Stories

Hanne Kekkonen

Hanne Kekkonen

Born in Helsinki, Finland • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics at University of Helsinki in Finland • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Delft, Netherlands • Occupation Assistant Professor

I was definitely not one of those scientists who showed exceptional talent from a very young age. As a child I was filled with endless curiosity about everything, but sitting still in front of a desk was not one of my strongest skills. In fact, I was rather bad at school, often arriving late because I had found a frog or wandered off after a hedgehog. I did my very best to study for exams but this did not seem to translate to good grades. I kept trying and by the time I started secondary school I finally got the hang of it. I was warned that when you move from secondary school to high school, and later from high school to university, classes become more difficult but I never really experienced this because I had always had to study for the exams. I had also learned that if I couldn’t solve a problem it just meant that I had to try harder, not that the problem was too hard. I only realised later how lucky I was to have learned proper studying techniques already as a kid.

I like knowing that mathematics has many applications but I have always been mostly interested in the theoretical parts and loved the pureness of mathematics.

I never had anything against mathematics (other than mental arithmetic which I’m still very bad at) but I only really got interested in it at high school. At high school maths problems are like puzzles you have to solve using given rules and tricks. In university the emphasis changed and the weight was more on understanding where those rules and tricks come from and why they are true. I like knowing that mathematics has many applications but I have always been mostly interested in the theoretical parts and loved the pureness of mathematics. It is the only field where questions have indisputably correct answers and where the trueness of a statement can properly be proved.

I have to admit that I didn’t really think too much about what I would do after I got my Master’s degree. Throughout my studies I was told that there was a shortage of skilled mathematicians at the job market but there seemed to be a big gap between what I had learned at the university and what was needed in the real world. Thankfully, my Master’s degree advisor suggested that I should apply for one of the open PhD positions in the Inverse Problems group at the University of Helsinki, where I was doing my Master’s degree.

Starting the PhD was the biggest shock in my studies. Even though the exercises at university were much longer and more complicated than the ones at high school, they always had a clear answer, even if I couldn’t find it. But when I started to do research, I had to get used to the idea that no one knew the answers to many problems I encountered or even if they could be solved. Also, instead of following well-structured courses, where I usually had at least some idea on what was going on, I was now attending several seminars about topics I had hardly even heard of. I was feeling really uncertain about my skills and progress. I was told by several more senior members of my research group that they also used to feel like that and it would get better, but this was only somewhat reassuring. I think the key point they forgot to make was that you won’t stop feeling uncertain because one day you learn to understand all those talks, but because you just get used to the idea that there are so many research topics that you can’t possibly understand them all. 

I really like showing people how mathematics is so much more than just the arithmetic they learned to hate at school.

During my PhD I was part of a great research group with supporting advisors and I really enjoyed working at the university. I decided quite early on that I wanted to stay in academia and so after I finished my PhD I moved to the UK for a postdoc position, first in Warwick and then in Cambridge. As a postdoc I had to learn to work even more independently than as a PhD student and how to combat the ever-present imposter syndrome. I also started to do some outreach, giving talks to the general public and school students. I really like showing people how mathematics is so much more than just the arithmetic they learned to hate at school. Nowadays I work as an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology. My current job is a nice blend of research and teaching, and it also offers me possibilities to do outreach. I’m happy if seeing a woman mathematician, who is excited about the subject, makes some little girl consider a science career as a real possibility.

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Masoumeh Dashti

Masoumeh Dashti

Born in Tehran, Iran • Studied Mechanical Engineering in Tehran, Iran • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics from the University of Warwick, UK • Lives in UK • Current occupation: Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Sussex

I enjoyed mathematics in elementary and middle school and at the beginning of high school among the four streams available to students in Iran, I chose mathematical sciences. When choosing my major for the university, I considered maths, physics and engineering and settled at the end for mechanical engineering as it seemed to have better job prospects in Iran. In engineering undergraduate programs in Iran there was a strong emphasis on mathematical foundations and theoretical aspects and I found myself enjoying those parts more than the practical side. I then did a master’s degree in mechanical engineering which made me more curious about advanced mathematical tools and structures through a course and then a project on dynamical systems. My master’s project advisor was very supportive and encouraging of my interest in mathematics. Later when I was applying to maths programs he introduced me to the maths institute that I ended up doing my PhD in.

I decided to change discipline to maths and started a master’s degree in the UK which led to a PhD in mathematical fluid mechanics.

During and after my master’s degree I worked in two engineering companies in Iran and also did an internship in an oil company in Japan. Comparing these experiences in industry with those of a part-time position I had in a research project at the university and my master’s project, I felt that I would prefer the greater freedom that a research job in academia could offer me. I decided to change discipline to maths and started a master’s degree in the UK which led to a PhD in mathematical fluid mechanics. It was very fortunate for me that people with diverse educational backgrounds were accepted to these postgraduate programs. My supervisor, teachers and fellow students were all very supportive as I was slowly filling out the holes in my knowledge of core undergraduate mathematics. A collaboration towards the end of my PhD led to a postdoctoral position after which I joined the maths department at Sussex as a lecturer.

I enjoy how in many instances in such problems the requirements and constraints imposed from the applied side push one to see the limitations of the theory and to explore new directions.

What I appreciate very much about my job are the freedom of working on the research projects that interest me and the opportunities of collaboration with colleagues and PhD students with similar or complementing interests. 

I work on the interface of the theoretical and applied side of partial differential equations and statistical inverse problems. I enjoy how in many instances in such problems the requirements and constraints imposed from the applied side push one to see the limitations of the theory and to explore new directions. Interactions with other researchers can be very useful in this process. Developing good and functional collaborations can take time and effort but I think they form one of the most rewarding parts of this job. 

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Patricia Egger

Patricia Egger

Born in Zurich, Switzerland • Birth year 1990• Studied Mathematics at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland • Highest degree Master’s in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Lausanne, Switzerland Occupation Information Security Officer

I would love to say that my decision to study math was well thought out, but the truth is it really wasn’t.

At the end of high school, I knew I wanted to study a scientific subject at university and set my sight on chemistry. I think I was attracted to the experiments with cool colors, incredibly fast temperature changes and the idea of learning how to create little explosions. However, about 2 months before the first day of university, I changed my mind and signed up to the math department instead. I’m still not sure I know why I changed my mind; I had done well in high school but had no long-term plan or idea of what kind of math I wanted to do or even what type of job I might be interested in. In any case, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My first year in math was a wake-up call; high school did not prepare me for mathematical reasoning. But I kept studying hard and after the first year and many hours spent in the library, it clicked. I felt like there was no class I couldn’t ace (with enough effort, of course). From there on, it was relatively smooth sailing until I graduated with my Master’s degree a few years later.

I looked for inspiration in the news; who doesn’t want to be working on a topic that gets regular media coverage?

It was at that point that my lack of long-term thinking caught up with me. In fact, as much as I enjoyed studying math, I couldn’t seem to find a math-related job that tickled my fancy. Instead of taking a job that I didn’t want, I decided to look for an entirely different field and career path where my math skills could be used indirectly. I looked for inspiration in the news; who doesn’t want to be working on a topic that gets regular media coverage? Similarly to today, cybersecurity, particularly cyber incidents, came up often. That’s when I remembered a basic cryptography class I had taken in middle school and that I thoroughly enjoyed. Because cryptography is essentially math, it seemed like it would be my opportunity to shift into cybersecurity. So I went back to university for a semester to take all the security-related courses I could. 

Fast forward a few years and I now work as an information security officer. In my current role, my main goal is to manage cybersecurity risks: understand what might go wrong and how, and ensure we are allocating appropriate resources accordingly. As these risks are present throughout any organization, I interact with many different people on a regular basis, be they developers, lawyers or Top Management.

In fact, I have been very fortunate to meet amazing women and men along the way from who I’ve learned a lot, but I most definitely would not be where I am now if I had tried to base my career on theirs.

Although I don’t use much of my math background in my daily work today, it allowed me to get to where I am today and I don’t regret any of it. On the contrary, I believe my studies gave me some great transferable skills and the confidence to navigate all of the changes and decisions I made along the way.

Although many people influenced and supported me throughout this process, I’m glad I never took anyone’s opinion more seriously than I did my own. In fact, I have been very fortunate to meet amazing women and men along the way from whom I’ve learned a lot, but I most definitely would not be where I am now if I had tried to base my career on theirs.

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Marilyn Gatica Briceño

Marilyn Gatica Briceño

Born in Santiago, Chile Birth year 1987 Studied B. Sc. in Mathematics and ​ B. Sc. in Mathematical Engineering at Universidad de Santiago in Santiago, Chile B. Sc. in Mathematical Engineering lives in Valparaiso, Chile currently a Ph.D. candidate at Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile, and at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain

Since the early years of my life, I was interested in maths because I was fascinated with the idea that everything fits. In high school, I studied in a female school and was very interested in sharing with my female classmates the solutions for the mathematical problems. Some girls had innovative ways to approach and solve a problem, and it was inspiring to hear their ideas. I loved the concept of learning and sharing.

My father’s neurologist told me: “we need mathematicians in this area”, and at this point, my journey began. Some years later, I decided to become a mathematical engineer and apply maths in neuroscience.

On the other hand, we have my other interest: neuroscience. My father has a brain tumor, and when I found out, I was intrigued to understand the brain (even though I did not like biology). This idea gathered strength when, in a routine conversation, my father’s neurologist told me: “we need mathematicians in this area”, and at this point, my journey began. Some years later, I decided to become a mathematical engineer and apply maths in neuroscience. Naturally, before starting my studies, I did not know what it meant to study mathematics and how one could apply mathematics in neuroscience.

During the first years of my undergraduate studies, I realized maths was more than calculations, there was so much logic and formalism involved. However, only in the last years of my studies, I could use maths to understand the brain, because at that moment, maths, neuroscience, and of course, computer science finally all came together. I am thankful for having had great professors who introduced me to the computational neuroscience discipline.

During my Ph.D. now, I still enjoy learning new concepts from different scientific areas and sharing research results with other people, like I already did in high school.

I hesitated to continue postgraduate studies, because in Chile there is little financial support from the government in research, and in addition to that, there are not many women working in this field. For these reasons, I worked several years as a research assistant and some months as a project engineer before beginning my postgraduate studies. Currently, I am a Ph.D. candidate in the computational neuroscience area at the Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile, and at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain where I am focused on understanding the changes in the lifespan of healthy brains and also on learning about what happens in brains with pathological conditions. Furthermore, in collaboration with other colleagues, I teach introductory classes to computational neuroscience for mathematicians. During my Ph.D. now, I still enjoy learning new concepts from different scientific areas and sharing research results with other people, like I already did in high school. In the next years of my life, I expect to continue with both, research and teaching in this area.

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Tamara Dancheva

Tamara Dancheva

Born in Skopje, North Macedonia Birth year 1993 Studied Computer Science in Skopje and Sweden Master in Computational Engineering from the University of Strasbourg currently a PhD candidate at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics in Bilbao, Spain

My path to becoming a researcher in applied mathematics has been anything but calculated. My first childhood dream – that I actively started pursuing – was to become a librarian. I was and still am a massive bookworm. At the beginning of primary school, I became part of the library section. I spent nearly all of my school breaks and free time before and after school at the library bookkeeping, sorting books, and taking part in the organization of literary events. By the end of primary school, I started taking part in library competitions and even ranked at the top. Since most likely you wonder what a library competition is, it is about the history of writing, books, libraries, and classification systems to organize library resources. At the same time, I was studious, and I did well in school. I liked maths, but I was much more passionate about literature.

By the time I had to decide on a secondary school, I was old enough to realize that being a librarian or any profession related to it, unfortunately, would not offer me too many prospects in my country. My parents insisted I should go in a general direction first. So I went to a gymnasium. During my secondary school years, my parents got me and my brother our first computer. It became my second passion. Like many other kids at that time, we got obsessed with it, mostly playing video-games, and painstakingly surfing the Internet at a speed of a few kbit per second. For my part, eventually, I became obsessed with how it works. I became determined to learn how to build a computer. And how to develop video games.

That is how I decided to study computer science and engineering. The local university had just opened an independent faculty for computer science, and I became part of its first generation of students. I got to know everything I wanted to know and tried my hand at many different things like computer architecture, algorithms, desktop applications development, system administration, and web development. However, my first two years of university completely changed my relationship with maths for the worse. I had a couple of extremely demanding maths professors that required us to learn whole books of theory by heart. It almost completely stifled my motivation for learning maths.

I took a course on scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe.

In the final semester of my bachelor’s, I was still considering continuing my education with video games development or working as a web developer. Then I took a course on Scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe. Inspired by the classes, I started taking all the courses I could find on Coursera about scientific computing on various topics to see what is out there. I went back to exploring partial differential equations, mathematical modeling, and physics, with different eyes, in much more detail. This time, I saw an infinity of possibilities in the intersection of scientific programming and natural sciences.

I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies.

That is how, to my utmost surprise, after an intense period of finishing my Bachelor’s, simultaneously working as a developer, and applying for master’s degrees, I found myself in Strasbourg. I started studying Computational Mechanics, diving into mathematics and physics with applications in many other fields, such as the mechanics of solids, fluids, hydrology, and geomechanics (the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil). I was reluctant at the time to make this step because it was a radical change for me, and I had made a split-second decision to leave my job at the time. I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies. It was a risky step that I have come to regret during certain difficult times on the way.

Each time I did, I found something that fascinated me and won me back to research. I stuck to it and even continued with a Ph.D. in solid mechanics and high-performance computing. Today there are times when I still doubt my choice. Doing a Ph.D. is an arduous journey (or a labyrinth) that can be very exhausting and equally rewarding, the latter driving me forward.

I realized that the world is an open book, today more than ever, for those that dare to read it. While in the past, it used to be a library, with different books strewn across the globe, not easily accessible to others, today it has merged all into one book. Many times we are the ones that constrain ourselves, not the world around us, as we can make ourselves believe. With time, I have learned to accept uncertainty and volatility as a good thing. I like to think that I have infinite choices. Next year, I could take a project in environmental studies or computational astronomy. I could just as well open a book shop in New Zealand. Chase your passion and dare to go on an adventure!

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Lena Frerking

Lena Frerking

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Hamburg, Germany • Occupation Research Scientist in Medical Imaging

The decision of what to study was not clear to me for a long time. I always liked math, but I could not really imagine what a job as a mathematician could look like. Only after discussing with family and friends at the end of my high school time, but especially with my godfather who very convincingly told of his positive experiences of working with mathematicians and of the usefulness of their skills, I discovered the diversity of applications.  Being a person who had always been struggling a bit with making decisions, I immediately liked the idea of not limiting my future job perspectives in industry by the choice of the subject. I probably made my final decision during one of the annual university events where high school students can attend different university lectures for one day. Since I was quite undecided, I prepared a schedule and planned to attend lectures in different departments, amongst others in the medical and pharmaceutical department. I had seen some math lectures before and I liked them a lot, so I wanted to explore other options and focus on subjects other than mathematics to try and see if I would like those even more. So, I decided to attend a pharmaceutical lecture, but I knew immediately that this was not going to be my profession. I left 10 minutes after the lecture started and just went over to the math department again to yet attend another lecture. As soon as it started, I realized that the only reason I went there was to treat myself at the end of the day, because I knew I would enjoy it. That insight finally led me to the conclusion that I did not need to continue searching for anything else. I had already fallen in love with mathematics, especially the logic and the fact that everything makes sense if one just follows every single step in calculations or proofs accurately.

In the end, it did [work out], and I am more than happy that I took the risk to fail.

In the beginning of my math studies, I was surprised about the speed of the actual lectures and how different they were from the classes taught in school. I never regretted my decision, but the first two or three semesters were not easy for me to master. However, things became easier once I was able to specialize further in my studies. Even though I always thought I wanted to stay away from numerical mathematics, I eventually ended up putting the entire focus on applied mathematics and I also specialized in this field during my Master’s. Despite my previous hesitation, I quickly realized how much I liked the lectures and that they suited me more than the purely theoretical ones. The question about whether to do a PhD or not was a tough one again. I was doubting myself, but I already knew deep down that I had to give it a try. Otherwise, I would have always regretted not trying and wondered whether it would have worked out. In the end, it did, and I am more than happy that I took the risk to fail.

(…) I am happy that I still need many of the concepts and techniques that I learned at university.

After finishing my PhD, I left academia and I am now working in industry. I feel lucky that I still work in the same field I researched when I was at the university with similar applications in medicine. Therefore, the transition from academia to industry was quite smooth. Even though mathematicians are often in high demand on the job market for their way of thinking, but not necessarily for the direct knowledge obtained in math lectures, I am happy that I still need many of the concepts and techniques that I learned at university. I work in medical image computing and contribute to different aspects of enhancing CT and MRI acquisitions. Hence, I still apply some learned algorithms and I can also still be creative in the way of optimizing and adapting them to be suitable for specific applications.

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Carmen-Ana Domínguez Bravo

Carmen-Ana Domínguez Bravo

Born in Cádiz, Spain • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics at University of Seville in Spain • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Cádiz, Spain • Occupation lecturer at the Department of Statistics and Operation Research, University of Cádiz

My relationship with mathematics began before I was even born. My father was a high school teacher and so was my grandmother. They both were very enthusiastic about maths and wanted to support our development of mathematical thinking. Despite this, I don’t remember adoring maths when I was a child. What I do remember though is loving books. I spent most of my childhood time reading books, from comics to mystery novels. I devoured every book, and I still do nowadays. As a child I was keen on writing my own stories, I even won a literary contest! But above all, I remember that I wanted to be a teacher. Being a teacher was kind of an obsession, that was enforced by members of my family inspiring my teaching vocation. In addition to my father and my grandmother being high school teachers, my mom was a history, art and geography teacher. My own teachers have always been very inspiring for me too. I have had the opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of excellent teachers that fed that vocation. I would say that I wanted to be a teacher since I was a child but I chose the subject to teach later on. 

Above all, I remember that I wanted to be a teacher. Being a teacher was kind of an obsession, that was enforced by members of my family inspiring my teaching vocation.

My sister and I were both good students before University, very good ones. We stood out in our classes even if we did not want to. I imagine that it was also due to the persistence of our parents by instilling good study habits and the passion for knowledge in us. My father was also very (very) insistent on strengthening our analytical thinking and we spent one hour every day of the week during summer vacation solving maths problems. I was not proud of myself. For instance, I wasn’t as good as my sister at doing quick calculations. Nevertheless, for some reason I chose to study mathematics. It might be because maths seemed difficult to me, or because I was influenced by my grandmother and father, or because I wasn’t good at memorising concepts and I thought that in mathematics memorising didn’t seem that important.

Once at the university, during the first year I discovered that mathematics was something totally different from the maths taught in high school. But I enjoyed that the classes were more theoretical and had less quick calculations! I started loving the theory more than the exercises. Every year, I was struggling with a different subject which I had to study during the summer to pass the exam. I felt frustrated, especially in the first year, but I also started to enjoy living in a different city and making new friends. I remember those years as a very special time in my life and I met professors who inspired me a lot.  

I had a very special female professor. Her way of teaching had a great impact on me. Her classes consisted not only of theory, but of open problems, computer practices and teamwork.

During my junior year (our fourth year), some friends and I decided to apply for an Erasmus and we finished our degree in Paris. At that time, I loved numerical calculus and I chose as many subjects in that field as I could. As a maths student, I remember that year as one of the best years ever. I had a very special female professor. Her way of teaching had a great impact on me. Her classes consisted not only of theory, but of open problems, computer practices and teamwork. At the end of that year I decided to continue studying maths and I started to look for PhD grants.

After several applications, I found a PhD position related to maths and solar energy. The research in this context was very applied, more related with cracking the code, developing and implementing algorithms and analysing results. Thanks to this opportunity I was able to study a wide range of algorithms, methods and programming languages, and I also met a lot of fantastic researchers. 

From that point on I knew that teaching, mathematics and coding were a perfect match for me. This is how my journey as a maths teacher and researcher started. This journey has obviously lights and shadows, but my decision remains the same. Nowadays, I am working as a lecturer at the University of Cádiz, where my family lives.  My passion for knowledge, teaching and maths is the same as once my father and my grandmother passed on to me, even though they passed away.

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Dr Camilla Schelpe

Dr Camilla Schelpe

Born in UK • Studied Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Theoretical Physics  Lives in Cambridge, UK Current Occuptation: Quantitative Researcher at GAM Investments

I think I was very fortunate that as I grew up, what I was interested in and what I was good at aligned, so that even well before applying to university, I knew I wanted to study astrophysics and general relativity. Really, I think the seed was planted when I was about seven years old and my parents got me Patrick Moore’s “The Starry Sky” – an introductory book for budding astronomers. By a stroke of luck, my family moved to South Africa a few years later, and with the beautiful southern skies to gaze up at, my vague interest in astronomy became a cherished hobby. In retrospect, my parents and sister were amazingly supportive, but I took it completely for granted at the time. I remember family observing holidays in the Karoo (a semi-desert outside Cape Town), visiting the SAAO in Sutherland on their public open days, and camping out until 4am to observe Comet Hale-Bopp in ‘95.

I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology.

My early interest in observational astronomy developed into a much stronger theoretical interest as I got older and discovered that I found maths and physics intuitive and easy compared to other subjects at school. I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology. My PhD was focussed on a particular model to explain dark energy within modified theories of gravity, and I spent a happy four years exploring the possible astrophysical signatures that could lead to detection and proof, or disproof, of the model.

However, during my PhD I came to realise the difference between pure academic learning and a career in academic research. I loved learning about cosmology, but when it came to research, I found the techniques for making progress weren’t very field specific – I was chipping away at the corners of the unknown without much day-to-day exposure to the bigger picture. Those techniques could equally well be applied to other applications with just as much satisfaction.

I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

Funding is a constant challenge in the pursuit of any academic career and stability comes late in life, if at all. Shining as an alternative was a career in quantitative finance – either in a bank (to price exotic derivatives quickly and reliably) or in a hedge fund (to find patterns in data and design computer algorithms to predict the markets and manage risk). The advantages: no prior finance knowledge required, plenty of maths to keep you busy, a PhD is valued, and you are surrounded by a team of like-minded colleagues working towards a common goal. In my spare time, I started playing around with quant trading strategies, using Matlab and end of day close data from the stocks trading on the DAX, and really enjoyed the challenge, although in retrospect I look back in horror at how naïve I was and almost certainly overfitted the data. I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard.

I have been extremely lucky to have two amazing, strong role models in my life: my mum and older sister, so if anything, I have a subconscious bias to see women as more successful! They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard. Also, I was home-educated from the age of nine, and so sheltered from much of the peer-pressure and judgement that a lot of teenagers experience. I only really woke-up to the existence of a gender imbalance in the sciences quite late in life. Both as a student and at work, I have (and I realise I may have been lucky in this respect) always felt I was being treated as an individual, and not categorised as a woman, whether for positive or negative discrimination. There is such a diverse range of personalities, both male and female, that seem much more important than any simple gender divide. I hope we can move towards recognising that as a society.

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Kristina Thurmann

Kristina Thurmann

Born in Lippstadt, Germany • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest degree M.Sc. in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Friedrichshafen, Germany • Occupation software developer (automotive sector)

I have always been fascinated by mathematics, to be precise by calculations and computations. My parents first noticed my interest in maths at the age of 5. We often played a game called Kniffel/Yahtzee where at the end all points had to be accumulated and that was my favourite part of the game. I just loved adding up all these numbers.

My interest got even stronger during high school: in the year book one of my descriptions by class mates was „i = √(-1)“. This expression summarised pretty well my time in high school. I adored mathematics and I never had any problems in studying and understanding the subject and its concepts. But then I decided to study mathematics in university and the problems began…

We motivated each other and I slowly started to love mathematics again especially the beauty of mathematical proofs.

In the beginning, I struggled a lot in how to study. I know that sounds weird but in school I never had to study to get good grades. In school we never proved any theorem, we just used all these formulas resulting from them. However, in university I learned why these formulas are correct. In the first years of studying mathematics, I learned the basics of analysis, linear algebra, stochastic, logics and numerical analysis. I failed a lot of these exams and at some point, somewhere around the fourth semester, I even thought about quitting and doing something else. Fortunately, at this point I realised that most maths students struggled with the same or similar problems. This common issue and uniting quest created a strong sense of community among the students and that was one of the best parts of studying mathematics for me. Everybody, even the professors, were very helpful and supportive and I never felt alone. We motivated each other and I slowly started to love mathematics again especially the beauty of mathematical proofs. At the beginning of the master studies, I attended courses in applied mathematics with practical applications in the field of biomedicine, e.g. image processing in MRI, PET and CT; in numerical analysis classes I learned to write code and implement algorithms. That was my first experience in coding but to be honest I was not expecting to be a software developer one day.

I also conducted job interviews and I have learned that it is not important what you did, it is important what you love and where you want to be in the future.

After finishing my master thesis, I did not have any clue about where to go or what to do, it was hard to find job advertisements where mathematicians are mentioned. So, I signed up in several job portals and got job offers as a software developer. First I started in a consulting and engineering company and gained work experiences as a developer and a project manager. I also conducted job interviews and I have learned that it is not important what you did, it is important what you love and where you want to be in the future.

At the moment, I am working for a company which is a worldwide supplier of driveline and chassis technology for cars. Specifically, I am responsible for shifting strategies. That means I am getting a so called “change request”. Within this change request I get a specification about the functional change of the software. For example, the customer (automotive manufacturer) wants the car to behave in a certain way, like shifting to second gear only when engine speed is above a defined threshold. My task then is to understand the request, to change the software/code, to test the new software and to document everything I did. Of course this is an easy example and the reality is much more complex but the complexity and the diversity of my job is what I like.

Looking back, I am so happy that I studied mathematics because it got me where I am right now. If I could tell my 20-year-old self a piece of advice: “Just do it, you will learn so much about yourself, about logical thinking. It is a long way, be patient with yourself, surround yourself with like-minded people, they will help you to stay on track and enjoy your time at university. Do whatever you like and makes you happy.”

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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
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
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories