Industry

Marianne Freiberger

Marianne Freiberger

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1972 • Studied Pure Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from Queen Mary, University of London • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

I first became interested in maths when I learnt about the epsilon/delta definition of a limit at school. The fact that something as intuitive as a limit could be expressed so precisely in symbols blew my mind. Despite that interest, I didn’t really plan on studying maths at university. The reason I did was that I had moved to the UK from Germany after school and, when I finally decided to do a degree, thought my English wasn’t up to studying a more wordy subject (which is ironic given that I am now a writer).

I enjoyed my BSc, but by the end of it still didn’t think that maths would be part of my future. I spent a year working in all sorts of jobs and travelling, until a book by Ian Stewart re-ignited my passion. I applied for a PhD place with Shaun Bullett at Queen Mary, University of London, where I spent the next few years studying and researching holomorphic dynamics (which involves things like Julia sets and the Mandelbrot set). Shaun was a great supervisor who safely got me through my PhD (can’t have been easy!) and enabled me to stay on for another three years as a postdoc.

Because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine

Finding the next postdoc proved tricky and my heart wasn’t really in it. I didn’t want my life to revolve around my job, which as a postdoc is something you usually have to accept, and wasn’t sure I was a good enough mathematician. (Whether the latter was true or just down to lacking confidence — a notoriously female affliction— I still don’t know.) But it all turned out for the best: because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine. That was in 2005 and I am still at Plus now, co-editing along with my good friend and colleague Rachel Thomas.

Plus is a free online magazine about all aspects of maths, aimed at a general audience. It’s part of the Millennium Mathematics Project based at the University of Cambridge. My job there involves writing articles, producing podcasts and videos, and editing other people’s submissions. We cover anything from abstract algebra to astronomy, and theoretical physics to the science of sport. 

(…) Once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others

Starting at Plus was quite a gear change initially. My command of English no longer felt like such an obstacle, but I had no journalistic or writing training. I did a couple of writing courses offered by Cambridge University, but all the really important stuff I learnt on the job from the two brilliant writers and editors then working on Plus, Rachel Thomas and Helen Joyce, and by example from my boss, the amazing John D. Barrow (who sadly died last year).

Ironically, my ignorance also helped me with my writing, I think. I knew almost nothing about most areas of maths, let alone other sciences. This meant doing lots of reading and then explaining things back to myself in baby language — and once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others.

As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool

While writing gave me lots of joy, other things were harder to learn. When I started at Plus, I think many mathematicians weren’t as familiar and comfortable with public engagement as they are now. I struggled sometimes to be taken seriously. As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool. It took me a while to work that out and learn the courage to ask.

Today things are a lot easier in that respect (though I still sometimes spend ages trying to figure something out when I could just go and ask someone). The reason it’s easier is probably that attitudes towards science and maths communication have changed, and that I am older, a tiny bit wiser, and a little more confident.

At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience

I love my job because it allows me to do what research didn’t: to learn a lot about all sorts of topics but without having to dig too deeply into the technical details. I get to meet amazing people and there are lots of opportunities to branch out and learn more. Rachel and I recently worked as science editors on a Discovery Channel series about the work of Stephen Hawking and privately co-wrote three popular maths books. At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience. I feel very fortunate to have been given these opportunities.

To someone who’d like to go into science communication as a career, I’d say to get a good grounding in maths before (or while) you’re getting training in writing and communicating. Maths is everywhere in science, and if you can vaguely understand the maths in a piece of science, then you’re already a good way to understanding the rest. 

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Carolin Trouet

Carolin Trouet

Born in Trier, the oldest city of Germany Birth year 1966 Studied Business Mathematics at the University of Trier Highest degree Diploma in Business Mathematics Lives in Mainz, Germany Leading teams in Software Development and acting as Chief Agility Master in the Airline IT Industry

In primary school, I struggled with math. My mother put a lot of effort into making me understand the difference between “plus” and “minus”. We were the first kids in Germany familiarized with set theory, working with books but also with these small boxes with plastic shapes of squares, circles, and triangles in different colors. My fascination for math started with geometry, with divisibility rules that our primary school teacher encouraged us to identify by ourselves and with the first mathematical proofs. When I was at grammar school, our teacher in mathematics told my mother: “She will never study mathematics, she is too lazy.” He was right about the laziness. My nickname is sloth, as I love lying in my hammock reading books. But I was fascinated by the ability of mathematicians to transform one problem into an equivalent one we can (easily) solve. The University in my hometown organized an open day and I attended some lectures. That’s when I decided to study math. It was a lecture about infinity and one on how to describe oscillations. This convinced me finally. When I was at university, our professors told us: “Later in your job most of you will never deal with mathematical problems like at University.”

Contrary to my professors’ prediction, I was one of the rare species among my fellow students who applied what we learnt at University.

My professor in numerical mathematics gave me the opportunity to work in a research project on optimization in robotics. Moreover, I received the opportunity to present the project at the industry exhibition in Hanover. He gave me trust, which created self-confidence I never had before. He changed my life. At this exhibition, I met my later husband. As he was living in the Rhine-Main-Region, I skipped my plan to obtain a PhD at my University. Instead, I searched for a job. This is how I started working in a very fascinating industry, the airline IT, as a software engineer in the area of flight optimization. Dijkstra for many years was and still is the algorithm of choice for solving shortest paths problems. At least it is a good basis. It is no longer sufficient due to many influencing factors such as regulations of air traffic flow. Cost optimality means reduction of fuel consumption, but also of overflight costs that are very hard to model. Contrary to my professors’ prediction, I was one of the rare species among my fellow students who applied what we learnt at University. Of course, not all problems in our industry are of this complex nature. However, developing algorithms and implementing software was complicated enough to keep me enthralled. So finally, both were wrong, my math teacher who said I would never study mathematics and the professors. Or did I want to prove them wrong?

It is a welcome change in a captivating profession of forming high performing teams, of dealing with trust-building and the soft facts of human interaction.

After 7 years, I decided to do something completely different. With my knowledge about software production, I joined a small team, the staff in the strategy department of our company. I gained insight into many different departments, sales, production, evaluation of acquisitions and business plans. Finally, I realized software production fascinates me most. So I returned, working in the role of a project manager for a completely new product development. Growing more and more into the leadership role, I was responsible for forming teams to build and operate many of our software products, applications managing the schedule preparation and operation of our airline customers worldwide. After 20 years, I returned to my roots, flight optimization. Developing algorithms for trajectory optimization is not my occupation any longer. Today, I am acting as a sponsor for our projects with the Zuse Institute in Berlin. It is a welcome change in a captivating profession of forming high performing teams, of dealing with trust-building and the soft facts of human interaction. I feel privileged, working in an international environment with diverse teams. Enhancing my knowledge by newest research in neuroscience and systems thinking is combining my private interest and profession.

The combination of rationality and empathy is not only possible; it is the theme of my story.

My favorite shape is the circle. Or is it more an upward spiral? Trust creates self-confidence. This is what I learnt in the research project at University and from my professor and my husband, who encouraged me very much in my professional development. Feedback and reflection create learning and improvement. The most amazing teams I know learnt from their mistakes and never stopped deriving actions to improve. Fearlessness creates the willingness to take responsibility. This describes very well the environment in which I could and still will grow from one role to the next. I had and still have colleagues and superiors I can talk to very openly, speaking my mind. I am not “punished” but supported in case things go wrong. As a mathematician, I have shown my ability to solve complex problems, as a leader I need to support teams to grow in a changing world. I love the following quote from Virginia Satir very much: “We get together on the basis of our similarities; we grow on the basis of our differences”. The combination of rationality and empathy is not only possible; it is the theme of my story.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Jamie Prezioso

Jamie Prezioso

Born in Warren, Ohio, United State Birth year 1989 Studied Applied Mathematics at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, United States Lives in Washington, D.C. United States currently a Research Scientist

Growing up, I genuinely enjoyed math from an early age. I have fond memories of solving equations and homemade arithmetic flash cards with my grandfather. He consistently and lovingly encouraged me to pursue math. And so, I did.

I had an inclination that studying mathematics would open an array of opportunities, however, I had no tangible examples of this. Nevertheless, I was drawn to pursue math.

I happily studied and excelled in mathematics throughout middle and high school. When choosing a major in college, I did not even consider math. Having never seen or learned about modern-day mathematicians in school or media, I was unaware of this entire profession. Since I was also interested in medicine, I considered studying biology. I knew of clear academic and career paths in the medical field. Ultimately, my first year in college I was undecided. I had an inclination that studying mathematics would open an array of opportunities, however, I had no tangible examples of this. Nevertheless, I was drawn to pursue math. And so, I did.

I began to discover the ways you could use mathematics to solve problems I found interesting and important, like quantifying the effects of climate change or modeling predator-prey dynamics in fragile ecosystems. I graduated from Walsh University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mathematics. When applying for graduate programs, I had every intention of obtaining a Master’s degree in a few years and leaving the program for industry. The thought of being in school for nearly all of my twenties seemed unbearable, if not impossible. I did not want to wait for my professional career, and in some sense my “adult” personal life, to begin. Still, I was excited to pursue math. And so, I did.

Through coursework and research, I found I was truly passionate about math. I developed strong quantitative modeling and coding skills. I even got to study areas of biology and medicine.

In the Fall of 2012, I began graduate school at Case Western Reserve University. I studied applied mathematics, taught Calculus to bright undergraduates and conducted research in mathematics and computational neuroscience. It was in graduate school where I grew both personally and professionally. I had many wonderful experiences with brilliant mathematicians from all over the world, many of whom I am still close with today. Through coursework and research, I found I was truly passionate about math. I developed strong quantitative modeling and coding skills. I even got to study areas of biology and medicine. I gained confidence in myself and a deeper understanding of mathematics. And so, I obtained a PhD in Applied Mathematics.

I use my background in mathematics to research machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) models […]

Now, I am an Applied Mathematician. I am a Research Scientist at a consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area. I use my background in mathematics to research machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) models, focusing on interpretability and explainability. While AI/ML models have proven extremely useful on a variety of tasks, their inherent black-box nature and lack of interpretability limits their use in critical applications, like medicine or autonomous driving. Specifically, I research and develop neural networks, mathematical models which are typically highly over-parameterized but have exhibited superior performance on high dimensional data (e.g. images), trying to better understand how these models make predictions, assess their confidence and incorporate prior expert knowledge.

I feel very fortunate to have a career which aligns with my field of study and allows me to work on problems I am passionate and excited about. I hope that my story, and the stories of the other women here, highlight the vast number of exciting opportunities and careers in mathematics, the careers that I was unaware of for so long.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Dr Beate Ehrhardt

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

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

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

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

Ask for advice but know how to interpret it

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Patricia Egger

Patricia Egger

Born in Zurich, Switzerland • Birth year 1990• Studied Mathematics at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland • Highest degree Master’s in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Lausanne, Switzerland Occupation Information Security Officer

I would love to say that my decision to study math was well thought out, but the truth is it really wasn’t.

At the end of high school, I knew I wanted to study a scientific subject at university and set my sight on chemistry. I think I was attracted to the experiments with cool colors, incredibly fast temperature changes and the idea of learning how to create little explosions. However, about 2 months before the first day of university, I changed my mind and signed up to the math department instead. I’m still not sure I know why I changed my mind; I had done well in high school but had no long-term plan or idea of what kind of math I wanted to do or even what type of job I might be interested in. In any case, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My first year in math was a wake-up call; high school did not prepare me for mathematical reasoning. But I kept studying hard and after the first year and many hours spent in the library, it clicked. I felt like there was no class I couldn’t ace (with enough effort, of course). From there on, it was relatively smooth sailing until I graduated with my Master’s degree a few years later.

I looked for inspiration in the news; who doesn’t want to be working on a topic that gets regular media coverage?

It was at that point that my lack of long-term thinking caught up with me. In fact, as much as I enjoyed studying math, I couldn’t seem to find a math-related job that tickled my fancy. Instead of taking a job that I didn’t want, I decided to look for an entirely different field and career path where my math skills could be used indirectly. I looked for inspiration in the news; who doesn’t want to be working on a topic that gets regular media coverage? Similarly to today, cybersecurity, particularly cyber incidents, came up often. That’s when I remembered a basic cryptography class I had taken in middle school and that I thoroughly enjoyed. Because cryptography is essentially math, it seemed like it would be my opportunity to shift into cybersecurity. So I went back to university for a semester to take all the security-related courses I could. 

Fast forward a few years and I now work as an information security officer. In my current role, my main goal is to manage cybersecurity risks: understand what might go wrong and how, and ensure we are allocating appropriate resources accordingly. As these risks are present throughout any organization, I interact with many different people on a regular basis, be they developers, lawyers or Top Management.

In fact, I have been very fortunate to meet amazing women and men along the way from who I’ve learned a lot, but I most definitely would not be where I am now if I had tried to base my career on theirs.

Although I don’t use much of my math background in my daily work today, it allowed me to get to where I am today and I don’t regret any of it. On the contrary, I believe my studies gave me some great transferable skills and the confidence to navigate all of the changes and decisions I made along the way.

Although many people influenced and supported me throughout this process, I’m glad I never took anyone’s opinion more seriously than I did my own. In fact, I have been very fortunate to meet amazing women and men along the way from whom I’ve learned a lot, but I most definitely would not be where I am now if I had tried to base my career on theirs.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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
Dr Camilla Schelpe

Dr Camilla Schelpe

Born in UK • Studied Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Theoretical Physics  Lives in Cambridge, UK Current Occuptation: Quantitative Researcher at GAM Investments

I think I was very fortunate that as I grew up, what I was interested in and what I was good at aligned, so that even well before applying to university, I knew I wanted to study astrophysics and general relativity. Really, I think the seed was planted when I was about seven years old and my parents got me Patrick Moore’s “The Starry Sky” – an introductory book for budding astronomers. By a stroke of luck, my family moved to South Africa a few years later, and with the beautiful southern skies to gaze up at, my vague interest in astronomy became a cherished hobby. In retrospect, my parents and sister were amazingly supportive, but I took it completely for granted at the time. I remember family observing holidays in the Karoo (a semi-desert outside Cape Town), visiting the SAAO in Sutherland on their public open days, and camping out until 4am to observe Comet Hale-Bopp in ‘95.

I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology.

My early interest in observational astronomy developed into a much stronger theoretical interest as I got older and discovered that I found maths and physics intuitive and easy compared to other subjects at school. I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology. My PhD was focussed on a particular model to explain dark energy within modified theories of gravity, and I spent a happy four years exploring the possible astrophysical signatures that could lead to detection and proof, or disproof, of the model.

However, during my PhD I came to realise the difference between pure academic learning and a career in academic research. I loved learning about cosmology, but when it came to research, I found the techniques for making progress weren’t very field specific – I was chipping away at the corners of the unknown without much day-to-day exposure to the bigger picture. Those techniques could equally well be applied to other applications with just as much satisfaction.

I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

Funding is a constant challenge in the pursuit of any academic career and stability comes late in life, if at all. Shining as an alternative was a career in quantitative finance – either in a bank (to price exotic derivatives quickly and reliably) or in a hedge fund (to find patterns in data and design computer algorithms to predict the markets and manage risk). The advantages: no prior finance knowledge required, plenty of maths to keep you busy, a PhD is valued, and you are surrounded by a team of like-minded colleagues working towards a common goal. In my spare time, I started playing around with quant trading strategies, using Matlab and end of day close data from the stocks trading on the DAX, and really enjoyed the challenge, although in retrospect I look back in horror at how naïve I was and almost certainly overfitted the data. I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard.

I have been extremely lucky to have two amazing, strong role models in my life: my mum and older sister, so if anything, I have a subconscious bias to see women as more successful! They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard. Also, I was home-educated from the age of nine, and so sheltered from much of the peer-pressure and judgement that a lot of teenagers experience. I only really woke-up to the existence of a gender imbalance in the sciences quite late in life. Both as a student and at work, I have (and I realise I may have been lucky in this respect) always felt I was being treated as an individual, and not categorised as a woman, whether for positive or negative discrimination. There is such a diverse range of personalities, both male and female, that seem much more important than any simple gender divide. I hope we can move towards recognising that as a society.

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Kristina Thurmann

Kristina Thurmann

Born in Lippstadt, Germany • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest degree M.Sc. in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Friedrichshafen, Germany • Occupation software developer (automotive sector)

I have always been fascinated by mathematics, to be precise by calculations and computations. My parents first noticed my interest in maths at the age of 5. We often played a game called Kniffel/Yahtzee where at the end all points had to be accumulated and that was my favourite part of the game. I just loved adding up all these numbers.

My interest got even stronger during high school: in the year book one of my descriptions by class mates was „i = √(-1)“. This expression summarised pretty well my time in high school. I adored mathematics and I never had any problems in studying and understanding the subject and its concepts. But then I decided to study mathematics in university and the problems began…

We motivated each other and I slowly started to love mathematics again especially the beauty of mathematical proofs.

In the beginning, I struggled a lot in how to study. I know that sounds weird but in school I never had to study to get good grades. In school we never proved any theorem, we just used all these formulas resulting from them. However, in university I learned why these formulas are correct. In the first years of studying mathematics, I learned the basics of analysis, linear algebra, stochastic, logics and numerical analysis. I failed a lot of these exams and at some point, somewhere around the fourth semester, I even thought about quitting and doing something else. Fortunately, at this point I realised that most maths students struggled with the same or similar problems. This common issue and uniting quest created a strong sense of community among the students and that was one of the best parts of studying mathematics for me. Everybody, even the professors, were very helpful and supportive and I never felt alone. We motivated each other and I slowly started to love mathematics again especially the beauty of mathematical proofs. At the beginning of the master studies, I attended courses in applied mathematics with practical applications in the field of biomedicine, e.g. image processing in MRI, PET and CT; in numerical analysis classes I learned to write code and implement algorithms. That was my first experience in coding but to be honest I was not expecting to be a software developer one day.

I also conducted job interviews and I have learned that it is not important what you did, it is important what you love and where you want to be in the future.

After finishing my master thesis, I did not have any clue about where to go or what to do, it was hard to find job advertisements where mathematicians are mentioned. So, I signed up in several job portals and got job offers as a software developer. First I started in a consulting and engineering company and gained work experiences as a developer and a project manager. I also conducted job interviews and I have learned that it is not important what you did, it is important what you love and where you want to be in the future.

At the moment, I am working for a company which is a worldwide supplier of driveline and chassis technology for cars. Specifically, I am responsible for shifting strategies. That means I am getting a so called “change request”. Within this change request I get a specification about the functional change of the software. For example, the customer (automotive manufacturer) wants the car to behave in a certain way, like shifting to second gear only when engine speed is above a defined threshold. My task then is to understand the request, to change the software/code, to test the new software and to document everything I did. Of course this is an easy example and the reality is much more complex but the complexity and the diversity of my job is what I like.

Looking back, I am so happy that I studied mathematics because it got me where I am right now. If I could tell my 20-year-old self a piece of advice: “Just do it, you will learn so much about yourself, about logical thinking. It is a long way, be patient with yourself, surround yourself with like-minded people, they will help you to stay on track and enjoy your time at university. Do whatever you like and makes you happy.”

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Julia Kroos

Julia Kroos

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1988Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain • Lives in Cologne, Germany • Current Occupation: Applied Mathematician at Bayer

It started all in 4th grade. After being really bad at mental arithmetic, I started to enjoy mathematics for the very first time when concepts became a bit more complex. When I was 9 years old I decided not only to study but also do a PhD in mathematics. So after finishing the A-level, this was exactly what I did. Of course it was hard and different from the maths they teach in high school but I got to appreciate the pure and perfect way of mathematical proofs. However, it was not before the end of my Bachelor that I learned about the diverse applications of mathematics in Biology and Medicine. I never grew very fond of the theoretical part but just saw it as a tool you need to understand and master in order to apply the theory to real world problems. Even though I always had the dream of doing a PhD in mathematics, doubting my skills and abilities made me question this dream. What finally convinced me to continue research and start a PhD in maths was a very honest talk by a female professor at a meeting of women in maths. By coincidence I found the PhD position in Bilbao (Spain) in computational neuroscience and directly knew that this was my topic. 

The most exciting part of research for me was and is solving a problem. It is like a scavenger hunt: you follow traces, read instructions and do trials, which surprisingly involves a lot of creativity.

With the focus on personalised models for a phenomenon related to migraine, I got the opportunity to learn a lot of different strategies from numerical methods to solve differential equations, to curvature approximations and data processing. I worked with neurologists, physicians and medical doctors and learned a lot about interdisciplinary communication. The most exciting part of research for me was and is solving a problem. It is like a scavenger hunt: you follow traces, read instructions and do trials, which surprisingly involves a lot of creativity. Of course it is not all fun, running the simulation for the umpteenth time and writing papers is never going to be my favourite part.

Right when I started to write my PhD thesis, I fell sick and was all of a sudden experiencing personalised medicine from the patient’s point of view. It totally swept me off my feet because I had to pause my PhD for a while and could not stick to the schedule that I had planned. During this time I got a lot of insights in the diversity of medical treatments and was surprised by the differentiated treatment strategies. However, I also saw the potential for data-based fine tuning in the treatment strategies. After this forced break I focused even more than ever on the things that I really wanted: finish the PhD, see the world and find a job in mathematics with an impact.

The first of these points I tackled as quickly as possible. Even though I enjoyed research I could feel a weight lifting from my shoulders when I finally defended my thesis. The second point, traveling for a year after the PhD had always been a fixed idea in my head but talking to friends and family brought up a lot of doubts: would this look bad in my CV? Would this have a negative impact on my career? Would traveling alone be dangerous? However, after very encouraging conversations with professors and friends who had already travelled alone for a longer time, I just took the leap. I bought the plane tickets and went backpacking from Peru to Patagonia in the very south of Chile and through New Zealand by myself. In the beginning before leaving it was scary but in the end it was one of the best decisions in my life, and I learned so much about different cultures, traditions, people and communication that no book or course could have ever taught me.

After hiking the Patagonian highlands, starting as an applied mathematician in a pharmaceutical company is now my next big adventure.

The question if I want to continue research after obtaining my PhD already haunted me during my PhD studies, but when I got back from my big trip I finally knew the answer. I wanted to use my maths skills to help people in the medical sector. Consequently, I solely searched for maths jobs in pharmaceutics where I have just started as an applied mathematician. Changing from the university to a company opens up a totally new universe which I am still exploring but I am very curious and excited to better understand. So after hiking the Patagonian highlands this is now my next big adventure.

During my studies and my big trip I was very lucky to meet encouraging role models, supportive fellow students and inspiring like-minded people that helped me find my way – thank you all.

Posted by HMS in Stories