Academia

Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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F. Ayça Çetinkaya

F. Ayça Çetinkaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Angela Tabiri

Angela Tabiri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link:
Femafricmaths – Female African Mathematicians

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Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Sofía López Ordóñez

Sofía López Ordóñez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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