Academia

Maylin Wartenberg

Maylin Wartenberg

Born in Braunschweig, Germany • Studied Math (diploma) at the Technical University in Braunschweig, Germany • Highest Degree Doctorate in Math (Dr. rer. nat.) • Lives in Meine, Germany • Occupation Professor at the Hochschule Hannover – University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Department of Business Information Systems, Field of Data Science

Analytical thinking has always been easy for me. Therefore, I enjoyed the rules and patterns that occur in math from early on. Luckily, I recovered quickly after the German high school greeted me with the minimum pass mark “adequate” in the first two math exams in 7th grade. In 9th and 10th grade, we had a very strict “old school” teacher who left a lasting impression. We always had to stand up to greet him, and if you used a swear word in class, you had to wash the glasses in the chemistry room during the next break. He was strict, but he liked me and I learned a lot. In 11th grade I spent a high school year in the US and after this year I wanted to take math as one of my advanced courses. That was a tough decision because all I did at the American high school was statistics whereas in Germany everyone had started with curve sketching. After my return to Germany, the first exam in 12th grade was about this topic. I didn’t know anything about it and I had 6 weeks of summer break to study. A former very kind teacher helped me with the material and I studied by myself and achieved a good mark. That was a major milestone to my decision to study math, since I was able to teach myself the topics of almost a whole school year. But I still wasn’t sure. Math or psychology?

After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

Both sounded very attractive to my 19-year-old self. The plans to move to Braunschweig with two of my friends were already settled and I finally chose math because it was giving me a wider range of options on what future opportunities to follow – because I had no clue what to do after my studies at that point. In the beginning we were quite a few students, but in the end only 4 of us were left in pure math – 25% women 😉. I chose most of my courses in abstract math – algebra, combinatorics – and did as little applied math as possible. I really enjoyed the study of group and ring structures and the book Algebra by Serge Lang was always by my side. I already dreamed of becoming a professor myself.

Yet, in the end, the question what to do with all the knowledge I gained crept more and more into my consciousness. That is why I didn’t pursue a strictly academic career, nevertheless I still wanted to secure the option, and chose a PHD position in business at Bosch (formerly Blaupunkt) in Hildesheim. No more group and ring theory, suddenly I had to write code in C++ for algorithms in navigation systems. I had avoided any computer science so far, thus, I was thrown in at the deep end. But I never regretted this step because I discovered that coding is not all at all as difficult as I thought – after all it’s logical – and I learned a lot about working in a bigger company. After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience (…).

I stayed home with her and somehow managed the defence of my doctoral thesies with a 5-month-old baby and still deprived of decent sleep. After 8 or 9 months at home, my brain started asking to be challenged again, and I began to apply for jobs in industry. As a young mother I wanted to start part time, but as a woman holding a doctorate in mathematics that was not as easy to get as I hoped. After a long search, including several offers with 40 hours and more, I was finally rewarded by starting a job at VW Financial Services. My one-year-old daughter was able to stay at the company’s own childcare facility and I started with 27 hours a week as a systems analyst in the business intelligence department in IT. In almost 10 years I made my way from analyst, to project lead, to team lead all the way to head of two sub-departments and got enrolled in the management trainee program – most of this in part time including a maternity leave when I had my second daughter in between. Then, suddenly, another option which had gotten a little out of sight but was still a silent dream popped back in.

And that is my way to my current position as a professor in business computing, especially data science. I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience – all of that with the advantage of being my own boss, still doing interesting projects with different companies, giving talks about AI for lay audiences (schools, senior clubs, …), and guiding young people on part of their own story.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Thi Mui Pham

Thi Mui Pham

Born in Hanoi, Vietnam • Studied Mathematics at RWTH Aachen in Germany • Highest degree: Master of Science in Mathematics • Lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands • PhD candidate in infectious disease modelling at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in Utrecht (The Netherlands)

I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Germany, lived in the UK for about two years in total, and moved to the Netherlands for my PhD four years ago. Having lived in various countries, I always saw myself as a cultural hybrid – bridging the gap between different cultures and traditions. My PhD topic similarly connects two different but intersecting disciplines:  I develop mathematical models to tackle the spread of infectious diseases.

When you would have asked me what my future job would be when I was 10 years old, my answer would probably have been “a detective”. I loved solving puzzles and finding solutions to a problem. What I particularly enjoyed about maths was its simplicity: In its pure form, you only need your mind and maybe a pen and a paper.

I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world.

After graduating high school, I decided to pursue a Maths degree at university. The reason was simple: I was eager to learn more about how to solve abstract problems through logical reasoning. Despite its reputation, you do not need to study maths as a lone wolf. A lot of my university time included working together with fellow students, discussing various solutions, and looking at a problem from different angles. Studying maths at university level was not always easy for me but I had a lot of fun, and I think that’s what counts in the end. When I was about to finish my degree, I felt a bit lost as I realised that I never really had a particular job or career in mind, and I had no real plan for my life. I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world. However, I had no idea how exactly I could combine these two interests.   

By chance, I came across the 80,000 Hours non-profit organisation that tries to guide graduates towards a career that fits their personality but also “effectively tackles the world’s most pressing problems”. This gave me an impetus to contemplate more thoroughly my career choice and I started to do research on the applications of maths to address real-world problems. I quickly learned about the serious risks that infectious diseases pose to our world and how mathematical modelling can provide valuable insights into the field. Luckily, I was able to find a PhD position in infectious disease epidemiology in Utrecht. In hindsight, accepting this position was one of the best decisions in my life as I can genuinely say that I am very happy with my work, my research group, and in particular with my supervisors. They gave me just the right balance between guidance and freedom, and a positive environment to thrive.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools.

When I started my PhD my main topic was to study the transmission dynamics of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools. It has been a very challenging time as my workload has doubled but at the same time, I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to use my skills to ‘do good’ while truly enjoying my work.

The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems.

Infectious disease modelling is rather versatile: It requires translating biological problems into the language of mathematics, analytically investigating the research question using the developed model, and finally translating the results back to the real world to obtain implications for infection control policy. The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems. Maths used to be underrated and maybe even underappreciated but by showing people how mathematics can be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, I hope we can spread a little bit more love for mathematics.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Christina Graf

Christina Graf

Born in Vienna, Austria • Birth year 1994 • Studied Mathematics at Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria • Highest Degree Master’s in Mathematics • Lives in Graz, Austria • Occupation University Assistant at the Institute of Medical Engineering, Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria

As far as I can remember I have been in love with math. In school, I always did my math homework first, and I actually procrastinated a bit to spend more time doing math without having to move on to further homework. I was interested in many things as a kid and I was always enthusiastic – this enthusiasm never left! But honestly, I did not realize that being a mathematician could be my job description one day. My mom is a teacher -yes math- so I thought about math only from a teaching perspective for a long time. My dad was a radiologist and I considered becoming a doctor myself. I knew what his daily work and workload was like and I was fascinated by this clear boundary setting between „good“ and „bad“ (he specialized in breast cancer detection and divided tumors he found in “the good, the bad, and the ugly”). Funnily, clear decisions also occur in math! So, for a long time my plan was to apply for medical school after graduating from highschool and my parents generously supported me, not only in terms of financing, but – more importantly – emotionally. 

That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

I was in 11th grade when my mom said, more incidentally: „You know, you always start with your math homework!“. I think she had no idea what she started with that! So, I slightly started thinking: „Could math be an option?“ My social environment was not so supportive, I heard comments like „It is so damn hard, do you want to do it?“ or „Mathematicians just do programming“ (and I hated computers during that time). But I am not a person who is easily influenced and when someone doubts my ability to do something, I usually get in the „I am gonna show them“ mode. During that time I learned that I need to have the faith in myself that others might not have in me! I often sneaked into my mom’s office to read some applied math books and soon she found her missing books on my bedside table. That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

So my plan changed and my new aim was to go to a technical university. My parents were extremely supportive from day one, believing in me, but also always telling me that I had the option to leave to do something else if math did not turn out to be the right thing. With that in mind, I started university, as motivated as I could ever be, completely oblivious to what will follow. The first months were hard, there is nothing to gloss over here, but not a single second I thought about leaving, I just loved it.

I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now.

The years went by, I received my Bachelor’s degree with plenty of ups and downs and enrolled in the Master’s program. During this time I was not entirely happy with what I was doing. I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now. Ultimately, I was unsure if math was still the right subject for me. So, during a Sunday afternoon in the university library where I was unhappy with doing my homework, I scrolled through other institutes‘ webpages, interested in what they do. I spent a few minutes on the webpage of the Institute of Medical Engineering – the curiosity in medicine never left – and there was an open Master’s thesis sounding mathematical, but with an actual application of that. On the next day, I met with the PI (who is my PhD supervisor now) and soon after, I started working on my thesis. I just loved it from day one. I finally felt like being „home“, I could use all the fancy math skills I learned and I could actually utilize them for real-world problems. Eight months and some exams later, I graduated and received my Master of Science in mathematics with specialization in technomathematics. I did not need to think about what to do next for too long, as I knew exactly that I wanted to continue with math. And so I started working on my PhD at the same institute after two months of traveling the world.

I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

For my PhD, I’m working in the field of optimal control for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Here, I’m optimizing radiofrequency (RF) pulses, which form the basis of every MRI scan. Goals of the optimization include making the RF pulses shorter, reducing the scan time, and reducing the energy it produces, among others. It allows me to combine mathematical methods with a medical application, namely Magnetic Resonance which is used to obtain images of the human body. During my PhD, my enthusiasm for this subject has not decreased – I grew even more fond of it. I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

At the moment, I have the strong tendency to stay in academia; frankly, I can‘t think about anything else. While writing these lines, we are at the end of the third „Covid-19 wave“ in Austria and I really feel this desire to leave the country and go abroad. Due to Covid, I was not able to travel to international conferences, but as always, this is not an excuse, but a motivation to get going again. I am excited to leave my home and ready to take every opportunity that is presented to me. For the future, I’d like to make the world a little bit better with my knowledge and what I do. Furthermore, I would like to continue sharing the joy of mathematics with my students every day.

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Miren Zubeldia Plazaola

Miren Zubeldia Plazaola

Born in Oñati, Basque Country, Spain • Birth year 1984 • Studied Mathematics at Universidad del Pais Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (UPV/EHU) in the Basque Country, Spain • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics at UPV/EHU • Lives in Oñati, Basque Country • Occupation Math teacher and Yoga teacher

Curiosity and desire to know are words that describe me quite well. I have always asked myself a lot of questions about everything, and this also happened to me in Math classes, specially in high school. I wanted to know more, go deeper, make sense of all the abstract notions that we were learning. I was the annoying student that asked the uncomfortable questions to the teacher. But I never considered to study Math. Actually, my idea was to study Physical Education, since sports have always been an important part of my life and understanding the biomechanics of the human body has always interested me a lot.

It was my school counsellor who encouraged me to study Math. At the beginning I did not see it very clearly. I thought that I did not fit in with the mathematicians’ stereotypes that I had in my mind. I thought that it would be too hard, that I would have to study so much that it would be difficult to combine with my sport life, since I was playing in a handball team and did not want to give it up. But at the same time this idea appealed to me a lot and I decided to give it a try.

I really enjoyed my undergraduate studies at university. I fell in love with Math. I met wonderful people. Although it was not my plan, thanks to an amazing female professor, I decided to embark on the PhD journey. They were beautiful years, with ups and downs, in which I had the opportunity to travel a lot, to live in different places, to meet many people, to expose myself to new experiences, to learn a lot about Math and also about life, to get to know myself better. It was a rich adventure. I am very thankful that I had the privilege to experience this journey.

It was not an easy decision, but after 8 years since I started my Master, I decided to take a break and I quitted my short scientist career.

After my PhD, I went to Helsinki to work as a postdoc. It was there where I discovered Yoga, and I started asking even more questions about everything in general. I spend few years trying to fit in the lifestyle of academia, trying to find a way of being coherent with myself, my will and my feelings, dealing with millions of doubts about how to find the balance between my personal and my professional life. It was not an easy decision, but after 8 years since I started my Master, I decided to take a break and I quitted my short scientist career.

For me, Yoga and Math are very related. Both try to answer the existential questions of life, each discipline from its own point of view.

Since then, I have been very involved with Yoga. It has become in an essential part of my life. I founded a Yoga studio together with one of my friends in my hometown. For me, Yoga and Math are very related. Both try to answer the existential questions of life, each discipline from its own point of view. Both are abstract and awaken your inner imagination. Both disciplines give you very useful tools to manage your everyday life and to deal with everything that happens in life.

Nowadays, in addition to teaching yoga, I also teach Math at the university. This combination is a good balance for me. I do not know exactly what my future career path will be, but it is clear to me that in one way or another mathematics will be there. If you have a call to study Math, I would like to encourage you from the bottom of my heart. It will be enriching in all aspects of your life.

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María Eugenia Cejas

María Eugenia Cejas

Born in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics at Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in La Plata, Argentina • Occupation Professor of Mathematics at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and image consultant

About the end of high school time I noticed that I wanted to study something that was not common. I started to read some books of math (dissemination books, not formal books) and I discovered that I enjoyed very much how math could be applied to solve different problems. Consequently, I decided to study math at university.

During my university degree I did not encounter any big problems, I just realized that math is really different from what one expects after high school, it can be extremely abstract. The only thing I did during my university time was study to get the degree in time. I was very focused and dedicated to this subject. After graduation I started my PhD, I felt that I wanted to do that, but I also missed having the time to think about and explore other options. I let myself get carried away because it seemed like the next sensible step to take. I chose Harmonic Analysis as my field of research which is an area of pure math and even after studying this subject for more than 8 years, I cannot give you a direct application of it in real life.

I started to feel in crisis with my career, so I decided to study to be an image consultant and fashion producer. Now I am working in the fashion industry while at the same time I do research and teaching.

Two years after finishing my PhD the lack of applications started to bother me, I did not find that my work was helping anybody. It is like you are 10 years of your life studying a lot, following the crowd and you do not stop to think if this is what you want for your entire life. I started to feel in crisis with my career, so I decided to study to be an image consultant and fashion producer. Now I am working in the fashion industry while at the same time I do research and teaching. I am trying to reconcile myself with the mathematical part of my life, right now teaching and research have become my routine, a way to pay my bills, while fashion is my passion. I am leading a double life: I am a professor in mathematics during the day and an image consultant during the weekend and after 7pm during the week. Currently, I prefer to work as an image consultant because it gives me well-being, gratitude and satisfaction, and the opportunity to help others to feel better and more self-confident. In fashion I find usefulness that I do not find in my research field but as of now this is limited to my free time.

During my academic career I encountered some problems: I remember when I started to attend conferences, mainly in Europe, I felt that some “important men” in my area of research were looking down on me. I do not know if it was because I am a woman or because I am from a developing country. Looking back I remember giving presentations in many conferences and these colleagues did not pay any attention while I was lecturing. This type of situations made me feel excluded from the system. Mathematics is a field where there is a lot of competition but I believe that nowadays women are having prominence. Luckily, now there are gender commissions that discuss the problems women face in science and how these can be solved.

If I would have to give an advice I would suggest taking some time to think before making any big decision for the future. Stop to think if this is what you want, if this is your passion.

Summarizing my experience as a researcher I can say that on the one hand, this career gave me a lot of professional growth, made me feel sometimes empowered (mainly when I could prove that theorem that I conjectured), and actually is a crucial part of the woman I am. On the other hand, the job market in my country is frustrating, even before COVID-19 there was already a big financial crisis and there are not a lot of positions for researchers, especially for mathematicians.  Thus, pursuing a career in academia means to wait until you are 40 years old before finally getting a permanent position and a steady life. If I would have to give an advice I would suggest taking some time to think before making any big decision for the future. Stop to think if this is what you want, if this is your passion. Obstacles don’t matter, keep your chin up and go for it!  Maybe my story is not the ideal one, where everything is perfect and linear, but that’s life!

Posted by HMS in Stories
Clara Stegehuis

Clara Stegehuis

Born in Amersfoort, The Netherlands • Birth year 1991 • Studied Applied Mathematics at Twente University in Enschede, The Netherlands • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Enschede, The Netherlands • Occupation Assistant Professor

I always liked solving puzzles when I was younger. My dad even made me eat my bread in puzzle-fashion: he cut it into 4×3 squares, and I had to eat them with chess knight’s jumps, and make sure I did not get ‘stuck’ while eating my entire slice of bread. In high school, however, I liked many subjects, so the choice for mathematics was not obvious at all. I thought about studying biology, physics or maybe something more related to medical sciences. But in the end, I chose mathematics, as I thought this would leave my options open later on.

(…) I am now investigating the mathematics behind spreading processes on networks. These have very important applications in the spreading of epidemics, but are also applicable to viral messages on social media.

Even though my choice for mathematics was rather random, it turned out to suit me very well. I really enjoyed solving exercises, and I also appreciated the fact that the same piece of mathematics can often be applied in so many different contexts. For example, I am now investigating the mathematics behind spreading processes on networks. These have very important applications in the spreading of epidemics, but are also applicable to viral messages on social media.

Because I liked my studies so much, I decided to stay at the university. I first did 4 years of PhD research. During my PhD research, I found doing research a bit lonely, which made me doubt whether I would like to continue on this path. So after those four years, I still did not really know whether I would keep on working at a university, or whether I would go and work for a company instead. But when I got offered a job at Twente University as a researcher, I decided to take it, and see whether I would like it. And I am happy to say that now that I do not have to do my own PhD research, I can make my work more collaborative, which I enjoy very much.

I really enjoy sharing my passion for mathematics with others who maybe never got to see mathematics as useful or beautiful

What I like about my job is that it is very versatile. I can do research, which is basically like solving my own puzzles. On other days I teach more, and have interaction with students, which is also very motivating. Besides that, I participate in a lot of outreach activities. That means that I go to high schools and primary schools to talk about mathematics, but also to theaters, science festivals and podcasts. I really enjoy sharing my passion for mathematics with others who maybe never got to see mathematics as useful or beautiful. In high school I never knew that there was so much more to mathematics than quadratic equations, so I like to share that with as many people as possible!

For example, I wrote blogs about how mathematics helps to predict who will win the soccer world championship, but also about using mathematical graph theory to find the most influential musician. I think that depending on your specific interests and hobbies, there is always an application of mathematics that will appeal to you! So in my outreach activities, I always try to think about what the specific audience could find interesting, and then I will show them an application of mathematics that involves this. The great thing about mathematics is that it is so broad that it is always possible to do so. Of course, this involves a lot of work from my side, but I keep on learning from this as well, and it is very rewarding.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

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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