Mentors

Angela Tabiri

Angela Tabiri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link:
Femafricmaths – Female African Mathematicians

Posted by HMS in Stories
Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Sofía López Ordóñez

Sofía López Ordóñez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories
Tamara Grossmann

Tamara Grossmann

Born in Germany • Studied in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree M.Sc. • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation PhD Student

To be honest, I don’t really know where my fascination with maths has come from. None of my family members are doing anything related. But I remember an instance in first grade where we had a small test on multiplication tables and I got quite competitive to be the first one to finish. I think at that point I decided that I wanted to be good at maths. This didn’t really carry through all my school years, but maths kept being a subject I enjoyed. I became more interested again in secondary school when one of my teachers involved me in a maths club. Another student and I started working on a small project together which we presented at a youth research competition. This was probably the first time I really sat down and used the maths I’d learned so far to solve a specific problem. We ended up winning the local round. Ultimately, I think the support and affirmation from my teachers during my school years gave me the confidence to believe I was good enough to go on and study maths.

It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

After high school I went off to university excited and full of energy, just to realise in the first two semesters that studying maths was a lot harder than I anticipated. I barely passed my exams even though I had studied a lot. It was a big adjustment to the different way of thinking, and I needed to figure out what to focus on in order to pass my classes. However, in my mind there was no option to quit. I guess my competitive side from first grade came out and I saw it as a challenge to finish my Bachelor’s. Things got better eventually, especially when we started electing more specialised courses. Throughout, there were always little things that got me excited again about doing maths. Our department organised events every semester where alumni came to present the work they do now and the companies they work for. I remember someone talking about his work in imaging and the connection of mathematics and image processing. It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

“Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.”

During my Master’s, it became less about just getting through the degree and more about finding interesting courses and projects. The classes were smaller, and we had more contact to the lecturers. After one of my oral exams, I was asked about my plans and what I wanted to do next. I was startled, because I didn’t quite understand why a lecturer would be interested in this. I told him that I wanted to do an internship somewhere in industry before finishing my degree. I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after my studies, so this seemed like a good start. He offered his support in finding an internship position. Half a year later I summoned up all my courage to chase him up on his offer and asked if he’d know a company that would take interns to work in medical imaging. I think this got the ball rolling to get to where I am now. Through his and another professor’s support I started an internship at the university and with the supervisor I am doing my PhD with now. It is still astonishing to me that it took so little as a question, to start figuring out where I wanted to go next. The research group I did my internship at was very welcoming and many shared their stories and decision-making processes with me. This probably influenced me the most. From the outside you often just see these really smart people producing amazing work. But for me it was more encouraging to see their struggles and understand that in order to do a PhD you weren’t expected to know everything already or to be a genius. I think this would also be something I’d tell my 19-year-old self before going to uni. “Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.” I guess it’s something I’m still learning to this day. But I have found a group of amazing women that remind me we’re all doing the best we can, and a great research cohort that is encouraging with all the small achievements.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Joana Sarah Grah

Joana Sarah Grah

Born in Germany • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Düsseldorf, Germany • Occupation Scientific Associate

My decision to study mathematics was anything but straightforward. I always enjoyed maths classes throughout my primary and secondary school years. I also have to add that I personally believe this experience was significantly influenced by the fact that I had great maths teachers. Luckily, against a sadly very common (mis)perception of society I never felt that maths was not for girls. Maybe this was unconsciously strengthened by the female maths teachers I had in early school years. Shortly before my last two years of secondary school began, I decided against choosing mathematics as a major (which always seemed to be clear beforehand) because I did not enjoy the maths classes I attended in the preceding year. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the following two years of maths classes, which is among other things certainly due to the amazing teacher (and possibly first maths mentor) I had. From the beginning, he made quite clear that he did not really understand why I only chose maths as a minor, but he would motivate, encourage and challenge me even more throughout the two years. He also was one of the few persons I could consult when I was thinking about applying to study maths at university.

In the end, (…) I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked.

I was the first family member to attend university, let alone having received a university-entrance diploma, and so my family could not really provide me with a lot of advice or experience in this regard. However, they were incredibly supportive in multiple other ways throughout my studies and without their support I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.
In the end, after considering other options such as linguistics and language studies, I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked. At first, I thought it was sufficient to attend the lectures (like the classes in school) and go home after. This also fit snugly with the hours I had to work in my side-job. The ‘homework’ was surely very similar to the one at school and I would just solve the mathematical problems we were given by myself like I did in school. Preparing for the exams would certainly be similar to schooldays and I would not have to study too hard. It did not take too long until I realised that I was completely wrong. The first unsuccessful exams hit me quite hard and ultimately, I found myself in a situation that I had not known up to this point in my life. It was already pretty late to turn things around completely and after many thoughts and conversations, I decided to start all over again one year later.

It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life.

The further I got and also the more I was able to specialise in my studies, the more I enjoyed student life. I was lucky enough to have a strong and supportive network of fellow students and friends. What is more, especially in the final year of my Bachelor’s, I had two extremely dedicated, passionate and encouraging advisers, one of which was going to become one of my main mentors throughout my academic career. And this is the main message I would like to convey here. It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life. In addition to my Bachelor’s and Master’s supervisor, I had two incredibly supportive, heartening and inspiring women as a PhD supervisor and co-supervisor. I believe that my passion for women encouragement was significantly influenced by my main PhD supervisor who herself has given numerous talks on her own experiences as a woman in maths, her career path and her very personal journey to become an excelling mathematician and leader.

We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Already during my Master’s, I participated in a mentoring programme that was coined by a very committed (male!) diversity officer at our maths department. We had regular meetings in small groups of three mentees and one mentor who was a female PhD student. We were able to informally chat about positive and negative experiences, the decision whether to continue as a PhD student or search for a job in industry and how being a woman in a still male-dominated field poses some challenges. We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Without all of this amazing support and encouragement I am 100% sure that I would not have continued doing a Master’s respectively PhD respectively post-doc, as I have fairly often thought about quitting at various points in my career. In the end, persevering, listening to my mentors and believing in myself was worthwhile. Nowadays, I try to identify situations in which I observe sexism, female students and colleagues struggling with imposter syndrome, or simply the exhausting and competitive environment that academia sometimes is. Then I try to speak out or even manage to become a mentor myself.

My PhD research was in applied mathematics. More specifically, in one of my main projects I developed mathematical image analysis tools for an application in cancer research. In an interdisciplinary collaboration I worked with biologists that studied the efficacy of anti-mitotic drugs trying to slow down or prevent mitosis, the process of cell division, in cancer cells. I developed a graphical user interface that facilitated the automatic analysis of sequences of microscopy images showing the treated cells over time.

I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. 

I always liked collaborations in my academic career and I believe that against all stereotypes, at least applied maths is a very team-oriented discipline and it is essential to discuss lectures, papers and ideas with fellow students and colleagues. I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. Recently, I even quit research and started working as a scientific associate at university focusing on science communication as well as education.

Posted by HMS in Stories