heisenberg Fellowship from the German Research Foundation to visit some professors in the US, whose work I had always admired. I overcame my shyness and approached them for an invitation and eventually got the amazing chance to visit first Princeton University, then Stanford University, and finally, Yale University, learning about new research areas such as compressed sensing.

Returning to Germany, I started as a full professor at the University of Osnabrück. This was a very fulfilling experience, and I loved building up my own research group. However, it was a very small department, and finding good students was hard, and I soon started looking for other positions.

I was again lucky and was offered an Einstein Chair at the Technical University of Berlin. Soon after, the advent of deep learning started and affected my research area significantly. I decided to embrace this paradigm shift and delve research-wise into artificial intelligence. Looking back, this was one of the best decisions in my life.

For the first time, I am now not the only female professor in my department.

This might have also led to a personal offer from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München for a Bavarian AI Chair for Mathematical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence, which I was surprised and delighted to receive. Due to the excellent conditions for AI research in Munich and Bavaria, I accepted the offer and moved to Munich. For the first time, I am now not the only female professor in my department. In fact, I have several wonderful female colleagues, which is an entirely new experience for me.

In general, I learned in my career that one should be open to opportunities, as they often arise unexpectedly, and also not be shy to approach colleagues for advice and help. If you ask whether being a woman has impacted me in my career, I have to say that the first time I realized that one is treated differently was when I became a professor. As committee meetings increased, I learned the hard way that men do not behave better or worse, but just differently. Looking back, a course on gender-specific behaviors in professional environments, as it is, in fact, custom for higher positions in industry, would have helped significantly.  On the other hand, I also had and still have several amazing male colleagues who support me tremendously, also with advice, and I am deeply grateful to them.

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Ricki Rosendahl

Ricki Rosendahl

Born in Germany • Birth year 1975 · Studied Maths at University of Hamburg • Highest Degree PhD in Optimal Control • Lives in Hamburg, Germany • Occupation Senior Business Consultant

I am sitting on the train. The ICE drives from Cologne to Hamburg. In this dark evening. My head is spinning after four days of learning about actuarial subjects in a seminar. I use my time to reflect. Thinking a little about the past, a little more about the future and a lot about this moment right now. I am happy. Grateful.

I like being here and in this moment. I am thankful for my talent for mathematics my mom and dad gave me. Thankful for meeting other people in my life, so I could learn and grow and become the person I am right now. Thankful for all the nice people who believe in me and support me. One of my mottos: you are what you have made of yourself. I will never be finished. This would result in stagnation.

The solution of any mathematical problem seemed so easy and elegant to me when I was young: true or false. Nothing else.

Like a central theme, my interest and my ability in mathematics affect my whole life. I love mathematics! The solution of any mathematical problem seemed so easy and elegant to me when I was young: true or false. Nothing else. I wanted to immerse myself in this subject. It was not easy to continue with this wish in a male-dominated world: unmotivated teachers, incompetent advisors at the job center, traditionally-thinking professors at the technical college. Thus, my central theme evolved in a different direction. One constant in my life stayed: me reflecting on my current situation – Who am I? What have I made of myself?

I grew up in a family where natural sciences and logic discussions were welcome. My parents met at the university, later becoming a math high school teacher and a physicist. In highschool, I have always been interested in math and natural sciences. I once asked my math teacher about the mathematical olympiad but I felt completely left alone by him when he didn’t show much interest and asked me to contact the organizers instead of telling me about it. It was frustrating that the lessons in math neither prepared me for the kind of exercises solved at mathematical olympiads nor showed me the possible career paths in science. The job center employee I talked to did not recommend studying math either. Thus, I chose a different path at first. While preparing for my engineering studies, I worked at a locksmithery. In this men’s world, the break room was decorated with a calendar with “aesthetic” images of women. Some old-established professors at the technical college weren’t pleased about women studying engineering.

Remember: if you love something, you will get great at it. I am grateful for being able to realize what I love. I love mathematics.

Finally – I just couldn’t get enough of math – I switched to studying mathematics at the university and went my way to diploma, PhD, being a mother, a teacher, a developer of final exams in math, to leadership in the climate and sustainability working group. I left the “typical” career path of mathematicians again. And came back to my profession: Now I have developed my skills in actuarial subjects working in insurances. And I will continue looking for new challenges.

Right now, I am sitting on the train. Driving from Cologne to Hamburg. And I am happy living in this moment. Happy with my talent for mathematics. It helps me developing, being curious and following interesting new paths. My path leads me further to being an actuarial consultant. I am sure I will encounter interesting tasks, opportunities and people in my future. And I want to show my beloved children: it is worthwhile to look deep within yourself. Be true to yourself. Find a subject that interests you and follow your ambition. Yes, there will always be drawbacks. Fortunately, the world is not as men-dominated anymore as it has been. Remember: if you love something, you will get great at it. I am grateful for being able to realize what I love. I love mathematics.

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Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

Born in Maarssen, The Netherlands • Birth year 1992 • Studied Mathematical Sciences at Utrecht University, The Netherlands • Highest degree PhD from the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands • Lives in Bilbao, Spain • Occupation Postdoctoral Researcher at BCAM

Many of my career choices were made within a context that differs from my cis peers: for one, I entered academia not knowing that I was a woman. Women, or rather those labeled as such, have to seek out their inspiration by themselves, first having to unlearn the twisted traditions of our patriarchy, whereas those labeled as men are told that the sky is the limit. I cannot say that I enjoyed that privilege, though. It only made me deeply ashamed about exploring my identity, wanting to avoid it at all costs.

What I wanted above all else was to feel normal, but having to deal with being a trans woman in math did not feel normal at all.

My first puberty was rough, and I coped with it by indulging this avoidant nature. Doing math kept me in a state of hyperfocus, and so, distracting myself from the bleak outlook the real world had offered me, I took a deep dive into the abstract realm of pure mathematics. I wanted to keep this flow going, and decided to pursue a PhD. However, eventually research took its toll on me. I struggled through my PhD and at a certain point I realized that I was incapable of upholding my facade, forcing me to resurface. What I wanted above all else was to feel normal, but having to deal with being a trans woman in math did not feel normal at all. It did not feel like an environment where people would know how to respect me. Even now as a postdoc I can count my trans contemporaries that are out on one hand.

In recent years, many of the institutes I have worked at have been trying to strive for gender equity. However, to be perfectly blunt, I feel like the way inclusion is handled in academia is laughable. What is claimed to be gender inclusivity has very little to do with being inclusive. While they are patting themselves on the back for having made a breakthrough in the discovery of a gender that is not male, I am weeping for my gender diverse siblings. Their gender inclusivity” is binary and tokenistic. The people in power are middle aged white men who have neither the experience, nor the will, nor the knowledge to deal with the kind of feminism that requires an understanding of intersecting identities. How can you claim to be inclusive if your institute isn’t fully accessible, isn’t accepting of relationship forms other than those fitting within heteronormativity, others neurodivergent people even when they are the ones that propel our field, perpetuates racist stereotypes, upholds a class system that the poor cannot enter, or makes you feel like some women will not even be considered to be women at all?

I have been made to feel that the new possibilities provided for women are not for me. Ironically, there is the fear that hiring a trans woman will not count towards the quota of women.

The discrimination I have faced after coming out in academia has been astounding. I have been made to feel that the new possibilities provided for women are not for me. Ironically, there is the fear that hiring a trans woman will not count towards the quota of women. Transphobia is the norm, after all. To add to this, there are journals, databases, former colleagues, refusing to even acknowledge something as simple as my name, preferring to perpetuate a lie. I have seen my savings and then some dwindle into nothingness as this capitalist nightmare sucks me dry for daring to transition into a life where I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling disdain. Or fearing retribution. Many countries where my job wants to take me are simply not safe for me to exist in. Academia truly offers me the worst of both worlds. 

Despite all of this, I have come to a point where I can proudly announce that I am a woman and a mathematician. The fact that I am a woman is an act of defiance. My existence is political. As we are striving for equity in mathematics, ironically, the work yet again falls on our shoulders. We are the ones who have to labor to be seen. Who have to fight to be heard. Who have to tell our stories. In prose such as this, but even in my mathematical research papers, I strive to write with a lot of character and personal opinion, expressing my authentic self. I feel like showing ourselves like this is what is truly important. No matter how we are treated, the simple fact of the matter remains: our diversity is beautiful. Projects like Her Maths Story allow us to take control back in a setting where we are made to feel like we have very little control, and for that reason I truly commend initiatives like this. While we undoubtedly will continue to face oppression, our resistance will grow stronger. Progress is inevitable.

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Divyanshi Mehrotra

Divyanshi Mehrotra

Born in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, India • Birth year 1994 • Studied Mathematics at the University of Lucknow, India • Highest degree Master in Mathematics • Lives in Lucknow, India • Occupation Content Developer of Creative Mathematics at UnMath School pvt. Ltd

When I failed one of my Math exams in 9th Grade, my mother got worried and searched for a home tutor for me. He was around 70 years old, passionate about Math and was hardly concerned about my syllabus. I still remember that he wrote in my notebook the heading “Sridharacharya Formula” – also known as quadratic formula and started deriving it and explaining the concept to me. When I tried mentioning to him that this was not part of my syllabus he told me, ‘If you want to explore Math, you have to forget about your syllabus and enjoy mathematics beyond textbooks.’ Those words deeply touched me.

‘If you want to explore Math, you have to forget about your syllabus and enjoy mathematics beyond textbooks.’

I started cultivating a voracious interest in Mathematics and subsequently it became the central focus of my studies as I scored exceptionally good marks in all the exams. Not satiated by the theories taught in school, I can vividly recollect all the reminiscences where I had the keen urge to delve into the subject. I managed to top the entire district in 10th Grade, with distinction in 5 subjects. I decided thence forth to pursue the subject in higher grade and I started a Bachelor of Sciences in Math at one of the most proficient universities of my native region in India.

I graduated from university with excellent marks and better proficiency than before which also served as an impetus for my further undertaking of a post-graduate program in Mathematics. As Mathematics is more of a practical subject, I paid much attention on the improvement of my mental ability through practice of quantitative reasoning and data interpretation and Experiential learning. I even earned a Baccalaureate in physical education in my bachelor course.

After completing my post-graduate studies in Mathematics, I decided to pursue my double masters in Actuarial Science. With hard work and luck by my side, I got accepted at the University college Dublin in Ireland.

This inspired me to explore ways to bridge this gap and make math more engaging and accessible for the students aged 4-14 years through the use of gamification and hands-on activities.

During my teaching career, I was surprised by the gap between the students’ enthusiasm for games and for hands-on activities and by their lack of interest in math. This inspired me to explore ways to bridge this gap and make math more engaging and accessible for the students aged 4-14 years through the use of gamification and hands-on activities. I dropped the plan of going abroad to pursue my double masters and I choose to educate young minds and have an impact on the educational system in my country.

In order for the students and the teachers to become interested in math, it is important to engage them in a manner that makes them part of the learning process.

In the year 2020, I joined a private organization as a Creative content developer of Mathematics where I create creative lesson plans with resources such as UNO and Lego to transmit mathematical concepts. Ancient India was very rich in STEM, however, in modern day India, it is difficult for the parents to appreciate the importance of these subjects and hence the students are not opting for science and more so for mathematics. In order for the students and the teachers to become interested in math, it is important to engage them in a manner that makes them part of the learning process. In this regard, I started working on pedagogy on how to make Math fun and interesting for the students. As of now my work has had an impact on the syllabus and methods taught in classes for almost 10000 students and 1000 teachers across the Middle East and Asia. The work of my colleagues and me has now revolutionized the way math is taught in these schools, changing from the conventional chalk and talk way of teaching to a more unconventional way of teaching math through hands-on activities. Referring to the feedback we received, the students are taking keen interest in mathematics. I started from the small town Sitapur where I topped the district in 10th grade and today I am supporting teachers and students across the globe.

With luck on my side and with the passion for Math, I even participated in the online competition last year on the occasion of International Mathematics Day, planned by IDM (International Day of Mathematics) with the challenge to click a picture with the theme Mathematics for everyone. Out of 3200 photographs received from 90 countries, roughly 600 photographs were selected out of which 66 were from India with one of my clicked picture as well. 

I believe that lending a hand to children through effective and gentle communication and listening patiently to their concerns and thoughts assures them. This provides them with emotional and mental security which is essential during childhood as it is the basis on which their conduct depends in the future. Hence, I have now decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Creative Mathematics to contribute to the ongoing research in math education and pedagogy. My vision is to become a leading researcher in the field of math education, with a focus on the use of gamification and hands-on activities as a means of enhancing math learning and engagement along with making Math fun and engaging not only for the students but also for the teachers.

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Juliana Fernandes da Silva

Juliana Fernandes da Silva

Born in Goiânia, Brazil • Birth year 1986 • Studied Mathematics at Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil • Occupation Assistant Professor at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Through all my school years I have always felt that the more logical reasoning the subject involved, the more attention it would capture from me. I remember being the one helping out my colleagues preparing for math exams and being supported by others with the subjects of social studies. Although as a child I enjoyed very much pretending I was a teacher, assigning the seats to the dolls, I grew up hearing that it was an underappreciated profession in my country, with which people usually feel overworked and underpaid. Even after finishing high school I was very resistant to choose mathematics and teaching as a career, but I finally decided not to walk away from my dream role. The only (probably naive) argument for that was that I have always enjoyed studying mathematics.

While adjusting myself to the new life in a very large city and struggling with the exams, this period was one of the toughest in my academic career but also the first step towards professional maturity in research/academia.

Only when I got to the university for my bachelor in mathematics, I realized that I could perform poorly in a math exam, which was unfamiliar to me. I accepted the challenge and worked hard to finally achieve good results, especially in the more abstract courses. Algebra was particularly demanding, with a very tough and inspiring female professor. She often provided us with a lot of extra reading materials and required us to attend extra lectures, jointly with her graduate students. But since she was always willing to provide us with assistance, I felt very challenged and also wanted to get along with her. That pushed me to put a lot more effort into my studies. As a result, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in a different city, at one of the best universities in the country. While adjusting myself to the new life in a very large city and struggling with the exams, this period was one of the toughest in my academic career but also the first step towards professional maturity in research/academia.

The math-life balance also comes as a challenge, while trying to fulfill the pressure to be productive and achieve personal goals outside work at the same time.

My years of PhD and postdoctoral studies were used as an opportunity to perform my research under different scientific atmospheres, in some different centers in Brazil and abroad. The interaction with different research members and visiting fellows provided me with an enriching scientific experience, giving me the opportunity to engage in collaborations within my field of research. As luck would have it, I ended up having a very kind and talented professor working in nonlinear dynamical systems as my PhD supervisor. That period was, however, one of the hardest and exhausting periods of my academic life. Not only for the strong gender imbalance in mathematics but also for recurrently having no sense of belonging. The hard side of leaving the comfort zone, especially coming from humble backgrounds, is the general feeling that you are not as capable as your peers. At that point, one is also confronted with the fact that besides the technical scientific abilities, it is also necessary to manage other required skills of your career. Critical thinking, presentation and communication abilities, self-discipline, leadership and advising skills, among others, also came in handy. The math-life balance also comes as a challenge, while trying to fulfill the pressure to be productive and achieve personal goals outside work at the same time. All of that requires time, maturity and, more importantly, a great support in order to overcome the challenge.

In this journey, I realized that besides the urgency of creating an equitable world in the near future, where underrepresented groups don’t have to deal with biases in and outside the workplace, it is also crucial to find a stimulating and safe environment to work in. To do so, it is very important to be surrounded by like-minded peers and colleagues you can trust to talk about the work and insecurities inside academia. Taking advantage of all professional and personal opportunities and resources is also essential.

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Fulya Kula

Fulya Kula

Born in Turkey • Studied Mathematics at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, TurkeyHighest degree PhD in Mathematics Didactics • Lives in Enschede, The NetherlandsOccupation Lecturer at the University of Twente

I actually did not really like mathematics in primary school. I found it difficult to memorize all multiplication tables for example, as I did not really understand the concept behind them. However, during high school, I had a great teacher, who could explain really well. She introduced us to theorems and proofs, and I found this challenging and rewarding.

What prior knowledge is necessary to fully understand the concept of the derivative? And what happens when some of that knowledge is missing?

After that, I did my BSc in mathematics, but I was also very intrigued by the way my professors were teaching, maybe because of my experience in primary school. All were very talented mathematicians, but some of them were not explaining very well, while others were. This motivated me to do my undergraduate and PhD level in the didactics of mathematics. In my PhD for example, I focused on the concept of the derivative. What prior knowledge is necessary to fully understand the concept of the derivative? And what happens when some of that knowledge is missing?

I am now still working in the field of mathematics and statistics didactics. I investigate how we can improve the teaching and learning of mathematical and statistical concepts. This combines my pedagogical skills and scholarly knowledge. I try to gain a better understanding into how people learn, and how this knowledge can improve teaching.

I find this project particularly exciting because it can make a real difference in students’ academic lives, as I often see them struggling in the first year during my teaching.

I am currently working to make the transition from high school math to college-level math easier for students. This means that students should have a better understanding of several mathematical concepts and skills when they are at university. To achieve this, I investigate best practices in curriculum development. I will also create videos and practice material on topics that many students are struggling with. I find this project particularly exciting because it can make a real difference in students’ academic lives, as I often see them struggling in the first year during my teaching.

During my research, I focus on how we can teach mathematics in such a way that students can understand it more easily. I had very interesting results on teaching statistical inference for example. In statistics, you often make probabilistic statements about an entire population while you only investigate at a small sample of it. This concept is often very difficult to grasp for students. Usually, during a course students are first told about the sample (for example the sample mean), and are then told what this sample statistic tells about the entire population. My research shows that it is actually better to start discussing the population first, and how you create a sample from this entire population. After that, you can teach what this then tells you about the entire population that we started with.

I would really like to investigate the most common statistics textbooks to compare their way of explaining to my proposed model. Doing so will help me to slowly but surely change the way statistics is taught.

My research endorsed that this second way of teaching makes students grasp statistical inference more easily. I would really like to investigate the most common statistics textbooks to compare their way of explaining to my proposed model. Doing so will help me to slowly but surely change the way statistics is taught.

My goal is to make sure that research in the didactics of mathematics is actually applied in mathematical teaching. Despite the fact that there is plenty of research that could be useful, the connection between research and practical teaching is weak. I would love to create a course on didactics for mathematics teachers at universities as well. I feel that most people at the university really like their teaching, and are also interested in my didactical research, but it is difficult and time-consuming for them to get a good overview of the existing knowledge. In such a course, we could go over this together, and discuss how we can implement it in practice. In this way, mathematics education research can really make an impact on the way mathematics is taught.

I really enjoy teaching and find it very motivating. My favorite moments are when a student has an “A-Ha” moment and gains a better understanding of a concept. This is also very rewarding for myself, as I managed to make an impact on the student by teaching them a topic that they did not fully understand. It also shows you the beauty of mathematics: if a student understands all single, small concepts, they can understand a much bigger problem.

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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.”

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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.

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