Stories

Constanza Rojas-Molina

Constanza Rojas-Molina

Born in La Serena, Chile • Birth year 1983 Studied Mathematics at Universidad de La Serena in Chile and at Université Pierre et Marie Curie – Paris VI in France • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematical Physics from Université de Cergy-Pontoise, France • Lives in Paris, France • Occupation Lecturer at the CY Cergy Paris University

I was a late starter in maths. As a child, I was always curious and interested in many things, I was an avid reader and spent a considerable amount of time drawing. During highschool, I learnt about physics and chemistry and I was hooked on the quantum world. There, all the intuition was lost and the usual rules of physics didn’t apply anymore, it was fascinating, like Alice in Wonderland! But even then, maths was not among my main interests. I never made a connection with physics or chemistry. I knew it was something useful and necessary to know, but I always kept it at a reasonable distance. You would never see me solving maths exercises for fun. Why would I, when I had a pile of comics and books to read and stories to draw?

I discovered operator and spectral theory, functional analysis and the maths of quantum and statistical mechanics. And it was beautiful.

It was only when I entered university that my view of maths changed. University maths were something completely different. My hometown is a region of Chile known for its clear skies, suitable for observational astronomy. It’s where the first telescopes in Chile were built. So, since I didn’t have the resources to travel to the capital to study, studying physics at the local university seemed like a good fit. With all the innocence that the age of 17 could give me, I thought: if I’ll ever amount to anything, it shouldn’t matter where I start.

So, I decided to stay home and enroll in the local university physics program. The first two years of this program were in common with the maths program, and by studying physics I realized that maths was connected to many things and was very important. So important that at some point after two years I thought: I can’t continue this without having a good understanding of maths (I would have made a terrible physicist). During those two years, I found beauty in the clarity of maths. I got a first glimpse of the elegance of proofs and the usefulness of drawing the picture to go with it. I discovered operator and spectral theory, functional analysis and the maths of quantum and statistical mechanics. And it was beautiful. I was excited to be able to study physics problems from a rigorous and clear point of view.

I went to Paris, without knowing anyone, with no grant and no connections whatsoever.

So excited that I didn’t stop when I finished my undergraduate studies. I went to Paris, without knowing anyone, with no grant and no connections whatsoever. With all the courage that ignorance can give. Ignorance of the country, of the system, of how academia works. That ignorance and the support of my family made me brave enough to cross the ocean looking to satisfy my curiosity.

It’s been many years since that happened. I did my Master’s in Paris and then continued with a PhD in mathematical physics. I successfully applied to a Marie Curie Fellowship of the EU to do a postdoc in Munich. Then I did a postdoc in Bonn. Then I was a Junior Professor in Duesseldorf, I was a DFG (German Research Foundation) grant holder, I supervised students. I still do. Now I’m back to France as a lecturer. I’m also an illustrator and for the past years I’ve been focusing on mathematical communication.

This is my mathematical adventure (…). And I say adventure because this was clearly a detour, as I was supposed to become an illustrator. Now I’m both.

Looking back, I am aware now that I was a total outsider. I made my way through it and became part of the system, taking an unusual path and building my own alternative journey. Academia is tough, it’s elitist, it’s traditionalist, it’s conservative, it’s a lonely place and can lead to a lot of frustration when one does not entirely fit. It’s easy to get lost in the bad thoughts when there is no support for those that don’t follow a straight path. However, I’ve met some wonderful people along the way who helped me build my path, collaborators, and friends, and with them I’ve been able to experience the part of the job that is about connections. Connecting ideas, connecting with colleagues, connecting with students, connecting with people. That is the best side of this job, and I’m grateful for that. This is my mathematical adventure, it has ups and downs and cliffhangers and suspense, and some teary moments and some funny ones. And I say adventure because this was clearly a detour, as I was supposed to become an illustrator. Now I’m both.

I like to remember how my mathematical adventure started, because it helps me feel connected with my most essential motivations. My motivations weren’t to be a tenured professor, or a group leader, or get all the grants. My motivations were to discover and enjoy the act of discovering.

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Karem Guzmán Elgueta

Karem Guzmán Elgueta

Born in Los Vilos, Chile • Birth year 1990 • Studied B. Sc. in Mathematics and ​ B. Sc. in Mathematical Engineering at Universidad de Santiago in Santiago, Chile • Highest degree Master in Statistics • Lives in Santiago, Chile • Occupation Financial Advisory Consultant

My relationship with mathematics began when one day in high school a classmate asked me: “Karem, you are very good at mathematics, have you thought about studying it at university?” I will never forget this question because it was this one that made me aware of my love for mathematics. Since I was little, I had a knack for numbers and the subject always entertained me, so I decided to formally continue studying Mathematical Engineering at University.

During college, mathematics opened a new world, a lot of theory and logic work. It was not easy, including many hours of study and frustrations, and not always achieving good exam results. It was a long and hard road, but with resilience I managed to finish successfully.

I liked the time flexibility these jobs gave me, but they didn’t make me happy, as I felt a sense of intellectual emptiness. This is why I decided to go back to university to pursue a Master’s degree in statistics and you can’t imagine how much I liked it!

After graduating, I worked for two years as a high school teacher and as an assistant professor at the university. I liked the time flexibility these jobs gave me, but they didn’t make me happy, as I felt a sense of intellectual emptiness. This is why I decided to go back to university to pursue a Master’s degree in statistics and you can’t imagine how much I liked it! I was fascinated by the subjects associated with models and their theories (data mining, predictive modeling, supervised and unsupervised learning as well as time series, among other models), so today I am a lover of statistics.

Could you imagine what would happen if one day you make a withdrawal from your card and the bank denies it for not having funds? A systemic shock would surely occur, so these models are essential.

I am currently working for a professional services firm and I have experience in credit risk modeling projects, e.g. provision models under local regulations and International Financial Reporting Standards, countercyclical provision models, forward looking models, management models such as admission, behavior and collection, as well as in liquidity risk projects, e.g. construction of flow projection models/methodologies. Credit risk models, in general, aim to mitigate the risk of non-compliance with contracted payments, so provision models estimate an amount of money that a financial institution could eventually lose if all its customers decide not to pay. Management models, such as admission models, aim to estimate a client’s ability to meet their payment obligations, and thus help the financial institution to select its clients. On the other hand, liquidity risk models seek to ensure sufficient cash flow to comply with all normal operations associated with a financial institution: deposits, drafts, transfers, withdrawals of investment funds, etc. Could you imagine what would happen if one day you make a withdrawal from your card and the bank denies it for not having funds? A systemic shock would surely occur, so these models are essential.

My work is dynamic and very demanding, but I love it because I never do the same thing. There are always new projects and clients to care for, so I enjoy my work every day. I invite all women who like mathematics to dare and study it without fear, and if you also have an inclination for finance, then the world is yours!

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Sanchita Chakraborty

Sanchita Chakraborty

Born in Bolpur, West Bengal, India • Birth year 1999 Studies Mathematics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA • Highest Degree ongoing Bachelors of Science • Lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA • Occupation Student Researcher and Undergraduate Student

I always loved how neat math was. No matter the problem, the answers seem to come with a simple number. After taking partial differential equations and numerical analysis courses, it seems so silly now, the subject is anything but “neat”. It is complex, chaotic, and elegant, but what I have come to appreciate is its beauty, its ability to explain the world around us.

When I imagined a mathematician, I thought of an old man sitting in a flickering candle-lit room with melted wax and papers strewn around on an old wooden table. What did that really mean in the era of supercomputers, high-speed trains, planes and rockets?

As a child, I never really thought of being a mathematician as a job to pursue. I mean, to be fair the greats that I knew of only existed in Ancient Greece or Rome. When I imagined a mathematician, I thought of an old man sitting in a flickering candle-lit room with melted wax and papers strewn around on an old wooden table. What did that really mean in the era of supercomputers, high-speed trains, planes and rockets?

[..], I took the route of role models like Howard Wolowitz from the Big Bang Theory and Dr. Amelia Brand from Interstellar, and chose a degree in Aerospace Engineering.

So, when I had to choose a degree to study, I took the route of role models like Howard Wolowitz from the Big Bang Theory and Dr. Amelia Brand from Interstellar, and chose a degree in Aerospace Engineering. When I entered, I was excited by the engaging new problems I would learn to solve – whether it was in understanding rocket propulsion or in the use of orbital mechanics within navigation. However, instead I became bogged down with solving mundane structures and material problems. Moving into my sophomore year, classes did become more interesting with my first fluids and orbital courses. Every time I stepped into an engineering classroom, I felt a sense of excitement in understanding the fundamental equations, rather than the applications to real-world problems.

While I had once run away from engineering, I found myself right back to where I began, but instead I was in the role of a mathematician.

I reflected on my prior math courses, thinking about how I would apply these geometric properties and analysis techniques to problems that I had been introduced to in my aerospace courses. I knew it was time for a change, so I switched gears to classes like complex analysis, partial differential equations, and introduction to proofs. I was hooked. Around the same time, I had my first laboratory experience in mathematics. I spent the summer working on neural networks to reduce the loss from the 2D approximations to the advection-diffusion equation in transport phenomena. It was one of the hardest learning experiences, coming in with very little knowledge of Deep Learning, but the hours spent on literature reviews seemed less like work and more like unravelling my favorite mystery novel. This was the moment in which the puzzle pieces of all my interests across engineering and mathematical disciplines clicked.  So when I finished my summer project, I immediately looked for new opportunities in applied mathematics, and I was fortunate enough to find a supervisor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department to work on Finite Element Methods and the Schrödinger equation. While I had once run away from engineering, I found myself right back to where I began, but instead I was in the role of a mathematician. My supervisor has helped me find confidence in my abilities and given me the opportunity to take lead on my first project, and is the reason I have found the confidence to apply to applied math MS/PhD programs for fall 2022.

I had women like Katherine Johnson to look up to, but she was merely a role model, not an individual I could tangibly connect to.

While I have been undoubtedly lucky to be surrounded by amazing mentors, the lack of women mathematicians and engineers did not go unnoticed. I found my experiences to be hardly unique. When talking to a good friend in the math department, I found that she too had been the only woman in her math classes. In four years, I had only had one woman math professor and one woman graduate student that supervised my research. In my graduate and advanced courses, I was one of two or maybe three women students. The world had long moved away from the old man in the candle-lit room, but the representation of women in the industry was grossly underdeveloped. Looking at research faculty in the graduate programs I applied to, I found the representation to be quite similar. I had women like Katherine Johnson to look up to, but she was merely a role model, not an individual I could tangibly connect to. She seemed just as far remote as the Greek greats.

Inequality seems to be quite an abstract notion and equality just an idealized concept, existing only in philosophical treatises. To encourage more women to pursue a career in academia and research, we must begin by creating real mentor-mentee relationships that go far beyond the professional. Only through this tangible bond can we expect to see true equality in every field, including this complex and elegant language we hold so close and I sincerely hope that one day the word mathematician comes with an image of a woman and a man working side by side in a world intertwined with modern technology.

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Elena Tartaglia

Elena Tartaglia

Born in Melbourne, Australia • Studied Applied Mathematics at the University of Melbourne in Australia • Highest Degree Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematical Physics • Lives in Melbourne, Australia • Occupation Research Scientist

I discovered my love of maths in high school when we started learning algebra. I had never been particularly adept at arithmetic or memorising times tables, but algebra was fun. It was about learning logical rules and applying them, step by step, to solve a problem that seemed impossible from the outset. My maths career so far has taken me from applied maths to mathematical physics to statistics and data science. Though the technical areas have been different, the pattern of understanding fundamental rules to break down big problems has remained.

I followed my heart all the way to a PhD in mathematical physics where I discovered the beauty of diagrammatic algebras: equations made out of squiggly diagrams.

My decision to pursue a career in maths came during my second year of university. I had been studying engineering, which I believed to be a more stable career choice, but after a year and a half I couldn’t get excited about any of the engineering specialisations. My Mum encouraged me to follow my heart and study mathematics: study what you love and you’ll figure out the work later, she advised. I followed my heart all the way to a PhD in mathematical physics where I discovered the beauty of diagrammatic algebras: equations made out of squiggly diagrams.

After a two-year postdoc in Italy, I decided to make the switch from academia to follow a career in data science. I had avoided any statistics and probability in my university studies, because they were not topics I enjoyed in high school, but I soon learned how interesting randomness is and how useful it is for understanding the world. I was lucky enough to land a dream job at Data61, the data analytics unit of CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. Since then I have been working on industry projects, solving applied problems in the areas of manufacturing, wildfires and public policy with statistics and machine learning. I love that even after this career change, I can still use my mathematical thinking to break problems down into their essential ingredients and solve them step by step.

Reflecting on my path from education to employment, I have learnt that careers don’t have to follow a clear and straight path.

Reflecting on my path from education to employment, I have learnt that careers don’t have to follow a clear and straight path. I have learnt that following your dreams can be a good option, but it isn’t the only one, and that trying out adjacent areas of work that are in-demand can lead to a fulfilling occupation. I have also learnt that an important output of your studies is the ability to teach yourself new skills, because flexibility is a valuable skill in the workforce – plus learning new skills keeps your work interesting.

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Marina Murillo

Marina Murillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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F. Ayça Çetinkaya

F. Ayça Çetinkaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Angela Tabiri

Angela Tabiri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link:
Femafricmaths – Female African Mathematicians

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Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Carolin Dirks

Carolin Dirks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Sofía López Ordóñez

Sofía López Ordóñez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories