Netherlands

Thi Mui Pham

Thi Mui Pham

Born in Hanoi, Vietnam • Studied Mathematics at RWTH Aachen in Germany • Highest degree: Master of Science in Mathematics • Lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands • PhD candidate in infectious disease modelling at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in Utrecht (The Netherlands)

I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Germany, lived in the UK for about two years in total, and moved to the Netherlands for my PhD four years ago. Having lived in various countries, I always saw myself as a cultural hybrid – bridging the gap between different cultures and traditions. My PhD topic similarly connects two different but intersecting disciplines:  I develop mathematical models to tackle the spread of infectious diseases.

When you would have asked me what my future job would be when I was 10 years old, my answer would probably have been “a detective”. I loved solving puzzles and finding solutions to a problem. What I particularly enjoyed about maths was its simplicity: In its pure form, you only need your mind and maybe a pen and a paper.

I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world.

After graduating high school, I decided to pursue a Maths degree at university. The reason was simple: I was eager to learn more about how to solve abstract problems through logical reasoning. Despite its reputation, you do not need to study maths as a lone wolf. A lot of my university time included working together with fellow students, discussing various solutions, and looking at a problem from different angles. Studying maths at university level was not always easy for me but I had a lot of fun, and I think that’s what counts in the end. When I was about to finish my degree, I felt a bit lost as I realised that I never really had a particular job or career in mind, and I had no real plan for my life. I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world. However, I had no idea how exactly I could combine these two interests.   

By chance, I came across the 80,000 Hours non-profit organisation that tries to guide graduates towards a career that fits their personality but also “effectively tackles the world’s most pressing problems”. This gave me an impetus to contemplate more thoroughly my career choice and I started to do research on the applications of maths to address real-world problems. I quickly learned about the serious risks that infectious diseases pose to our world and how mathematical modelling can provide valuable insights into the field. Luckily, I was able to find a PhD position in infectious disease epidemiology in Utrecht. In hindsight, accepting this position was one of the best decisions in my life as I can genuinely say that I am very happy with my work, my research group, and in particular with my supervisors. They gave me just the right balance between guidance and freedom, and a positive environment to thrive.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools.

When I started my PhD my main topic was to study the transmission dynamics of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools. It has been a very challenging time as my workload has doubled but at the same time, I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to use my skills to ‘do good’ while truly enjoying my work.

The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems.

Infectious disease modelling is rather versatile: It requires translating biological problems into the language of mathematics, analytically investigating the research question using the developed model, and finally translating the results back to the real world to obtain implications for infection control policy. The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems. Maths used to be underrated and maybe even underappreciated but by showing people how mathematics can be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, I hope we can spread a little bit more love for mathematics.

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Clara Stegehuis

Clara Stegehuis

Born in Amersfoort, The Netherlands • Birth year 1991 • Studied Applied Mathematics at Twente University in Enschede, The Netherlands • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Enschede, The Netherlands • Occupation Assistant Professor

I always liked solving puzzles when I was younger. My dad even made me eat my bread in puzzle-fashion: he cut it into 4×3 squares, and I had to eat them with chess knight’s jumps, and make sure I did not get ‘stuck’ while eating my entire slice of bread. In high school, however, I liked many subjects, so the choice for mathematics was not obvious at all. I thought about studying biology, physics or maybe something more related to medical sciences. But in the end, I chose mathematics, as I thought this would leave my options open later on.

(…) I am now investigating the mathematics behind spreading processes on networks. These have very important applications in the spreading of epidemics, but are also applicable to viral messages on social media.

Even though my choice for mathematics was rather random, it turned out to suit me very well. I really enjoyed solving exercises, and I also appreciated the fact that the same piece of mathematics can often be applied in so many different contexts. For example, I am now investigating the mathematics behind spreading processes on networks. These have very important applications in the spreading of epidemics, but are also applicable to viral messages on social media.

Because I liked my studies so much, I decided to stay at the university. I first did 4 years of PhD research. During my PhD research, I found doing research a bit lonely, which made me doubt whether I would like to continue on this path. So after those four years, I still did not really know whether I would keep on working at a university, or whether I would go and work for a company instead. But when I got offered a job at Twente University as a researcher, I decided to take it, and see whether I would like it. And I am happy to say that now that I do not have to do my own PhD research, I can make my work more collaborative, which I enjoy very much.

I really enjoy sharing my passion for mathematics with others who maybe never got to see mathematics as useful or beautiful

What I like about my job is that it is very versatile. I can do research, which is basically like solving my own puzzles. On other days I teach more, and have interaction with students, which is also very motivating. Besides that, I participate in a lot of outreach activities. That means that I go to high schools and primary schools to talk about mathematics, but also to theaters, science festivals and podcasts. I really enjoy sharing my passion for mathematics with others who maybe never got to see mathematics as useful or beautiful. In high school I never knew that there was so much more to mathematics than quadratic equations, so I like to share that with as many people as possible!

For example, I wrote blogs about how mathematics helps to predict who will win the soccer world championship, but also about using mathematical graph theory to find the most influential musician. I think that depending on your specific interests and hobbies, there is always an application of mathematics that will appeal to you! So in my outreach activities, I always try to think about what the specific audience could find interesting, and then I will show them an application of mathematics that involves this. The great thing about mathematics is that it is so broad that it is always possible to do so. Of course, this involves a lot of work from my side, but I keep on learning from this as well, and it is very rewarding.

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Hanne Kekkonen

Hanne Kekkonen

Born in Helsinki, Finland • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics at University of Helsinki in Finland • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Delft, Netherlands • Occupation Assistant Professor

I was definitely not one of those scientists who showed exceptional talent from a very young age. As a child I was filled with endless curiosity about everything, but sitting still in front of a desk was not one of my strongest skills. In fact, I was rather bad at school, often arriving late because I had found a frog or wandered off after a hedgehog. I did my very best to study for exams but this did not seem to translate to good grades. I kept trying and by the time I started secondary school I finally got the hang of it. I was warned that when you move from secondary school to high school, and later from high school to university, classes become more difficult but I never really experienced this because I had always had to study for the exams. I had also learned that if I couldn’t solve a problem it just meant that I had to try harder, not that the problem was too hard. I only realised later how lucky I was to have learned proper studying techniques already as a kid.

I like knowing that mathematics has many applications but I have always been mostly interested in the theoretical parts and loved the pureness of mathematics.

I never had anything against mathematics (other than mental arithmetic which I’m still very bad at) but I only really got interested in it at high school. At high school maths problems are like puzzles you have to solve using given rules and tricks. In university the emphasis changed and the weight was more on understanding where those rules and tricks come from and why they are true. I like knowing that mathematics has many applications but I have always been mostly interested in the theoretical parts and loved the pureness of mathematics. It is the only field where questions have indisputably correct answers and where the trueness of a statement can properly be proved.

I have to admit that I didn’t really think too much about what I would do after I got my Master’s degree. Throughout my studies I was told that there was a shortage of skilled mathematicians at the job market but there seemed to be a big gap between what I had learned at the university and what was needed in the real world. Thankfully, my Master’s degree advisor suggested that I should apply for one of the open PhD positions in the Inverse Problems group at the University of Helsinki, where I was doing my Master’s degree.

Starting the PhD was the biggest shock in my studies. Even though the exercises at university were much longer and more complicated than the ones at high school, they always had a clear answer, even if I couldn’t find it. But when I started to do research, I had to get used to the idea that no one knew the answers to many problems I encountered or even if they could be solved. Also, instead of following well-structured courses, where I usually had at least some idea on what was going on, I was now attending several seminars about topics I had hardly even heard of. I was feeling really uncertain about my skills and progress. I was told by several more senior members of my research group that they also used to feel like that and it would get better, but this was only somewhat reassuring. I think the key point they forgot to make was that you won’t stop feeling uncertain because one day you learn to understand all those talks, but because you just get used to the idea that there are so many research topics that you can’t possibly understand them all. 

I really like showing people how mathematics is so much more than just the arithmetic they learned to hate at school.

During my PhD I was part of a great research group with supporting advisors and I really enjoyed working at the university. I decided quite early on that I wanted to stay in academia and so after I finished my PhD I moved to the UK for a postdoc position, first in Warwick and then in Cambridge. As a postdoc I had to learn to work even more independently than as a PhD student and how to combat the ever-present imposter syndrome. I also started to do some outreach, giving talks to the general public and school students. I really like showing people how mathematics is so much more than just the arithmetic they learned to hate at school. Nowadays I work as an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology. My current job is a nice blend of research and teaching, and it also offers me possibilities to do outreach. I’m happy if seeing a woman mathematician, who is excited about the subject, makes some little girl consider a science career as a real possibility.

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