Academia

Dorcas Seshie Afi Mawutor

Dorcas Seshie Afi Mawutor

Born in Accra, Ghana • Birth year 2004 Studies physics with computer science at the University of Ghana • Lives in Accra, Ghana • Occupation Level 300 student, financial secretary of department, Huawei campus ambassador for the University of Ghana Huawei ICT Academy

I have always admired Marie Curie, not just for her pioneering work in science but for her fearless approach to understanding the world. Her words “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” resonate deeply with me. I look at her pictures and see a fearless woman, reminding me of my journey and the questions I have asked myself and continue to ask: “Can I do this? Am I in the right field?”

My answers date back to my primary school days when my love for mathematics ignited my passion for physics. Even as a child, I was always very curious, constantly asking the WHYS, HOWS, and WHATS. My incessant questions often tired my teachers. I always found simpler and alternative ways to solve my math problems in class, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction when I arrived at the same answers as everyone else, but through a different approach. I’m not gonna lie, it made me feel like a genius.

Physics, as they say, is math in motion.

My journey into the world of physics began with a mixture of uncertainty, optimism, and determination. The uncertainty in my journey into physics arose from many questions about my future profession. In Ghana, physics graduates often become teachers or lecturers, a cycle I clearly want to break. This uncertainty fueled my optimism and determination, pushing me to explore diverse opportunities within the field. Moreover, the complexity and depth of physics as a subject can be intimidating. In senior high school, I found myself facing challenging material that often left me questioning my capabilities.

Physics, as they say, is math in motion. It is one abstract field. Its abstract concepts, such as quantum phenomena, special relativity, classical mechanics, cosmology, and mechanics, captivated and piqued my interest. I was also attracted to how difficult it seemed to grasp these concepts back in senior high school, which made me so competitive. It was either me conquering the physics subject or it totally conquering me.

Participating in The Girls in Mathematical Sciences program was transformative.

I remember being the first female in my school to contest in the national science and math quiz. My specialties as a candidate were my very brilliant skills and knowledge in physics and math. I was basically their human calculator as well as their math expert. I was glad when I chanced upon The Girls in Mathematical Sciences program organized by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. At first, I was skeptical about applying because I thought it was a program only for those interested in pursuing careers in mathematics, but my math teacher encouraged me to apply. I did, and voila, I got in. I am glad to have been part of the first cohort. Participating in The Girls in Mathematical Sciences program was transformative. I met exceptional young ladies whose enthusiasm encouraged me to study harder. Their confidence made me brave, and I deepened my passion for physics while learning about diverse career paths. Dr. Angela Tabiri inspired me as well.

I then realized that the program wasn’t geared only towards girls who wanted to pursue math; I met and appreciated the love of my life, PHYSICS. Funny, right? The world has its ways of doing things. I was enlightened on the various paths and careers that math and physics could lead to. At that point, I was wowed. I knew from then that pursuing a degree in physics wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Who knows? I might just be the next female Einstein.

Currently, I have a strong interest in quantum physics as well as machine learning, but I’m still exploring more options and hoping to intertwine physics with computer science.

I discovered various career paths through the program, including quantum physics, aerospace engineering, and data analysis. Currently, I have a strong interest in quantum physics as well as machine learning, but I’m still exploring more options and hoping to intertwine physics with computer science. Before my passion for physics, initially, my aspirations were firmly set on becoming a medical doctor, a path that seemed more defined and familiar (which is every science student’s dream).

My journey hasn’t been without challenges. Being a female in a predominantly male field can be daunting, especially since there aren’t many females pursuing physics. In my class, males make up about 85%. This disparity has been challenging, but it has also motivated me. In the future, I hope to contribute to the field of physics through research and innovation. I want to inspire other young girls, especially those from Africa, to pursue their passions in STEM fields. Curiosity has been my driving force, and I intend to keep it that way.

So here I am, Dorcas Seshie Afi Mawutor, a young woman from Accra with big dreams and a relentless spirit. My story is just beginning, and I am excited to see where this path will lead. Whether it’s unraveling the mysteries of the universe or inspiring the next generation of female scientists, I am ready for the journey ahead.

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Jenna Race

Jenna Race

Born in Würzburg, Germany • Birth year 1986 Studied Mathematics at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Highest Degree Associates of Science in Business Administration • Lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Occupation Associate Communications Specialist at Metro Transit

From an early age I easily understood patterns that baffled my peers. Because of this I gravitated toward Math. In my early years in school, I was a great student with top marks in all my classes. Things changed in tenth grade when I developed bipolar symptoms. My GPA (US grading scale in high school) plummeted. I eventually failed nine classes including statistics and pre-calculus. After that, Math did not seem like the field for me anymore. Still, my heart’s desire was to pursue math, and I have never given up on that dream.

This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics.

I started college shortly after high school. My mental health symptoms continued to get in the way and I did not do well. After years of hard work and dialectical behavioral therapy I learned to manage my symptoms and regain control of my life. I decided to resume higher learning with a new-found confidence. I started at Century College in January 2019 as a first-generation, non-traditional student. However, I did not allow those facts to interfere with my progress. Finally, I was the student I always knew I could be. I dove deep into my classes and actually excelled! I decided to study business, having accumulated ten years of corporate work experience in customer service and answering business correspondence. My first two semesters were filled with general classes, but College Algebra came in fall 2019. This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics. I poured my heart and soul into that course and maintained a 99% for most of the semester.

With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t.

I have heard many people say that math is so stressful to them that it makes them cry. In contrast, I have wept with wonder when recounting how the universe makes sense when math proofs are worked out. Math is the only subject I see myself pursuing for the rest of my life. This led me to update my college major to Mathematics. I made this change in April 2020: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In spite of the pandemic, I continued to excel in classes. I eventually earned my first degree in May 2021, an Associates of Science in Business Administration. It was in fall of 2021 when I was done with business that I took the class that I always dreamed of: Calculus I. I was especially excited to take that class with my College Algebra professor. With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t. I studied for hours and devoted myself to class but was not as successful as I hoped. By the end of the term, I earned a grade of 70%. Although I was eligible to take Calculus II the next semester, I took my instructor’s advice and retook the class. I am glad I took his advice because I did much better the second time and was more prepared for Calculus II. I took Calculus II in fall of 2022. With lots of preparation I excelled in the course.

For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win.

Knowing how alone I felt as a female, minority, non-traditional, first-generation college student navigating mathematics during the pandemic, I wanted to give back to other students in similar situations. I was able to do that by becoming an organizer for OURFA2M2, the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement and Alliance of Marginalized Mathematicians. This is one of my proudest achievements since starting my math journey.

I wish that I could say that it was all downhill from there, but it was not. My last 3 semesters have been the most challenging of my math journey. That’s when I took Calculus 3 and Differential Equations. At the same time, I changed jobs and experienced significant changes in my personal life. For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win. After 5 years, I am about to graduate from Century College and continue my mathematical journey at a four-year university. I know I will struggle in the future, but my experience so far has shown that I am tenacious and can tackle any challenges that come my way.


Elements of the first three paragraphs of this text are based on a book chapter by Jenna Race in “Read and Rectify: Advocacy Stories from Students of Color in Mathematics”, edited by Pamela E. Harris, Ph.D., and Aris Winger, Ph.D., whose permission has been obtained before publication.

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Marta Pittavino

Marta Pittavino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anastasia Molchanova

Anastasia Molchanova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gitta Kutyniok

Gitta Kutyniok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Juliana Fernandes da Silva

Juliana Fernandes da Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fulya Kula

Fulya Kula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christina Schenk

Christina Schenk

Born in Wittlich, Germany • Birth Year 1986Studied (Applied) Mathematics at Trier University, GermanyHighest degree PhD in MathematicsLives in Madrid, SpainOccupation Postdoctoral Research Associate

Honestly, I do not really know when my passion for science, and in particular math first manifested itself. But from my experience, I can definitely say that being surrounded by the right people and mentors plays a big role in continuing in this direction and not steering towards following one of your other passions.

[..] in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along.

My favorite subjects in high school had always been math and languages. It was after high school that I was thinking about combining the two subjects but I did not see myself becoming an elementary, middle, or high school teacher which probably would have been a natural choice. I tried several other options realizing internships and applying for study programs but in the end in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along. It was after a gap year in Australia that I remembered one of my math middle school teachers telling me that I would be the right person to study math. Despite not agreeing with him at that point in time, in the end, I decided to give it a try. I went from a Bachelor’s to a Master’s to a Ph.D. degree in (applied) mathematics.

[..] I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

On the way, I kept learning languages and following my other interests especially learning more about other cultures and getting to know more of the world. After my Ph.D., I decided to go to the US for a postdoc where I stayed for about two years. Then I moved to Bilbao, Spain for another postdoctoral position. After almost two years there, I decided to stay in Spain and move to Madrid. This is what brought me to my current position. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at IMDEA Materials. Here, I mainly develop models and algorithms for the acceleration of materials discovery for finding materials alternatives that are for example more sustainable. This means for instance that they are more inspired from nature, less toxic and do not deplete important limited resources. Having a background in applied mathematics, over the last 10 years I have had the opportunity to apply my mathematical knowledge in many areas reaching from cardiovascular stent design to optimization of fermentation processes to modeling cell metabolism to control of disease transmission dynamics to materials discovery. Looking back at my career decision, I think I would have been happy with studying computer science or engineering as well but it definitely had to be a science subject and I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile.

There have been tough phases and I definitely cannot say that I have never thought about switching careers. But I think that I have always enjoyed the challenges that my career path has brought along, maybe not always at the moment but overall, I believe that from facing challenges you learn the most. An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile. Mentorship programs can give a lot of support on the way to keep you focused on your path and dealing with many of the given challenges. I am definitely very grateful for those mentors along the way that supported me and encouraged me to follow my passions.

If I had the opportunity to talk to my 20-year-old self, I would have told her: “Never regret anything, be grateful for the good things that every decision brought along, follow your passions, hold on to your core values, do not let your fears rule you and most importantly enjoy the process and live in the moment without holding on to the past or having fears about the future. You do not choose your destiny but you choose your company. You will find your way. Do not get lost in too much work, there are also other important things in life and remember success is one thing but you do not want to die one-day having regrets, such as not having shown enough care for your beloved ones and not having followed your other dreams and passions.”

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Anna Konstorum

Anna Konstorum

Studied Biology/Bioinformatics at McGill University, Canada, and University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and Mathematics at University of California, Irvine, USA • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in United States • Occupation Research Staff Member at Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses

I came to applied mathematics slowly, and circuitously – but sometimes that makes for the best stories. When I was young, I fell in love with the complexity of biological processes, and thus I chose to study biology for my BSc. My grandmother was a math teacher and I have fond memories of us playing all sorts of educational math games growing up, which instilled in me a joyful, non-competitive view of math. But I never saw myself as a mathematician, it was just something I enjoyed ‘on the side’.

I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light.

It was only when doing my Master’s, when I took a course focused on using dynamical systems to study the life sciences, that I came to see that mathematics needed to be more than a hobby for me. I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light. And, I felt then, everything clicked. That my love for math and complex systems such as biology were not separate, but actually completely intertwined. It was this realization that led me to do my PhD in mathematics. I performed research modeling interactions of growing tumors with their microenvironment and took classes in a wide range of mathematical subdisciplines. It was very difficult as I knew I had less experience with mathematics than many of my peers, but I also had complementary skills in working on real-world scientific problems, which gave me a unique vantage point to think about the methods I was studying. When I kept my focus on the subject matter, I knew I was where I needed to be. It was one of the hardest, but most rewarding experiences in my life.

I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms.

Something you come to understand by taking a strong pivot, is that both you and the world have the capacity to honor a new stage in your life and career, especially if you approach the challenge thoughtfully and creatively. I had come to understand that for me, the next stage that I wanted to reach was to expand my applied mathematics capabilities to new domains in addition to the life sciences. And, really, I was ready! Studying the life sciences from a mathematical perspective prepares you to handle a variety of complex data problems. The field is full of extremely noisy data – but data that has, if you chip at it long enough, fascinating patterns and meaning underneath the noise. I now get to do just that as a Research Staff Member at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses (CCS/IDA). I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms. I’ve used approaches ranging from applied dynamical systems (PDEs and ODEs) to, more recently, unsupervised learning methods employing matrix- and tensor-decomposition frameworks. I also hold an adjunct faculty role in the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida, which allows me to continue to collaborate on projects in mathematical and systems biology.

I wish I had known to take advantage of all [professional societies] have to offer earlier in my career.

What I’ve come to realize is that your unique interests and capabilities, even when they may not fit easily into a clear label, do have a place in this world where they will be valued. My background in mathematical biology has given me a unique perspective on the challenges I face in my current role, both from a mathematical and applied sense. And it makes for some fun intersectional research.

Finally, I’d like to make a quick shout-out to the power of professional societies. I wish I had known to take advantage of all they have to offer earlier in my career. Societies like the American Mathematical Society (AMS), Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and Society for Mathematical Biology (SMB) all provide opportunities to network via conferences and meetings, and to learn more about opportunities in and outside of academia utilizing the skills you learn. You don’t need a minimum degree to join – just an interest to connect with like-minded researchers.

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Juliet Nakakawa Nsumba

Juliet Nakakawa Nsumba

Born in Kayunga district, Uganda • Birth year 1986 • Studied Mathematics and Physics (B.Sc. with Education) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda • Highest Degree Ph.D. in Mathematics • Lives in Kampala, Uganda • Occupation Lecturer at Makerere University

Currently, I am a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. It is so exciting that today I consider myself one of Uganda’s most successful women in mathematics. At my primary level, I used to struggle with mathematics but was always intrigued by the challenges it would cause me to think about. I finished my primary level with mathematics as my worst subject. My secondary education was a turnaround. I would struggle with math until one time we had a change of teacher and he gave the first test. I got a 20%, and in the second test a 40% and after that my performance drastically improved and my passion for the subject grew so that it became my best subject. My math teacher encouraged me a lot. I had to redefine my friends to have those with similar interests. I would discuss this with my peers irrespective of gender. The reading of mathematics became easier.

Regarding the negative image that mathematics was for men: I guess I refused to believe that. I saw it as a challenge that had to be solved.

After my O’ level, resources were scarce in that my parents couldn’t afford my education at the kind of schools with equipped laboratories to enable me to continue pursuing my math/science career. But they were so determined to see me excel. My mom would always encourage me not to lose hope. At that time, I belonged to a supported program of Compassion International. That is where my help came from at the moment. God used Compassion to fully provide my sponsorship throughout A’ level. Of my A ‘level subjects, mathematics still seemed easy and would still be my best. Of course, I had support from my teachers who always encouraged me. Regarding the negative image that mathematics was for men: I guess I refused to believe that. I saw it as a challenge that had to be solved. I spent most of my time with the boys. Thank God they were quite helpful. When they noted I wasn’t going away, they knew we had to work together. When I completed my Uganda advanced certificate, I was given a Bachelor of Science degree with education (mathematics, physics). To be honest, I had never dreamt of being a teacher. I wanted to do Telcom engineering. My grades couldn’t push me there. Today I am grateful that my passion and desire for mathematics never came to an end. I decided to do my best to get good grades during my Bachelor’s degree. This opened more doors for me.

(…) I decided on mathematical epidemiology. I have seen so much of its application with endemic diseases and the consistent outbreaks of new viral diseases, especially in my country.

Later I joined the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which provided a platform for me to see how I could use mathematics. I have always loved the application of mathematics. It is not surprising that when I decided to choose the direction for my career, I decided on mathematical epidemiology. I have seen so much of its application with endemic diseases and the consistent outbreaks of new viral diseases, especially in my country. After my Ph.D. which I completed in my home country, I felt equipped to be part of the solution to our health sector. Yes, I am still growing in my career and every day I notice my effort in changing the lives of my people and Africa as a whole.

The limited resources never stopped me from pursuing my dream – instead, I would utilize whatever opportunity I could get to excel.

Being a mathematician has changed my status; by this, I cannot consider myself poor or financially disadvantaged, I have gained respect even among my peers just because I chose mathematics up to the highest academic qualification. As a mentor on several forums, I have got a number of young people who look up to me as their role model, something I lacked as I pursued the mathematics journey. I have inspired many to pursue the subject and STEM fields. I am an advocate for girls in STEM, and sharing my story with those young people struggling and almost giving up on mathematics is my passion. Once in a while, I do outreach programmes where I get to visit schools so that I can encourage young people that they can achieve much more as others before them have achieved. The mathematics journey is always interesting, but only those who choose not to give up can succeed. The limited resources never stopped me from pursuing my dream – instead, I would utilize whatever opportunity I could get to excel. The change of attitude and not dwelling on negativity from those around me enabled me to excel.

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Qiaoqiao Ding

Qiaoqiao Ding

Born in Linyi, China • Birth year 1989 • Studied Applied Mathematics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China • Highest Degree Doctor in Mathematics • Lives in Shanghai, China • Occupation Assistant Research Scientist

When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what maths studies would be like. But I always took every maths lesson seriously and finished all the maths homework quickly and correctly, which gave me a sense of achievement and satisfaction among peers. I was able to find regular patterns in numbers or common features, which I found very exciting. I was not a very confident girl, but maths gave me strength.

Therefore, I decided to study maths at the University. However, I did not feel like the smartest student and university mathematics was very different from high school. I felt a bit frustrated and didn’t know how to reduce or eliminate the gap. In the second year of university, computational mathematics appeared in my life, which can be regarded as the combination of maths and computer science. Using computer science to solve mathematical problems and translating computer programs into mathematics language are two main aspects. I was attracted by the variety of applications and began to pay more attention to this field in the following semesters. From my Master’s to my doctoral research, my major was always applied mathematics. I did not only choose it because of my interests but also due to the possibility to get into contact with different subjects. Even though I saw more and more women devote themselves to computer science and mathematics, I was still hesitant. Would I do as well as men, as I needed to spend more time with my family? Could I be successful in this field? Could I find my favorite job? I did my best to find the answers to these questions.

If I can solve a problem with mathematics and present the result with a computational method, I will feel very happy.

I encountered many difficulties during my PhD. My advisor is also a woman and she gave me a lot of good advice. She had published many excellent works in optimization and medical imaging and supported my own research immensely. After finishing my PhD, I applied for an academic job in Singapore and worked there for three years. During that time, my husband was working in the US. We had to conquer the difficulty of time and distance. In my opinion, family is a very important part of one’s whole life. Every researcher needs to balance work and life, especially women. In China, women play a more important role in the relationship between husband and wife, the education of children and the connection with friends and relatives. Two years ago, my husband decided to return to China and he found a position in Shanghai. Finding a job in the same city is a big problem for me. I received a lot of help and advice from my collaborators and friends.

Now, maths has become a part of my life. Everyday, I try to solve some problems using mathematics tools and try to deduce some theorem or lemma to interpret the methodology. If I can solve a problem with mathematics and present the result with a computational method, I will feel very happy. My husband works as an assistant professor of mathematics in a university and we can discuss many interesting topics together. I think I can say that maths is my job and my life.

If anyone meets any predicament, I would strongly recommend to struggle. Try it and you will find it worth it.

At this stage of my life, I know what I want, i.e., working on applied mathematics and realizing my ideas. In China, as a woman, I never felt deprived or discriminated against for working in the field of maths or programming at the university. In fact, the contrary is the case and most people I encounter admire that I work in maths and computer science. A common perception in Chinese society is that maths is the most difficult subject and only the smartest people work on the research of it. In China, in order to encourage woman mathematicians to work in academia, many policies about gender quota have been made. In many job applications, women will be preferred over a man applicant if they have the same research abilities.

I am satisfied about the path I took, and very happy I had the courage to choose maths. I used to be afraid that I would not do well. But I know I can do my best, even if I am not the best researcher. Many of the maths students I met went through the same process and most of them did not give up. I think that most of the students that choose maths will persevere in difficult situations. If anyone meets any predicament, I would strongly recommend to struggle. Try it and you will find it worth it.

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