Evelyn Cueva

Evelyn Cueva

Born in Quito, Ecuador • Birth year 1990 • Studied Mathematical Engineering at Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Ecuador • Highest Degree Ph.D. in Mathematical Modelling at Universidad de Chile • Lives in Quito, Ecuador

As a child, I did not dream of being a mathematician or a scientist; there was a total absence of that role model in my environment. My parents worked very hard so that my brothers and I could attend university. We would be the first generation to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Living in the countryside and being surrounded by animals shaped me to study agronomy or veterinary medicine. However, my ability in mathematics motivated me to explore a career more related to numbers and abstract thinking.

Since I was a primary school kid, I have enjoyed math homework. I liked to think and invent my own problems. In high school, I was more interested in verbal math problems. I liked the process of “translating” these problems into equations. Despite my taste for mathematics, it was not until my last year of high school that I discovered a career opportunity in mathematics while reading the academic offer of a university. I did not know anyone who studied that subject or that there were jobs for mathematicians. My naive idea was that surely a mathematician knows everything about mathematics, and that caught my attention. One of the first options I considered was studying math to be a good math teacher. During my last year of high school I liked teaching math to my classmates. I was motivated by the idea of transmitting knowledge and helping others to look at problems more naturally.

Everything made sense and brought me back to what I enjoyed as a child: real-life problems translated into equations.

Once I enrolled in university, studying mathematics to be a teacher no longer seemed like a good idea. I realized that high school teachers study pedagogy and that was far from my personal interests. After exploring other options within the same university, I hesitated between chemical engineering and mathematical engineering; both attracted me a lot. The chemistry degree had a high component of physics, and I did not like it enough to study it for so long. I decided to follow mathematical engineering, even with many doubts about its usefulness. It was a kind of blind confidence that I would enjoy it very much.

University was challenging; it was a world that I mostly traveled blindly. The most abstract courses were meaningless to me because although they were fascinating and beautiful on their own, I did not know how they could be used in work life. It was only at the end of my studies that everything became a little clearer. When I did my undergraduate thesis, I connected the theory that I had studied with the world of applications. I understood why we need to seek solutions, guarantee their existence, and analyze their regularity. Everything made sense and brought me back to what I enjoyed as a child: real-life problems translated into equations.

I always had a particular interest in photography, but discovering the physical and mathematical models behind acquisition, reconstruction, and post-processing was something I did not want to stop learning about.

I worked on my undergraduate thesis with Juan Carlos De los Reyes, whom I thank for introducing me to the world of images. I always had a particular interest in photography, but discovering the physical and mathematical models behind acquisition, reconstruction, and post-processing was something I did not want to stop learning about. Since I had just found my passion, I opted for a Ph.D. program to learn more about it. I leaned towards the area of inverse problems, and in particular the modeling and reconstruction of images related to biomedicine. I most enjoyed simulating and visualizing ideas after writing them down on paper. 

This Ph.D. brought me extraordinary experiences such as visiting new places, meeting collaborators from other countries, having an excellent scientific community, just to mention a few. However, there were also challenges along my way: living away from my family, adapting to a new culture, not speaking in my native language, and dealing with frustrations and insecurities when things did not go as expected.

I wish that more and more women feel empowered to study engineering or science and do not rule it out as an option based on stereotypes.

A year ago, I finished my Ph.D. in mathematical modeling in Chile. After some post-PhD experiences as a research associate at the academy in Ecuador, my native country, I will start a postdoc at Millennium Nucleus for Applied Control and Inverse Problems in Chile this month. Although I enjoy teaching, I am happy for this new position dedicated more exclusively to do research.

As a woman, I have been able to feel equal within my workgroups. I was always the only woman, but that has never made me feel less worth than any of my male peers. I wish that more and more women feel empowered to study engineering or science and do not rule it out as an option based on stereotypes. Fortunately, nowadays, we can meet more women, we can look at them as our role models, and we can be role models for the next generations.

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Ellese Cotterill

Ellese Cotterill

Born in Newcastle, Australia • Studied Advanced Mathematics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia • Highest Degree PhD in Computational Neuroscience from Cambridge University, UK • Lives in Sydney, Australia • Occupation Data Scientist

From as early as I can remember, I was always interested in maths and numbers. My grandad used to tell the story of me as a young child adding up the numbers on the back of buses on the way to pick up my sister from school. At school, maths was my favourite subject and something that I found came easily to me. When I finished high school, I really didn’t have any clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career, which made picking a university degree difficult. I wanted to do something where I felt like I was positively contributing to society, and a job in a medical field seemed like an obvious choice. For a while I considered medicinal chemistry, but being in a lab was never very appealing to me. In the end I decided to study something I knew I enjoyed, and so I enrolled in an advanced mathematics degree. My parents were quite confused why I didn’t choose a degree with a defined profession such as medicine or law, and questioned me about what kind of career I could have after studying mathematics. I didn’t have a good answer for that, but felt confident that if I did something I enjoyed, the career aspect of things would work itself out later.

(…) My grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so the possibility of making a contribution in that area by studying the brain was very appealing.

In my second year of undergraduate study I discovered the subject of biomathematics, which involves using quantitative methods to study the biological world. I found it really interesting, and ended up doing my honours project in the field, modelling molecular diffusion in cells. When I came to the end of my degree, however, there still wasn’t an obvious career path for mathematics graduates. Careers days were dominated by financial institutions, and I ended up accepting a position as a quantitative analyst at a large investment bank. It only took me a few months to realise this wasn’t the right path for me, and I started looking for other opportunities. I’d enjoyed the research aspect of my honours year, and so thought a PhD in a field like biomathematics could be a good option. There wasn’t much research happening in Australia in this area, but I read a lot coming out of UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Coming from Australia, I’d never imagined that I would be able to get into such prestigious universities, but decided there was no harm in applying. At that time, my grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so the possibility of making a contribution in that area by studying the brain was very appealing. I managed to find a supervisor at Cambridge University working in the field of computational neuroscience, and was lucky enough to be accepted into a Wellcome Trust programme that would fund my PhD in that area.

I greatly enjoyed my time studying in Cambridge, and met a lot of interesting people. One thing I noticed was that although there were many talented female PhD students in the mathematics department, I met almost no female postdoctoral researchers. I believe the impermancy of contracts and often frequent relocation involved in the early stages of an academic career are aspects which turn women off pursuing academics, particularly those who want a family. These were certainly factors that influenced my decision not to continue in academia, and at the end of my PhD I instead looked for opportunities in industry back in Australia.

(…) Choosing to study mathematics has given me fundamental skills in logical reasoning and problem solving which can be applied across many industries and careers.

I spent a year working as a data scientist at a neurotechnology startup in Sydney, but found that the company’s small size meant that it was difficult to produce any meaningful insights with the limited amount of data available. I also realised that I was more interested in working on challenging and meaningful problems from a mathematical perspective, rather than their precise applications. These factors lead me to take a position outside neuroscience, at an aerial imagery company called Nearmap. I’ve been working there for over two years now, helping build models and systems for automatically detecting objects in aerial imagery. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time there, and have been lucky enough to work with a number of talented women within the artificial intelligence team.

If there’s any advice I would give young people choosing what to study, it would be to do what you enjoy and are passionate about, and don’t worry too much about a degree’s application to a career path. My job today isn’t something I would have imagined doing while at university, at which time the field of machine learning as it is today barely even existed. Technology advances so rapidly that it’s impossible to predict what the most exciting and important careers might be in the future. However, choosing to study mathematics has given me fundamental skills in logical reasoning and problem solving which can be applied across many industries and careers.

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Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Born in Walsrode, Germany • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics in Bremen, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematical Statistics • Lives in Bath, UK • Occupation Mathematical Innovation Research Associate at Institute for Mathematical Innovation, University of Bath

I am a 33-year-old applied mathematician and data analysis expert with a PhD in Mathematical Statistics from University College London. I hold a permanent, research-only position at the Institute for Mathematical Innovation (IMI) at the University of Bath. Before joining the IMI, I worked as a Senior Research Statistician at the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. I have a 2-year-old daughter and am expecting my second child any day.

Growing up with two sisters and a brother, my father never told us there was a difference between boys and girls. Instead, he instilled in us an understanding that we can achieve what we want with hard work. As a result, whenever people tell me I cannot do something I take it as a challenge rather than a dead-end.

I love mathematics. I love learning. I love people. And I love science. But most of all I love when all of these four things come together. 

Ask for advice but know how to interpret it

Any kind of advice you receive from others says much more about them than about you. When I was deciding what to study after my A-levels, a teacher for advanced maths advised against “studying mathematics because it is too hard”. He was wrong. I loved every second of my undergraduate programme in mathematics. All of a sudden I was surrounded by like-minded people and could solve riddles day in and day out. Studying mathematics was the best choice for me. It was intense – and yes – it was hard work, but it was so rewarding. I learned to describe the world in equations, see the world in trends, identify patterns, and extract information from all the noise. I found a way to explain the world and found out I was really good at it! Looking back on it now, I understand that my teacher was not judging whether I would be good enough to study mathematics but rather was projecting his own experiences and difficulties studying maths. That is why I would suggest: Ask for advice but know how to interpret it.

I particularly enjoyed the statistics part of my undergraduate degree but wanted to understand further the maths behind it. So, I decided to pursue a PhD in mathematical statistics. Having been abroad to Cardiff, UK for an ERASMUS exchange during my undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be in an international environment surrounded by people from many different backgrounds and cultures for my PhD. When I heard about a PhD position at University College London on the mathematics of networks I was immediately intrigued. Before signing up, I met twice with my future supervisor, which was an incredibly good opportunity to get to know him and his team a little bit. I believe the PhD experience is strongly influenced by the research group you are joining and thus, I would very much recommend trying to find out about them as much as you can. In contrary to the common stereotype that a PhD in mathematics is lonely, I experienced quite the opposite. I joined a small research group of brilliant colleagues – some of whom I still call up nowadays to discuss research ideas, and I also was part of a cohort of PhD students that formed a support network for each other. There was always someone to discuss Maths with, or to join me for a pint when a break was needed.

(…) the very best you can do for you and your career is to discover what gets you out of bed in the morning with a smile

During my PhD, I discovered my talent for proving theorems, and there were multiple opportunities to do a Postdoc on related topics. However, being good at something does not always mean it is what you enjoy doing most. At UCL, I was fortunate to be exposed to many different types of research, which enabled me to understand that what really fascinates me are the insights one can draw from data and the corresponding impact rather than the actual tools used. So, after four years of carefully building a network and investing time and effort to build a strong foundation for a research career, I made (what felt like) a radical decision to leave academia and to join the research-end of industry where I can apply my knowledge to add insights to science with an immediate impact to the real world. Many colleagues and friends were shocked by my move including the research group I was part of, which made the decision even harder.      

Now, five years after finishing my PhD, I know it was undoubtedly the right move for me for two main reasons. First, the line between industry and academia is not as rigid as I thought. The move from a research-in-industry position back to academia is increasingly common, and the work I do now at the Institute for Mathematical Innovation is from a mathematical point-of-view very similar to my work at the pharmaceutical company. Second, and most importantly, the move enabled me to experience research in a very applied setting. Most of the work I have done post-PhD has involved engaging with multi-disciplinary teams working together towards an overarching goal. Each new project comes with its own data analytical challenges while at the same time allowing me to learn about research in a variety of disciplines. Whether it is tiny scissors that allow us to edit DNA (called Crispr Cas9) or contributing to our knowledge about the growth of black holes, the work is always fascinating. Everybody’s motivations are different and the very best you can do for you and your career is to discover what gets you out of bed in the morning with a smile.

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Lena Frerking

Lena Frerking

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Hamburg, Germany • Occupation Research Scientist in Medical Imaging

The decision of what to study was not clear to me for a long time. I always liked math, but I could not really imagine what a job as a mathematician could look like. Only after discussing with family and friends at the end of my high school time, but especially with my godfather who very convincingly told of his positive experiences of working with mathematicians and of the usefulness of their skills, I discovered the diversity of applications.  Being a person who had always been struggling a bit with making decisions, I immediately liked the idea of not limiting my future job perspectives in industry by the choice of the subject. I probably made my final decision during one of the annual university events where high school students can attend different university lectures for one day. Since I was quite undecided, I prepared a schedule and planned to attend lectures in different departments, amongst others in the medical and pharmaceutical department. I had seen some math lectures before and I liked them a lot, so I wanted to explore other options and focus on subjects other than mathematics to try and see if I would like those even more. So, I decided to attend a pharmaceutical lecture, but I knew immediately that this was not going to be my profession. I left 10 minutes after the lecture started and just went over to the math department again to yet attend another lecture. As soon as it started, I realized that the only reason I went there was to treat myself at the end of the day, because I knew I would enjoy it. That insight finally led me to the conclusion that I did not need to continue searching for anything else. I had already fallen in love with mathematics, especially the logic and the fact that everything makes sense if one just follows every single step in calculations or proofs accurately.

In the end, it did [work out], and I am more than happy that I took the risk to fail.

In the beginning of my math studies, I was surprised about the speed of the actual lectures and how different they were from the classes taught in school. I never regretted my decision, but the first two or three semesters were not easy for me to master. However, things became easier once I was able to specialize further in my studies. Even though I always thought I wanted to stay away from numerical mathematics, I eventually ended up putting the entire focus on applied mathematics and I also specialized in this field during my Master’s. Despite my previous hesitation, I quickly realized how much I liked the lectures and that they suited me more than the purely theoretical ones. The question about whether to do a PhD or not was a tough one again. I was doubting myself, but I already knew deep down that I had to give it a try. Otherwise, I would have always regretted not trying and wondered whether it would have worked out. In the end, it did, and I am more than happy that I took the risk to fail.

(…) I am happy that I still need many of the concepts and techniques that I learned at university.

After finishing my PhD, I left academia and I am now working in industry. I feel lucky that I still work in the same field I researched when I was at the university with similar applications in medicine. Therefore, the transition from academia to industry was quite smooth. Even though mathematicians are often in high demand on the job market for their way of thinking, but not necessarily for the direct knowledge obtained in math lectures, I am happy that I still need many of the concepts and techniques that I learned at university. I work in medical image computing and contribute to different aspects of enhancing CT and MRI acquisitions. Hence, I still apply some learned algorithms and I can also still be creative in the way of optimizing and adapting them to be suitable for specific applications.

Posted by HMS in Stories