Academia

A Feminist Rant

A Feminist Rant

Or a Plea for Change

by Joana Sarah Grah

Do you still come across the common stereotypes against mathematicians in general and women mathematicians specifically? Maths is boring, maths is for loners, maths is unsexy (and done by unsexy people – I just stumbled upon this again recently when reading a quote-retweet by Hannah Fry replying to someone who claimed there are no “hot” people that are good at maths – just for the record, I know quite a few), maths is dry and above all – maths is for men!

I don’t know about you but I’m so tired of it. When did we exactly start to think that being good at a subject at school is something to be made fun of or to be ashamed of? I have heard this so many times: “Oh, I’ve always hated maths.”, “Only geeks and losers like maths.”, “I always sucked at maths.”.  But in a – you know – kind of proud way? What’s wrong? Do you like not being able to calculate the appropriate tip when you’re eating out? Do you enjoy not understanding probabilities, hence not being able to evaluate risks for instance? Did you never see the exponential growth of infections during the pandemic – which has always been exponential in the first place – coming? It’s always easier to deny things we don’t understand but are afraid of. In the current situation this is particularly dangerous and even probably harmful for others. Nothing to be proud of if you ask me.

A solid foundational education in mathematics is essential, no doubt. But maths is so much more than being good at calculating stuff. In fact, I couldn’t name any area of application where maths doesn’t play a role. Natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology, earth sciences, astronomy, medicine, economics, arts restoration – those are just some examples that come immediately to mind. The variety of mathematical fields and the respective methods is similarly vast – there’s so much to explore and really something to be passionate about for everyone. In addition, maths is absolutely no discipline where teamwork isn’t encouraged. In fact, you discuss and brainstorm with colleagues day-to-day (although there are exceptions of course). Interdisciplinarity is key to most problems and projects arising in applied maths.

Now let’s get to the point that bothers me the most and that is the reason we set up this webpage. Unfortunately, it’s still a common misperception that maths is not for women. Pretty pathetic given that we’re living in 2021 you ask? Yes, absolutely, but it turns out we’re still living in a patriarchy. That is why we need to be feminists. 

At the beginning of your studies, you probably won’t realise the disproportion between women and men in maths. You’ll notice that you have very few or even no women professors. Most of the academic staff is likely to be men. The gap becomes more obvious the further you get. Finding women working in the same field at conferences is probably much more difficult than finding men. Seeing women on discussion panels and giving talks will be the exception rather than the norm. It is getting a bit better though and many people are aware of the problem and encourage diversity. Yet the majority of women seem to decide at some point of their academic career that they don’t want to pursue it further. Why is that? Anti-feminists, mostly men, often claim that it’s their personal choice to leave because they prefer a part-time job, a job in a less competitive environment, a job that fits their “abilities” and “interests” more, because they want to have a family and won’t be able to have children and an academic career. Nothing wrong about any of this but the crucial point is having the choice. It is indeed possible to both have a family and a professorship. And it is indeed possible to be a professor while still prioritising your leisure time, your mental health, your family, your friends. Not all women are given those opportunities. Most women don’t have the choice. It is a structural problem, an institutional problem, a societal problem. Maybe you missed the important discussions because you left an informal meeting after a conference day, as you were the only woman and felt uncomfortable, or because you didn’t have childcare for the whole night. Maybe you risk a huge fight with your family, or even ending the contact altogether, or you lose a relationship, because you’re spending too much time writing grants (instead of attending family events, going on your long-planned vacation or caring for your kids – or having kids). Maybe all the people in power making decisions are men and they like to surround themselves with like-minded men.

We need to make women in maths visible for the next generation who are desperately searching for role models because they don’t see them. We need to amplify the voices of women in maths because oftentimes the voices of men in maths are much louder. We need to showcase the variety and – more often than not – non-linearity of career paths including failures, doubts, setbacks, maybe starting all over again, maybe changing fields completely, maybe having children. We need to raise awareness for the lack of resources in schools and universities to highlight women in mathematics, for the fact that mental health is actually physical health and just as important as making sure you stay up-to-date with the literature and back up your work regularly. We need to normalise not working crazy hours on a regular basis, having a family, not having a family, admitting that you don’t know something, asking “stupid” questions (I know it’s stale but there really are no stupid questions, most of the time those are the important questions to ask) and having interests that have nothing to do with maths.

Why do I write this now rather than at the time when we launched our page at the beginning of the year? Because I was afraid I would sound too aggressive, I would probably exaggerate things and because I’m sharing very private opinions and experiences. On the other hand, it was about time. I reflected a lot about this recently and realised how much of it I suppressed or dismissed as innocuous. What really fuelled my anger was when I saw injustices happening to other women, to friends, to the next generation. Most of the time they seem subtle but they do impact your day-to-day work life significantly. I experienced women suffering from imposter syndrome that came across so strong and confident yet still being at the mercy of the broken system and socially acceptable misogyny. Besides the structural problem, there is the everyday sexism all of us are familiar with. Do you find it hard to literally be heard in a discussion? Do you have to raise your voice a bit extra? I certainly had to sometimes. Another classic is when a man paraphrases something you just said and gets all the praise for it. Is this something we just have to cope with? What about strangers at conferences asking you out for dinner during a poster presentation? Uncomfortable to say the least. Something we have to  bear? I have once been told that I should apply for a professorship simply because I’m a woman and these days it’s super easy for women to get a position, basically everyone is accepted. I don’t think that’s acceptable and I wish I had been more assertive in this situation.

I don’t want to close on a negative note though. Thankfully, I had so many more positive encounters during the past years in academia than negative ones. Men and women who were genuinely interested in discussing research, appreciated my advise, gave me very valuable advice, motivated people – especially women – who were struggling and doubting themselves, facilitated socialising and networking at academic events, showed their own vulnerability and insecurities, shared their failures and how they overcame hurdles, educated themselves and were feminists. Let’s take them as an example.

Let’s try to be a bit more understanding, a bit more empathetic and a bit more supportive in this already stressful, fast-paced, competitive environment that academia mostly is. Let’s speak out clearly if we witness any kind of bullying, sexism and harassment. Of course things have to change on a much bigger scale and first and foremost systemically. But every one of us can make a difference – no matter how small – so let’s start today!

Posted by HMS in Blog, 0 comments
Marianne Freiberger

Marianne Freiberger

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1972 • Studied Pure Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from Queen Mary, University of London • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

I first became interested in maths when I learnt about the epsilon/delta definition of a limit at school. The fact that something as intuitive as a limit could be expressed so precisely in symbols blew my mind. Despite that interest, I didn’t really plan on studying maths at university. The reason I did was that I had moved to the UK from Germany after school and, when I finally decided to do a degree, thought my English wasn’t up to studying a more wordy subject (which is ironic given that I am now a writer).

I enjoyed my BSc, but by the end of it still didn’t think that maths would be part of my future. I spent a year working in all sorts of jobs and travelling, until a book by Ian Stewart re-ignited my passion. I applied for a PhD place with Shaun Bullett at Queen Mary, University of London, where I spent the next few years studying and researching holomorphic dynamics (which involves things like Julia sets and the Mandelbrot set). Shaun was a great supervisor who safely got me through my PhD (can’t have been easy!) and enabled me to stay on for another three years as a postdoc.

Because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine

Finding the next postdoc proved tricky and my heart wasn’t really in it. I didn’t want my life to revolve around my job, which as a postdoc is something you usually have to accept, and wasn’t sure I was a good enough mathematician. (Whether the latter was true or just down to lacking confidence — a notoriously female affliction— I still don’t know.) But it all turned out for the best: because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine. That was in 2005 and I am still at Plus now, co-editing along with my good friend and colleague Rachel Thomas.

Plus is a free online magazine about all aspects of maths, aimed at a general audience. It’s part of the Millennium Mathematics Project based at the University of Cambridge. My job there involves writing articles, producing podcasts and videos, and editing other people’s submissions. We cover anything from abstract algebra to astronomy, and theoretical physics to the science of sport. 

(…) Once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others

Starting at Plus was quite a gear change initially. My command of English no longer felt like such an obstacle, but I had no journalistic or writing training. I did a couple of writing courses offered by Cambridge University, but all the really important stuff I learnt on the job from the two brilliant writers and editors then working on Plus, Rachel Thomas and Helen Joyce, and by example from my boss, the amazing John D. Barrow (who sadly died last year).

Ironically, my ignorance also helped me with my writing, I think. I knew almost nothing about most areas of maths, let alone other sciences. This meant doing lots of reading and then explaining things back to myself in baby language — and once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others.

As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool

While writing gave me lots of joy, other things were harder to learn. When I started at Plus, I think many mathematicians weren’t as familiar and comfortable with public engagement as they are now. I struggled sometimes to be taken seriously. As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool. It took me a while to work that out and learn the courage to ask.

Today things are a lot easier in that respect (though I still sometimes spend ages trying to figure something out when I could just go and ask someone). The reason it’s easier is probably that attitudes towards science and maths communication have changed, and that I am older, a tiny bit wiser, and a little more confident.

At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience

I love my job because it allows me to do what research didn’t: to learn a lot about all sorts of topics but without having to dig too deeply into the technical details. I get to meet amazing people and there are lots of opportunities to branch out and learn more. Rachel and I recently worked as science editors on a Discovery Channel series about the work of Stephen Hawking and privately co-wrote three popular maths books. At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience. I feel very fortunate to have been given these opportunities.

To someone who’d like to go into science communication as a career, I’d say to get a good grounding in maths before (or while) you’re getting training in writing and communicating. Maths is everywhere in science, and if you can vaguely understand the maths in a piece of science, then you’re already a good way to understanding the rest. 

Posted by HMS in Stories
Gabriela Capo Rangel

Gabriela Capo Rangel

Born in Pitesti, Romania • Studied Applied Mathematics at Politehnic University of Bucharest • Erasmus MUNDUS fellow in Mathematical Modeling from University of L’Aquila, University of Nice and University of Hamburg • PhD in Applied Mathematics in the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics, Bilbao, Spain • Lives in Okinawa, Japan Works as a Postdoctoral Scholar in Computational Neuroscience at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

My love for math started very early on. Since I was very young, I seemed to always have an analytical mindset and I adored solving puzzles. I was always the geeky kid, that was always curious about everything and I have always been a very solution-oriented person. My parents tell me I was determined to be a researcher from the age of 5, although I am not certain I actually understood what that meant. I used to love all analytical subjects, not only math, but also chemistry and physics. In fact, choosing my career path came extremely close between mathematics and chemistry. Somehow, I always missed chemistry, this is the reason why I went towards neuroscience and every now and then I get the chance to model some biochemistry.

I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys.

Being a woman and choosing to study mathematics, I had to always fight for what I wanted. I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys. Well, my memory has never been very good. I was lucky, because I had an amazing family that supported me in making my own choices and encouraged me to follow my own path.

[My high school professor] was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions.

My first role model was a young professor in high school. He was my math professor only for the first year of high school and he directed me towards mathematics contests and math olympiads. He was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions. In most of the contests that I have been, I was even the only girl or between the very few ones. The same trend continued at the university, where I went on and studied Applied Mathematics in Engineering. I studied in an engineering university, with under 10-20% of the total number of students being women.

After I graduated from university, I got an Erasmus MUNDUS fellowship for a Master of two years in Applied Mathematics, a highly competitive master program between three different countries: Italy, France and Germany. I got to experience the educational systems of the three different places, I had the chance to live in all these different places and learn the languages. Even in this international setting, I was still living in a world of men, having very few female colleagues and absolutely no female math professors in any of the three countries.

After graduating with the Master, I was awarded a Severo Ochoa Fellowship at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics to pursue my PhD in Applied Mathematics in Biosciences. Particularly, I was modeling the interaction between the electrophysiology, the metabolism and the hemodynamics in the human brain. This captivating research gave me the chance to study not only the mechanisms behind the normal functioning of the human brain during resting state or neuronal activation, but also during various pathologies such as brain ischemia and cortical spreading depression. We focused on understanding the strong interconnection between how the electrical signals are transmitted in the brain, the interaction between multiple biochemical species constituting the brain metabolism and the blood flow.

[During my PhD] I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered.

It was then when I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered. She inspired me to gain not only knowledge and passion in my research field, but she inspired me to fight and pursue my dreams, no matter how much work that involves. There are no words to describe the depth of my gratitude, respect and love for her. I can only hope that one day I will inspire somebody, the way she inspired me.

After my PhD, I did a brief postdoc in Bilbao, after which I came to Japan to work as a postdoc at OIST. Here, I belong to the Computational Neuroscience group and my research concerns the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls fine movement. I study the Purkinje neuron dendritic trees and I seek to understand how their morphology affects the spiking properties of these neuronal cells.

I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

The academic path is extremely hard to follow. I always feel like I am lacking stability. So far every few years, I have been changing between jobs, countries, friends and languages. Many times I dream about family life, stability and job security. I wanted to give up academia countless times, but I was lucky and I met people who inspired me to go on. I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Candice Price

Candice Price

Born in Long Beach, CA, USA • Birth year 1980 • Studied Mathematics at The University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, USA • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Northampton, MA, USA • Occupation Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Smith College

I first fell in love with mathematics in the 3rd grade. It was by pure coincidence though. You see in the 3rd grade I learned how to multiply. Now we did not learn through the tangible way of repeated addition, but with music and memorization. Both of these pedagogical choices stimulated my interest in two ways: my love of music and my competitiveness. Let me elaborate a bit about this.

My whole family is very musical. My maternal grandfather was in a DooWop group named “The Mellows”. He taught my mother to sing, which translated to me singing in the church choir with my siblings. My father constantly played music in our home, especially on his record player. My sister and brother made music a part of their careers and I listen to music any chance I get. Needless to say music played a huge positive role in my life, and still does. So when my teacher played the SchoolHouse Rock multiplication videos for us in class, I was instantly sold! I still sing the song “3 is a magic number” sometimes. I got to see that music could play a large role in learning mathematics. It made mathematics fun and enjoyable. It also helped me memorize the multiplication table because I had memorized the lyrics. This helped with my competitive nature.

Looking at those celebrated in mathematics, I didn’t see someone that looked like me.

I think it is no secret that when learning multiplication, students are often subjected to timed “times table” tests. This was a test or quiz or even just an assignment where you had to fill out a sheet of multiplication problems in maybe around 5 minutes. Oddly, I thrived on this type of competition. It wasn’t a competition with my classmates, but a competition with myself. How many “times-tables” could I remember? How fast could I write them all down? Would I improve my previous score? I think this competitive nature pushed me to love the act of learning, keeping me excited about understanding things at a deeper level. I will also say that this competitive nature has also led to my trivia team, Juneteenth Wreath LLC, being 4 time trivia champs across 2 different platforms #humblebrag.

While this was the first experience I had that created a love of mathematics, I didn’t stay in love. I have walked away from mathematics when I felt that it was not the place for me. Looking at those celebrated in mathematics, I didn’t see someone that looked like me. I assumed that meant that no matter how much I loved math, it did not love me back. (I was a bit of a dramatic teenager.) While I came back to mathematics and made it my career, it wasn’t until recently that I felt like I had a place in mathematics. I would often tell folks “I am a mathematics professor, but I don’t see myself as a mathematician”. The distinction was that while I enjoyed teaching and talking about mathematics, did I think about it on the level that most “mathematicians” do? No. I didn’t enjoy research too much, although I loved working with my collaborators. I didn’t enjoy watching research talks, unless I knew the speaker. I would also be so nervous giving talks, always a bit unsure if I was painting the correct picture. But recently this has all changed.

If today Candice could talk to 3rd grade Candice about this great path through mathematics she is going to venture on, I would tell her about the ups and downs.

I have met so many amazing people who are also mathematicians. Many, but not all, are from minoritized groups in the mathematics community, all forging ahead creating their own definition of what it means to be a mathematician. This community helped me finish my PhD in Mathematics at the University of Iowa, supported me through my postdoctoral work at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and been a great guide through multiple career decisions/milestones I have made/passed, including starting a tenure track position at Smith College and receiving tenure and promotion. If today Candice could talk to 3rd grade Candice about this great path through mathematics she is going to venture on, I would tell her about the ups and downs. Let her know that she is stronger and more clever than she knows. And that she is a mathematician, that she became one that day. I would also give her a small reminder that it is ok to not always be super excited about something– except for music, that is a love that never dies.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Evelyn Cueva

Evelyn Cueva

Born in Quito, Ecuador • Birth year 1990 • Studied Mathematical Engineering at Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Ecuador • Highest Degree Ph.D. in Mathematical Modelling at Universidad de Chile • Lives in Quito, Ecuador

As a child, I did not dream of being a mathematician or a scientist; there was a total absence of that role model in my environment. My parents worked very hard so that my brothers and I could attend university. We would be the first generation to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Living in the countryside and being surrounded by animals shaped me to study agronomy or veterinary medicine. However, my ability in mathematics motivated me to explore a career more related to numbers and abstract thinking.

Since I was a primary school kid, I have enjoyed math homework. I liked to think and invent my own problems. In high school, I was more interested in verbal math problems. I liked the process of “translating” these problems into equations. Despite my taste for mathematics, it was not until my last year of high school that I discovered a career opportunity in mathematics while reading the academic offer of a university. I did not know anyone who studied that subject or that there were jobs for mathematicians. My naive idea was that surely a mathematician knows everything about mathematics, and that caught my attention. One of the first options I considered was studying math to be a good math teacher. During my last year of high school I liked teaching math to my classmates. I was motivated by the idea of transmitting knowledge and helping others to look at problems more naturally.

Everything made sense and brought me back to what I enjoyed as a child: real-life problems translated into equations.

Once I enrolled in university, studying mathematics to be a teacher no longer seemed like a good idea. I realized that high school teachers study pedagogy and that was far from my personal interests. After exploring other options within the same university, I hesitated between chemical engineering and mathematical engineering; both attracted me a lot. The chemistry degree had a high component of physics, and I did not like it enough to study it for so long. I decided to follow mathematical engineering, even with many doubts about its usefulness. It was a kind of blind confidence that I would enjoy it very much.

University was challenging; it was a world that I mostly traveled blindly. The most abstract courses were meaningless to me because although they were fascinating and beautiful on their own, I did not know how they could be used in work life. It was only at the end of my studies that everything became a little clearer. When I did my undergraduate thesis, I connected the theory that I had studied with the world of applications. I understood why we need to seek solutions, guarantee their existence, and analyze their regularity. Everything made sense and brought me back to what I enjoyed as a child: real-life problems translated into equations.

I always had a particular interest in photography, but discovering the physical and mathematical models behind acquisition, reconstruction, and post-processing was something I did not want to stop learning about.

I worked on my undergraduate thesis with Juan Carlos De los Reyes, whom I thank for introducing me to the world of images. I always had a particular interest in photography, but discovering the physical and mathematical models behind acquisition, reconstruction, and post-processing was something I did not want to stop learning about. Since I had just found my passion, I opted for a Ph.D. program to learn more about it. I leaned towards the area of inverse problems, and in particular the modeling and reconstruction of images related to biomedicine. I most enjoyed simulating and visualizing ideas after writing them down on paper. 

This Ph.D. brought me extraordinary experiences such as visiting new places, meeting collaborators from other countries, having an excellent scientific community, just to mention a few. However, there were also challenges along my way: living away from my family, adapting to a new culture, not speaking in my native language, and dealing with frustrations and insecurities when things did not go as expected.

I wish that more and more women feel empowered to study engineering or science and do not rule it out as an option based on stereotypes.

A year ago, I finished my Ph.D. in mathematical modeling in Chile. After some post-PhD experiences as a research associate at the academy in Ecuador, my native country, I will start a postdoc at Millennium Nucleus for Applied Control and Inverse Problems in Chile this month. Although I enjoy teaching, I am happy for this new position dedicated more exclusively to do research.

As a woman, I have been able to feel equal within my workgroups. I was always the only woman, but that has never made me feel less worth than any of my male peers. I wish that more and more women feel empowered to study engineering or science and do not rule it out as an option based on stereotypes. Fortunately, nowadays, we can meet more women, we can look at them as our role models, and we can be role models for the next generations.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Born in Walsrode, Germany • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics in Bremen, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematical Statistics • Lives in Bath, UK • Occupation Mathematical Innovation Research Associate at Institute for Mathematical Innovation, University of Bath

I am a 33-year-old applied mathematician and data analysis expert with a PhD in Mathematical Statistics from University College London. I hold a permanent, research-only position at the Institute for Mathematical Innovation (IMI) at the University of Bath. Before joining the IMI, I worked as a Senior Research Statistician at the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. I have a 2-year-old daughter and am expecting my second child any day.

Growing up with two sisters and a brother, my father never told us there was a difference between boys and girls. Instead, he instilled in us an understanding that we can achieve what we want with hard work. As a result, whenever people tell me I cannot do something I take it as a challenge rather than a dead-end.

I love mathematics. I love learning. I love people. And I love science. But most of all I love when all of these four things come together. 

Ask for advice but know how to interpret it

Any kind of advice you receive from others says much more about them than about you. When I was deciding what to study after my A-levels, a teacher for advanced maths advised against “studying mathematics because it is too hard”. He was wrong. I loved every second of my undergraduate programme in mathematics. All of a sudden I was surrounded by like-minded people and could solve riddles day in and day out. Studying mathematics was the best choice for me. It was intense – and yes – it was hard work, but it was so rewarding. I learned to describe the world in equations, see the world in trends, identify patterns, and extract information from all the noise. I found a way to explain the world and found out I was really good at it! Looking back on it now, I understand that my teacher was not judging whether I would be good enough to study mathematics but rather was projecting his own experiences and difficulties studying maths. That is why I would suggest: Ask for advice but know how to interpret it.

I particularly enjoyed the statistics part of my undergraduate degree but wanted to understand further the maths behind it. So, I decided to pursue a PhD in mathematical statistics. Having been abroad to Cardiff, UK for an ERASMUS exchange during my undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be in an international environment surrounded by people from many different backgrounds and cultures for my PhD. When I heard about a PhD position at University College London on the mathematics of networks I was immediately intrigued. Before signing up, I met twice with my future supervisor, which was an incredibly good opportunity to get to know him and his team a little bit. I believe the PhD experience is strongly influenced by the research group you are joining and thus, I would very much recommend trying to find out about them as much as you can. In contrary to the common stereotype that a PhD in mathematics is lonely, I experienced quite the opposite. I joined a small research group of brilliant colleagues – some of whom I still call up nowadays to discuss research ideas, and I also was part of a cohort of PhD students that formed a support network for each other. There was always someone to discuss Maths with, or to join me for a pint when a break was needed.

(…) the very best you can do for you and your career is to discover what gets you out of bed in the morning with a smile

During my PhD, I discovered my talent for proving theorems, and there were multiple opportunities to do a Postdoc on related topics. However, being good at something does not always mean it is what you enjoy doing most. At UCL, I was fortunate to be exposed to many different types of research, which enabled me to understand that what really fascinates me are the insights one can draw from data and the corresponding impact rather than the actual tools used. So, after four years of carefully building a network and investing time and effort to build a strong foundation for a research career, I made (what felt like) a radical decision to leave academia and to join the research-end of industry where I can apply my knowledge to add insights to science with an immediate impact to the real world. Many colleagues and friends were shocked by my move including the research group I was part of, which made the decision even harder.      

Now, five years after finishing my PhD, I know it was undoubtedly the right move for me for two main reasons. First, the line between industry and academia is not as rigid as I thought. The move from a research-in-industry position back to academia is increasingly common, and the work I do now at the Institute for Mathematical Innovation is from a mathematical point-of-view very similar to my work at the pharmaceutical company. Second, and most importantly, the move enabled me to experience research in a very applied setting. Most of the work I have done post-PhD has involved engaging with multi-disciplinary teams working together towards an overarching goal. Each new project comes with its own data analytical challenges while at the same time allowing me to learn about research in a variety of disciplines. Whether it is tiny scissors that allow us to edit DNA (called Crispr Cas9) or contributing to our knowledge about the growth of black holes, the work is always fascinating. Everybody’s motivations are different and the very best you can do for you and your career is to discover what gets you out of bed in the morning with a smile.

Posted by HMS in 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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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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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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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!

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