Academia

Nancy Reid

Nancy Reid

Born in Niagara Falls, Canada • Birth year 1952 Studied Statistics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada • Highest Degree PhD in Statistics • Lives in Toronto, Canada • Occupation Professor, Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Toronto

As a professor my days are busy with teaching, research, and committee meetings. I enjoy all three, but my research time is special, as that’s when I get to do whatever interests me the most at the time, and there is always more to discover. Currently I’m working on some mathematical problems related to the theory of inference, and a colleague and I have been working with some astronomers to help analyse their data.

The research environment at Stanford was so exciting that I became completely hooked, and have made my entire career in academia.

I majored in mathematics as an undergraduate, but my plan was to specialize in computer science, as that was rumoured to be “the future” (in 1970). I did some programming, and realized I had no talent for that at all, but I really enjoyed the statistics courses. That was my first glimpse of using mathematical and statistical ideas for advances in science, medicine, health, social science, you name it!, and I found that fascinating. I was quite unsure about graduate work, so I went to the University of British Columbia for an MSc degree, and then I thought I would look for a ‘real job’. But that degree required a research thesis, and I got hooked on research. I had great advisors at UBC who steered me to Stanford for graduate work. Without their encouragement I’m sure I would not have had the courage to consider this. The research environment at Stanford was so exciting that I became completely hooked, and have made my entire career in academia.

So even if I was the only woman on seven hiring committees in a row, when I went to an international conference, or a small workshop,  I would go to women’s talks, introduce myself to women in groups, and seek out “my people”.

At many times in my career, I was often the only woman in the room and it was sometimes lonely. I got used to it, because there didn’t seem to be many options, but it’s not as nice as having more women in the room. Something that helped me was to make sure to seek out women when I had opportunities, for example at conferences. So even if I was the only woman on seven hiring committees in a row, when I went to an international conference, or a small workshop,  I would go to women’s talks, introduce myself to women in groups, and seek out “my people”. I made some great friends along the way. As I got older, and felt the situation was changing only very slowly, I became more outspoken about the lack of diversity.

The biggest shock to the system though was having children. I was already full professor and relatively old when my first (of two) daughters was born, and even with great support from my partner, and a well-established career, it was a challenge.

I was very fortunate to have very helpful mentors at every stage in my career, for which I am still grateful. I’ve tried to “pay it forward” by being encouraging to students and young faculty. While I never felt actively discriminated against at all, I did notice at some point fairly far along in my career that men were actually listening to me in meetings, and I was so surprised that I deduced this was rarely the case when I was younger. The biggest shock to the system though was having children. I was already full professor and relatively old when my first (of two) daughters was born, and even with great support from my partner, and a well-established career, it was a challenge. When younger colleagues starting families ask me for advice, I always say “Accept as much help as you are offered, and buy as much help as you can afford”.

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Pêdra Andrade

Pêdra Andrade

Born in Pedrinhas – Sergipe, Brazil • Birth year 1989 Studied BSc in Mathematics at the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS) in Aracaju, Brazil • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics at Pontifical Catholic of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) • Lives in Lisbon, Portugal • Occupation Postdoctoral researcher at IST – University of Lisbon

I decided I wanted to be a math teacher when I was eleven years old. It’s funny to remember that at such a young age, I already knew what I wanted to do with my life. I always had one of my biggest inspirations at home, my mom was a high school teacher and she loves math. I also enjoyed studying math and its accuracy always enchanted me.

Another of my goals was to study math at the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS), the only public university in Sergipe. This was one of the first challenges that I had on this journey. I studied hard to get into university. Fortunately, I got into UFS.

At the beginning of College, everything was amazing, I was living the dream. Even though I had many difficulties with the adaptation process to the university, the new city, and also living far from home, I had the courage and perseverance to tackle each of them. I believe that dealing with our inner selves is one of the biggest challenges we face when studying mathematics. Staying motivated and confident is hard work. This field of science is very beautiful but at the same time very difficult. During this time, I had the pleasure to interact with great professors who inspired me to continue studying mathematics. I’ve always been delighted by the mathematical concepts and the arguments that we use to produce the  beautiful math demonstrations.

Staying motivated and confident is hard work. This field of science is very beautiful but at the same time very difficult.

At this point, I decided to get my Master’s degree in mathematics. At that time, I had no idea what being a researcher was like. Different from my Bachelor’s, I was the only woman in the class. I started to feel like I didn’t belong in that space. I no longer felt comfortable talking and exchanging ideas with my colleagues; it was impossible not to compare myself with the others and I tried to fit in.

Even though I had many difficulties, I got  my Master’s degree. I survived and thanks to my desire to never give up I started my Ph.D. in math at PUC – Rio. As I studied commutative algebra during my Master’s degree, my first thought was to continue studying this subject, but there was no specialist Professor at the time at PUC – Rio. Looking back, I think this was a good thing, as it opened up so many possibilities. Trying to find myself I attended a seminar that focused on partial differential equations (PDEs) with algebra ingredients. I always had this enchantment in studying subjects at the intersection of many fields. I was very glad to see these connections as an example of the magnitude of the study of PDEs and their applications.

Trying to find myself I attended a seminar that focused on partial differential equations (PDEs) with algebra ingredients. I always had this enchantment in studying subjects at the intersection of many fields.

During my doctorate I had the opportunity to attend many scientific events including gender initiatives, give presentations, and I also had the opportunity to study at the University of Central Florida as a Visiting Fellow. After completing my Ph.D., I visited the Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas (CIMAT) in Mexico and held a postdoctoral position at São Paulo University, São Carlos in Brazil. These experiences contributed significantly to my research career, because I learned so much mathematics, but also I got some independence and learned a little bit about how a researcher’s career works. I am extremely grateful for the many special people who supported me throughout this journey.

It is worth mentioning that one of the biggest difficulties I deal with during my journey is the feeling that I have to be strong all the time. I’m not supposed to make mistakes and I do have to know the answers to every question. Nevertheless, the challenges inspire me and arise my curiosity. This is the feeling that moves me to overcome the difficulties that appear to me as a mathematician, such as learning new PDE methods or gender issues. For me, the scientific and human exchange is one of the greatest gifts the profession has given me. 

My research area concerns the study of regularity theory, the existence and the uniqueness of the solutions to elliptic and parabolic equations. Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) – University of Lisbon and I am very excited to write this new chapter of my career as a woman in science.

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Maurine Atieno Songa

Maurine Atieno Songa

Born in Kenya • Birth year 1986 Studied Mathematics at the University of Nairobi • Highest Degree MSc in Applied Mathematics from the University of Kwazulu-Natal • Lives in Durban, South Africa • Occupation PhD student at the University of Kwazulu-Natal and Assistant Lecturer, Kisii University, Kenya (on study leave)

I am currently pursuing a PhD degree in mathematics at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. My research uses the language of category theory, which is the study of objects and relationships between them, to unpack and understand real-life phenomena. The areas for its application are vast and include engineering, computer science, neuroscience, systems theory, and general relativity. This journey has indeed been a dream come true. I have loved mathematics since grade five, when I surprisingly performed well in an exam that brought together students from the whole district. I hadn’t always performed well before and I hadn’t been remotely aware that I could do well in mathematics. However, once I topped that exam, there was no going back. My mathematics teacher had taken notice that I could do well in mathematics, and he kept me on my toes. With more effort, I found the subject easier and more enjoyable than the rest. I enjoyed calculating sums and rejoiced when I got them right. It was as though a new world had opened up for me and the escape I found within it brought me peace. I also enjoyed teaching my classmates the concepts which they found difficult. In a way, my destiny had been sealed.

At higher levels of study, the main challenges we faced were a lack of resources and scarcity in the woman role models that we could look up to.

I must admit that the journey hasn’t always been easy. Much as the teachers encouraged us and pushed us to work hard, it wasn’t often easy to see the future that they envisioned. It was tough growing up in a village which had been ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Most of us were being raised up by grandmothers who were now frail. As my mother had died when I was eight years old, I had to rely on bursaries and scholarships to get through most of my schooling. It also wasn’t common for girls to love mathematics or to excel in it, and so, negative remarks were often made about mathematics. A narrative was pushed that mathematics was meant for boys, and that girls who loved it were to be feared. But the love, passion, and the escape that mathematics provided, together with the pressure and encouragement from the teachers, was enough to help me push through.

At higher levels of study, the main challenges we faced were a lack of resources and scarcity in the woman role models that we could look up to. We got to learn essential skills like programming so late, and even then, most of what we learned was theoretical. As such, we did not have the full knowledge required to forge forward in mathematics. Our knowledge about possible career avenues was also limited. In graduate school, I have struggled with imposter syndrome, a feeling that you are not worthy. Sharing this experience with a few colleagues has led me to the realisation that most of us struggle sometimes, especially those who came from humble backgrounds. My friends and colleagues have taught me to push back that negative voice and to often remember how far we have come.

To me, knowing these incredible women, and knowing that they, just like me, have overcome so much to get to where they are, is a testament that women are capable of extraordinary achievements in mathematics and other STEM-related areas.

There have been notable influences without which I couldn’t have reached this far. Attending the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) opened my eyes to the vast areas of applicability in mathematics. The networks they provided have proved invaluable. It was great getting to meet other women from Africa and finding out that we all had similar challenges growing up, and yet, with persistence and a little luck in terms of scholarships, we managed to push through. We could now cultivate and find inspiration amongst ourselves. I know that there are many heroes in the world of mathematics, but those who inspired me the most were peers I met during graduate school. I get inspired every day by exemplary woman peers who have gone ahead of me and attained their doctorates in mathematics. To me, knowing these incredible women, and knowing that they, just like me, have overcome so much to get to where they are, is a testament that women are capable of extraordinary achievements in mathematics and other STEM-related areas.

As such, it is imperative to teach our girls from early on that their gender does not prohibit them from excelling in the sciences or any career that has traditionally been set aside for the men. It should be our prerogative to instill in them that they too can be at the core of discoveries in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and engineering and that they can become whatever they dream and work hard towards. Girls need to know that there is much more that they can achieve in life if they work hard towards it. I am grateful to forums like Her Maths Story for highlighting our stories and for working towards changing the narrative.

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Claudia Garetto

Claudia Garetto

Born in Asti, Italy Studies Mathematics at Torino University, Italy • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Reader in Mathematics at Queen Mary University of London

My love for Mathematics started at an early age. I remember one day in scuola media (middle school in Italy) when my maths teacher sketched the graph of a function on the blackboard. She was explaining linear motion and I was blown away. I saw how maths relates to real life and how beautiful it is to explain maths, which is often considered a difficult topic, to others. I just wanted to be like her: a mathematician solving equations and sketching graphs on a blackboard, and this is exactly what I do now. It has been extremely important for me to see women do the job I am doing now. In Italy it is quite common for girls to study mathematics at university and to have women maths teachers in school: growing up I never thought that maths was a “boy” subject. Later, when I moved to Austria for my PhD studies and then to the UK for my first permanent academic position, I realised how lucky I had been.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) activities are becoming more and more important (I am the EDI lead in my school), so I hope the gender gap will become smaller and smaller in the future but there is still a long way to go…

In both of these countries, women are a minority in STEM and it is unfortunately still common to have almost no women professors in many maths departments. Consequently, it is still a struggle to motivate the best women maths students to take the academic route. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) activities are becoming more and more important (I am the EDI lead in my school), so I hope the gender gap will become smaller and smaller in the future but there is still a long way to go…

As an undergraduate at Torino University I loved Mathematical Analysis. I found the formalism of pure mathematics beautiful and reassuring and I got more and more attracted to the idea of proving my own theorem, of constructing my own mathematical theory. That’s how my original plan of becoming a maths secondary school teacher changed into becoming a researcher and to establish myself as an academic.

Every move has meant for me to grow as a mathematician but more importantly as a person. I have learnt to be resilient but also to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded.

I apparently had a very straightforward career path: PhD, postdoc, permanent position. However, I changed countries twice. In 2002 I moved from Italy to Austria to conclude my PhD studies. After 8 years at Innsbruck University, I moved to Imperial College London as a Junior Research Fellow and in 2012 at Loughborough University as a Lecturer. I have recently moved to Queen Mary University of London where I am currently working on the analysis of hyperbolic equations and systems with multiplicities: an extremely fascinating area of mathematics. Every move has meant for me to grow as a mathematician but more importantly as a person. I have learnt to be resilient but also to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded. These are in my opinion extremely important qualities in any social and work environment.

I often talk to girls of school age approaching the university world of mathematics. My only advice to them is to follow their passion. If you are passionate about maths nothing will stop you! It will not always be easy. Failure is normal but with your dedication and the support of the right people (colleagues, supervisor, mentor) you will overcome every obstacle.

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Shanti Venetiaan

Shanti Venetiaan

Born in Suriname Studied Mathematics at Leiden University, The Netherlands • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Suriname • Occupation Professor at the Anton de Kom University, Suriname

I think that I have always been interested in mathematics. I was a curious child and I liked puzzling. I always requested puzzles for my birthday, like the Jigsaw ones. At school, mathematics was my favorite subject. Moreover, my father is also a mathematician. So by the time that I had to choose a course of study at university, it was very clear that it had to be mathematics.

I was not actively pursuing an academic career when I started university.

Given that Suriname was a former Dutch colony, it was very common for Surinamese students to study in the Netherlands. So it was almost a natural choice for me to go there as well. All my school mates went to the Technical University in Delft, but I decided to go to Leiden University: the same university where my father had studied. 

I was not actively pursuing an academic career when I started university. I do remember reading the leaflet that described all the steps leading to a PhD and beyond. At that moment, I realized that that was what I wanted for myself. After I did my final thesis in Leiden, my thesis advisor moved to the University of Amsterdam. He asked me whether I was interested in becoming his PhD student. Still, I was not sure what to do at that moment: I had been in the Netherlands for five years already and I was ready to go back home to Suriname. When I discussed this with my parents though, they persuaded me to stay and to take the opportunity, so I did. Now, I can say that I am very happy with my decision!

The academic life here mainly revolves around teaching, and there is no real research environment. But we are working hard to change this.

When I came back from the Netherlands after my PhD there was no mathematics department at the Anton de Kom university and I was hired in the School of Technology instead. The academic life here mainly revolves around teaching, and there is no real research environment. But we are working hard to change this. Our bachelor program in mathematics recently got accredited and we are trying to build a research culture. One of the main difficulties we are facing is the lack of expertise: I am the only person with a PhD in mathematics in the country. Suriname is a very small country with a population of around 500,000 people, so it is common to be the only one with a certain expertise. But it is a nice challenge, and I like it!

My advice to young students who enjoy mathematics is to follow your heart. If mathematics is where your heart is, then do it! It is a beautiful subject.

To overcome this lack of expertise, we are initiating more collaborations with foreign universities. For instance, the pandemic opened new possibilities for our students: they could now follow online lectures from universities all around the world. I hope that similar opportunities will continue after Covid-19 and that they will become official partnerships, as this will provide more opportunities to our students.

My advice to young students who enjoy mathematics is to follow your heart. If mathematics is where your heart is, then do it! It is a beautiful subject. If you like puzzling, it is very fulfilling. Furthermore, mathematics provides you with a training in abstract thinking that you can use anywhere!

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Evi Papadaki

Evi Papadaki

Born in Crete, Greece • Birth year 1992 Studied Mathematics at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece • Highest Degree MSc in Mathematics and Its Applications at University of Crete in Greece • Lives in Norwich, UK • Occupation PhD researcher in Mathematics Education at the University of East Anglia, UK

Either by chance or by choice, I always found maths attractive. My mum is a maths teacher, her sisters, too. So, I was regularly in the middle of casual maths conversations growing up. I was observing my mum teaching sometimes, and I was reading her maths books when I was bored. One of the advantages I had as a child was seeing my mum preparing for her lessons and devoting herself to solving problems, struggling, spending time on them, discussing methods and solutions with her sisters. I never found maths easy, but I knew that dedicating time was part of what made it meaningful, and I was up for it.

I remember when I was about 9 years old, I told my dad that I wanted to become an astrophysicist. He was very excited trying to explain ‘the plan’ to me: I had to finish school and study physics, then I should do a masters and a PhD in Astrophysics. I was shocked by the amount of work that I had to do and that was the moment I decided to become a maths teacher. As naive as it sounds, I thought I was doing well at maths already so I could teach others (!).  Yet here I am, 20 years later and having realised the complexity of the work, doing a PhD trying to understand how a teacher can talk to her students about mathematics.

I felt like I always knew about the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I even knew how to read or write, I could quote it without knowing what that means. I learnt how to use it in secondary school. I learnt what it means in high school and a teacher told us that it has over 300 different proofs.

I started thinking about the possibility of studying for a PhD in Mathematics Education in my final year as an undergraduate. I found it fascinating how all the things I’ve learnt throughout the years connected with each other as a gigantic 3D jigsaw puzzle. For example, I felt like I always knew about the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I even knew how to read or write, I could quote it without knowing what that means. I learnt how to use it in secondary school. I learnt what it means in high school and a teacher told us that it has over 300 different proofs. I learnt a couple of the proofs at university. Finally, I learnt that it can be generalised with other shapes and in more dimensions from a video on YouTube.

For me mathematics was never just a subject in school. It was a process of discovery inside and outside of the classroom and I wanted to study if there was a way to spark the curiosity of my students beyond the boundaries of a curriculum or programme of study.

I met people who thought teaching mathematics is purely applied pedagogy and disregarded my mathematical abilities because of that. I met people that thought I was wasting my potential as a mathematician. […] None of them is true!

When I decided that I wanted to follow a career in Mathematics Education research, I had the full support of my family, my friends and my mentors. Nonetheless, I had to fight a few stereotypes on the way. I met people who thought teaching mathematics is purely applied pedagogy and disregarded my mathematical abilities because of that. I met people that thought I was wasting my potential as a mathematician. I also met people that assumed that I am doing a quantitative study as I must be good in statistics. None of them is true! I am doing a qualitative study of how a teacher can talk to her students about mathematics in ways that are not anticipated in a typical mathematics lesson. For my project, I need to unpack the mathematical meaning of the conversations that take place between teachers and students. So, I challenge what I know about mathematics almost every day and I have learnt a lot more than I ever thought I would. Moreover, I am working at the student services of my University helping students with their maths, so I have the chance to expand my horizons in the variety of applications of mathematics making my interest in teaching and learning mathematics in ways that could aid students in different aspects of their personal and professional life even greater.

Looking back, I am grateful that those comments didn’t bring me down.

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Rachel Thomas

Rachel Thomas

Born in Perth, Australia • Birth year 1974 Studied Mathematics at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia • Highest Degree MSc (Research) in Pure Mathematics • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

When I started university, I planned to be a physicist or astronomer – I can’t deny I was heavily influenced by a love of scifi! I had a great time working in a gravity wave lab one summer, but the experience also made me realise I didn’t have the patience or practical ingenuity to be an experimental scientist. I found the theory fascinating. But at the lab flanges wouldn’t seal properly and huge niobium bars couldn’t be cooled low enough – I wasn’t as fascinated by the practical experimental problem solving.

I then remembered my other film-influenced career plan of becoming an archaeologist and took courses in Australian archaeology and Greek art and architecture. I had a brilliant time but again, I realised I didn’t have the patience required for the field work and analysis. I spent weeks trying (and not really succeeding) to make sense of tray after tray of very small grubby objects that I had dug up. I loved the ideas behind both of these glamorous careers, but the actual nitty gritty doing of the work just didn’t excite me.

Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with.

In the meantime, I’d been doing maths all along and I loved it. Originally, I took maths because I needed it to study physics. Then I kept studying maths because it turned out to be really fun. I really liked the actual doing of the maths – playing with linear algebra, proving something in group theory – each new area we were taught was so exciting with new concepts and new language or giving familiar ideas an entirely new perspective.

I loved doing research in semigroup theory for my Master’s degree and often couldn’t wait to get back to the desk to move my work forward. Unfortunately though, I didn’t really feel part of the community of my maths department. With hindsight, I’m sure this was partly due to being one of just a few female students when I was at honours and then postgraduate level. Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with. When things didn’t work out with my supervisor I nearly dropped out and left academia to work as a consultant mathematician on projects in government and industry. But fortunately, my generous boss, a brilliant female professor from the department, and my good friends supported me to finish my Master’s dissertation.

(…) it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

My work as a consultant was varied, and despite rarely crossing paths with the maths I’d learnt at university my degree had prepared me to learn quickly and to discern the structure of a problem and how I could use available data to answer meaningful questions. My maths training also helped me to communicate with the clients and it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

When I moved to the UK, I knew I wanted to write about maths. I was lucky enough to get a job with the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), a maths and education outreach initiative based at the University of Cambridge, before I left Australia. I quickly moved into working on Plus magazine, the part of the MMP that enables anyone who is curious about maths and the world to see the maths behind current events and keeping up to date with current maths research.

To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Twenty years later I still love working at Plus, every day learning about new maths and new applications and talking to the mathematicians who make it all happen. My brilliant co-editor of Plus, Marianne Freiberger, and I get to go on all sorts of amazing mathematical adventures. Our work has taken us around the world, we’ve spoken to brilliant mathematicians from academia and industry, we’ve written several popular science books, appeared on TV and radio and worked on documentary series for the Discovery Channel working with our colleagues at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. And over the last two years we’ve been lucky enough to work with epidemiologists working on the mathematical front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to explain and communicate their work. To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university. Despite no longer being an academic mathematician, I feel firmly part of the maths community today.  And I’m very happy that nearly half the mathematicians and researchers Plus has collaborated with over the last year are women. A new community spirit seems to be rising in many mathematics departments, heavily influenced by the experience and hard work of the female researchers already there. I hope that these networks, and projects including Her Maths Story, are helping women in mathematics find the support and the supporters they need to follow their own maths stories.

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Constanza Rojas-Molina

Constanza Rojas-Molina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marina Murillo

Marina Murillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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F. Ayça Çetinkaya

F. Ayça Çetinkaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories