Gitta Kutyniok

Gitta Kutyniok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nicola Richmond

Nicola Richmond

Born in UK • Studied Mathematics and Computer Science in Edinburgh, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Algebra and Algebraic Geometry • Lives in London, UK • Occupation VP of AI

As a child, I enjoyed solving logic puzzles and spent a lot of time teaching myself BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20 that my dad had given to my brother for Christmas – my brother wasn’t remotely interested in the computer – I was obsessed by it!

My love for the problem-solving aspects of mathematics was solidified at school. I was lucky to have amazing mathematics teachers who made my learning journey both interesting and enriching. After regularly getting decent marks in school tests, I realised that I also had an aptitude for the subject and specialised early on by taking double mathematics A’ Levels.

(…) The inherent precision and rigour in mathematics helps keep my wandering mind constrained!

I went on to study mathematics as an undergraduate at Edinburgh. While there, I gravitated to pure mathematics – I love the logical nature of abstract mathematics and how concepts and rules can be linked together to develop new ideas and prove theorems – the inherent precision and rigour in mathematics helps keep my wandering mind constrained! I intended to pursue an academic career in mathematics, but with permanent academic positions in short supply, I settled on IT as a sensible Plan B and stayed on at Edinburgh to take an MSc in computer science. After that, I headed to Leeds to study for a PhD in representation theory of finite-dimensional algebras; and this was the end of my pure mathematics adventure – a career involving computing beckoned!

Looking back, there were several junctions along the road where I could have taken a different direction. The first was leaving my IT consultancy role to join Unilever on a two year contract. This introduced me to the world of chemoinformatics which I could link to mathematics by considering molecules as graphs of atoms connected by bonds. When my contract at Unilever came to an end, and with no sign of the recruitment freeze lifting, I decided to go to Sheffield as a post-doctoral researcher to work on developing a (commercialised) approach to facilitate computer-aided drug design.

Just over a decade was in the computational chemistry department, developing methods to find small molecules with medicinal properties.

Following the post-doc, I spent 18 years at GSK. Just over a decade was in the computational chemistry department, developing methods to find small molecules with medicinal properties. I then made an internal move to focus on bringing novel data analytics methods into GSK. This GSK chapter exposed me initially to the world of deep learning and its application to computer vision, and then later to new drug modalities, like antibodies, when I was responsible for a portfolio of digital, data and analytics projects.

The final four-year leg of my GSK journey I spent in the newly-formed AI/ML organisation. There, I learned the virtues of good engineering best practice and agile development, which was excellent preparation for my current role as VP of AI at BenevolentAI. I was also put in charge of building and leading the Fellowship Programme, which ignited a passion for developing, mentoring and nurturing junior staff members.

While I no longer have the opportunity to indulge in pure mathematics, mathematics is omnipresent in what I do.

Now at BenevolentAI, I focus on the company AI strategy and our centre of functional excellence in AI. While I no longer have the opportunity to indulge in pure mathematics, mathematics is omnipresent in what I do. I spend a lot of time reading the AI literature, which really combines probability theory, statistics, linear algebra, calculus and optimisation, and thinking about how we can leverage AI to accelerate drug discovery.

Young students often struggle to visualise how the study of mathematics may translate into practice. Many believe they’ll end up being a banker, an accountant or a mathematics teacher (which are of course worthwhile professions). I never really planned my career-journey, I did what felt right at the time, and I would never have imagined that I’d end up using my skill-set to find life-changing medicines for patients. So here’s my advice: we’re living in challenging economic times, so be flexible and responsive – seek out and embrace new opportunities that play to your strengths; and most importantly, follow your passion for mathematics – it can take you anywhere!

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Bernadette Spieler

Bernadette Spieler

Born in Deutschlandsberg, Austria • Birth year 1988 • Studied Information Management and eHealth at Graz University of Applied Science in Graz, Austria • Highest Degree PhD in Engineering Sciences from Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria • Lives in Zurich, Switzerland • Occupation Professor in Computing Skills in Education, Zurich University of Teacher Education, Switzerland

Since February 2021, I have been at the Zurich University of Teacher Education (PHZH, Switzerland) as a professor for “Computing Skills in Education”. This professorship is located at two centres: the Centre for “Media Education and Informatics” and the Centre for “Education and Digital Transformation.” Previously, I was the Head of the Department of Informatics Didactics and a visiting professor (W2) at the Institute for Mathematics and Applied Informatics at the University of Hildesheim (Germany). I received my PhD in 2018 from the Institute of Software Technology at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz, Austria). At TU Graz, I worked first as a project assistant in the H2020 project “No One Left Behind“, and later as a postdoctoral researcher. I completed my dissertation on the topic “Development and Evaluation of Concepts and Tools to Reinforce Gender Equality by Engaging Female Teenagers in Coding”. For my thesis, I focused on the conception of a framework for a more gender equal classroom setting for inclusive computer science activities. This so-called “Playing, Engagement, Creativity, Creating” (PECC) framework suggests inclusive activities during different stages, considers the gender dimension in different intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and shows how all students can benefit equally from them. It puts an emphasis on how to foster intrinsic motivators like pupils’ sense of belonging to computing fields, to generate interest for this area, to improve pupils’ self-efficiency towards computing, and finally, to bring fun elements to the classroom. Second, I developed different apps to engage girls in game design, e.g., “Luna&Cat” and Embroidery Designer.

(…) The focus in education is changing; it is less about imparting knowledge and more about enabling competence acquisition that is independent, reflective, and cooperative.

With its multitude of facets, computer science (CS) offers many exciting topics for children and young people. Girls in particular often do not have the opportunity to take an interest in such topics, or are quickly depreciated as a target group. For future generations, it is crucial not merely to use these technologies, but to understand and apply them. At the same time, the focus in education is changing; it is less about imparting knowledge and more about enabling competence acquisition that is independent, reflective, and cooperative. Education in a culture of digitality ensures the participation of all learners with their different prerequisites and equal opportunities. This requires the promotion of digital competences in a level-appropriate delivery (from school to teacher education to vocational training).

At the PHZH, I have the opportunity to reach teachers as multipliers in training and education. Various concepts such as game design, Maker-Education, or playful CS with quizzes and analogue activities enhance both inspiration and motivation. Furthermore, it is essential to dispel misconceptions that computer science is “not creative” or “too difficult”. Playing and creating games on smartphones are both popular activities for the new generation of digital natives, and therefore are a perfect match for the development of creativity, problem solving, logical thinking, system design, and collaboration skills. Particularly in my current project “Making at School“, we show exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary project work in various Maker activities. Making as a method for free experimentation, exploration, or (digital) tinkering enables new learning formats for education. Thus, Making facilitates open learning spaces with problem-solving tasks, interdisciplinary connections, and transversal competencies. For instance, technical understanding, creativity, craft skills, or concepts of sustainability and entrepreneurship are promoted.

In order to significantly influence future developments in CS didactics, I am involved in various expert groups. For example, as a product owner in the Catrobat Association, I am responsible for the development of apps to support children and young people in learning programming, as a member of the Swiss steering committee of the Informatics Beaver team, we create informatics riddles for the annual Bebras competition, as a member of the steering committee of digital switzerland (education and skilled workforce), we support the next generation of STEM students, and finally, I am a member of the working group for the curriculum development for informatics at the high school/secondary level.

The number of women in [computer science] is still very low, but there are promising ways to encourage and support more women to be deeply interested in [computer science] (…).

In my research, I address the aforementioned issues of equal opportunities in education, and highlight the importance of CS didactics within the context of education. Thereby my aim in this is to ensure greater diversity in technology. In my research, it is particularly important to empirically verify a positive effect on pupils. The extracurricular level should not be underestimated either. Since I have been offering courses specifically for girls in game design and programming for years, it was always a great wish to establish our own programming club in Zurich. With the help of the Manava-Foundation, we were able to realise our idea in March 2022 and proceeded to found the CoetryLab. From Summer 2022, we offer informatics and media courses for children and young people aged 10-20. This is intended to effectively support children in these subjects precisely where their needs are greatest.

By researching new concepts and standards in the field of gender-sensitive CS education and training, I hope to seek out and implement improvements in CS curricula, different CS-topics and to support girls and female adolescents in particular to gain CS skills. The number of women in CS is still very low, but there are promising ways to encourage and support more women to be deeply interested in CS and I am confident that gender-conscious pedagogy, especially in areas of CS education, is particularly useful and necessary!

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Tamara Dancheva

Tamara Dancheva

Born in Skopje, North Macedonia Birth year 1993 Studied Computer Science in Skopje and Sweden Master in Computational Engineering from the University of Strasbourg currently a PhD candidate at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics in Bilbao, Spain

My path to becoming a researcher in applied mathematics has been anything but calculated. My first childhood dream – that I actively started pursuing – was to become a librarian. I was and still am a massive bookworm. At the beginning of primary school, I became part of the library section. I spent nearly all of my school breaks and free time before and after school at the library bookkeeping, sorting books, and taking part in the organization of literary events. By the end of primary school, I started taking part in library competitions and even ranked at the top. Since most likely you wonder what a library competition is, it is about the history of writing, books, libraries, and classification systems to organize library resources. At the same time, I was studious, and I did well in school. I liked maths, but I was much more passionate about literature.

By the time I had to decide on a secondary school, I was old enough to realize that being a librarian or any profession related to it, unfortunately, would not offer me too many prospects in my country. My parents insisted I should go in a general direction first. So I went to a gymnasium. During my secondary school years, my parents got me and my brother our first computer. It became my second passion. Like many other kids at that time, we got obsessed with it, mostly playing video-games, and painstakingly surfing the Internet at a speed of a few kbit per second. For my part, eventually, I became obsessed with how it works. I became determined to learn how to build a computer. And how to develop video games.

That is how I decided to study computer science and engineering. The local university had just opened an independent faculty for computer science, and I became part of its first generation of students. I got to know everything I wanted to know and tried my hand at many different things like computer architecture, algorithms, desktop applications development, system administration, and web development. However, my first two years of university completely changed my relationship with maths for the worse. I had a couple of extremely demanding maths professors that required us to learn whole books of theory by heart. It almost completely stifled my motivation for learning maths.

I took a course on scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe.

In the final semester of my bachelor’s, I was still considering continuing my education with video games development or working as a web developer. Then I took a course on Scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe. Inspired by the classes, I started taking all the courses I could find on Coursera about scientific computing on various topics to see what is out there. I went back to exploring partial differential equations, mathematical modeling, and physics, with different eyes, in much more detail. This time, I saw an infinity of possibilities in the intersection of scientific programming and natural sciences.

I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies.

That is how, to my utmost surprise, after an intense period of finishing my Bachelor’s, simultaneously working as a developer, and applying for master’s degrees, I found myself in Strasbourg. I started studying Computational Mechanics, diving into mathematics and physics with applications in many other fields, such as the mechanics of solids, fluids, hydrology, and geomechanics (the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil). I was reluctant at the time to make this step because it was a radical change for me, and I had made a split-second decision to leave my job at the time. I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies. It was a risky step that I have come to regret during certain difficult times on the way.

Each time I did, I found something that fascinated me and won me back to research. I stuck to it and even continued with a Ph.D. in solid mechanics and high-performance computing. Today there are times when I still doubt my choice. Doing a Ph.D. is an arduous journey (or a labyrinth) that can be very exhausting and equally rewarding, the latter driving me forward.

I realized that the world is an open book, today more than ever, for those that dare to read it. While in the past, it used to be a library, with different books strewn across the globe, not easily accessible to others, today it has merged all into one book. Many times we are the ones that constrain ourselves, not the world around us, as we can make ourselves believe. With time, I have learned to accept uncertainty and volatility as a good thing. I like to think that I have infinite choices. Next year, I could take a project in environmental studies or computational astronomy. I could just as well open a book shop in New Zealand. Chase your passion and dare to go on an adventure!

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