Perseverance

Jenna Race

Jenna Race

Born in Würzburg, Germany • Birth year 1986 Studied Mathematics at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Highest Degree Associates of Science in Business Administration • Lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Occupation Associate Communications Specialist at Metro Transit

From an early age I easily understood patterns that baffled my peers. Because of this I gravitated toward Math. In my early years in school, I was a great student with top marks in all my classes. Things changed in tenth grade when I developed bipolar symptoms. My GPA (US grading scale in high school) plummeted. I eventually failed nine classes including statistics and pre-calculus. After that, Math did not seem like the field for me anymore. Still, my heart’s desire was to pursue math, and I have never given up on that dream.

This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics.

I started college shortly after high school. My mental health symptoms continued to get in the way and I did not do well. After years of hard work and dialectical behavioral therapy I learned to manage my symptoms and regain control of my life. I decided to resume higher learning with a new-found confidence. I started at Century College in January 2019 as a first-generation, non-traditional student. However, I did not allow those facts to interfere with my progress. Finally, I was the student I always knew I could be. I dove deep into my classes and actually excelled! I decided to study business, having accumulated ten years of corporate work experience in customer service and answering business correspondence. My first two semesters were filled with general classes, but College Algebra came in fall 2019. This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics. I poured my heart and soul into that course and maintained a 99% for most of the semester.

With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t.

I have heard many people say that math is so stressful to them that it makes them cry. In contrast, I have wept with wonder when recounting how the universe makes sense when math proofs are worked out. Math is the only subject I see myself pursuing for the rest of my life. This led me to update my college major to Mathematics. I made this change in April 2020: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In spite of the pandemic, I continued to excel in classes. I eventually earned my first degree in May 2021, an Associates of Science in Business Administration. It was in fall of 2021 when I was done with business that I took the class that I always dreamed of: Calculus I. I was especially excited to take that class with my College Algebra professor. With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t. I studied for hours and devoted myself to class but was not as successful as I hoped. By the end of the term, I earned a grade of 70%. Although I was eligible to take Calculus II the next semester, I took my instructor’s advice and retook the class. I am glad I took his advice because I did much better the second time and was more prepared for Calculus II. I took Calculus II in fall of 2022. With lots of preparation I excelled in the course.

For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win.

Knowing how alone I felt as a female, minority, non-traditional, first-generation college student navigating mathematics during the pandemic, I wanted to give back to other students in similar situations. I was able to do that by becoming an organizer for OURFA2M2, the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement and Alliance of Marginalized Mathematicians. This is one of my proudest achievements since starting my math journey.

I wish that I could say that it was all downhill from there, but it was not. My last 3 semesters have been the most challenging of my math journey. That’s when I took Calculus 3 and Differential Equations. At the same time, I changed jobs and experienced significant changes in my personal life. For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win. After 5 years, I am about to graduate from Century College and continue my mathematical journey at a four-year university. I know I will struggle in the future, but my experience so far has shown that I am tenacious and can tackle any challenges that come my way.


Elements of the first three paragraphs of this text are based on a book chapter by Jenna Race in “Read and Rectify: Advocacy Stories from Students of Color in Mathematics”, edited by Pamela E. Harris, Ph.D., and Aris Winger, Ph.D., whose permission has been obtained before publication.

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Marta Pittavino

Marta Pittavino

Born in Cuneo, Italy • Birth year 1987 Studied Mathematics at the University of Turin, Italy • Highest Degree PhD in Biostatistics from the University of Zurich, Switzerland • Lives in Venice, Italy • Occupation Assistant Professor with Tenure-Track in Statistics at the University Ca’ Foscari Venice

I have always been passionate about exploring the world of numbers and graphs, finding their intricate patterns and relationships fascinating.

Thanks to my scientific high school education at “Liceo Scientifico Giuseppe Peano”, I was exposed to all the historical and classical branches of mathematics, including Algebra, Geometry, Analysis, and more, with a high degree of knowledge and depth. I was taught important methods for solving equations and performed well in these subjects.

Mathematics was like a game to me: MatheMagics, a sort of puzzle where connecting different pieces represented solving equations, revealing the solutions behind them and the underlying functions.

My Master’s thesis involved developing an epidemiological model to represent a disease in goats.

I pursued Mathematics for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. My Master’s thesis involved developing an epidemiological model to represent a disease in goats. It was particularly brilliant, receiving two academic recognitions: the Best Master Thesis in Mathematics of the current Academic Year and the Caligara Prize, awarded to Interdisciplinary Master Works with an applied focus. These two awards gave me the ‘wings’ to fly toward the beginning of my academic path.

Therefore, I moved to Switzerland to pursue a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics at the University of Zurich, focusing on the study of Additive Bayesian Networks (ABN) for System Epidemiology. ABN is an innovative methodology that deals with multivariate data, analysing the interconnected and hidden relationships between variables. This marked my first step in transitioning from applied mathematics to statistics.

Mathematics and Statistics are two sides of the same coin, each indispensable and valuable.

Mathematics and Statistics are two sides of the same coin, each indispensable and valuable. On one side, there is the rigour and elegance of formulas, accompanied by foundational knowledge and methodology. On the other side, there is evolution through the modernity of digitalization and concrete applications. Statistics, particularly when applied, is a subject primarily developed using statistical software for data analysis. Additionally, data visualisation is a crucial initial step in comprehending the context. When conducted directly with a tool, it is the outcome of digitalization.

I have always compared my PhD journey to a hike. The peak of the mountain represents the completion of the thesis, or equivalently, the submission and even better, the publication of a scientific paper. I often had the impression that reaching the highest point of the mountain was not possible. This feeling was often demotivating. Overcoming this required strength, determination, and a bit of ambition to finish the task and not give up on the goal. However, the immense satisfaction of completing the PhD ultimately rewarded all the previous effort.

I continued this journey with a PostDoc in Applied Statistics for Nutritional Epidemiology at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Lyon, France. The project focused on studying the relationship between two types of cancer and B-Vitamins intake, involving the development of a Bayesian hierarchical model that accounts for the complexity of the data, including measurement error, disease models, and their intake distribution.

As I began sharing my knowledge, passion, and experiences with them, the joy and gratitude reached their zenith when I observed the students understanding new topics and expressing profound appreciation.

Postdoctoral positions are particularly delicate as they involve a transitional phase in one’s career. At the conclusion of the contract, there may not be a conferred title or a guaranteed position. Therefore, the qualities of strength, determination, and ambition mentioned earlier become even more critical. These attributes are essential for persisting with the research project and not succumbing to challenges, thereby maintaining the original objectives.

After spending a couple of years in France amidst the challenges of academic life, I returned to Switzerland and took on the role of a Scientific Collaborator. This position swiftly evolved into a Senior Lecturer role. Over the course of 6 years, I was affiliated with the University of Geneva, where I taught various courses in Statistics and Mathematics at both the Bachelor and Master levels, delivering lectures in both English and French. Additionally, I served as the Scientific Coordinator of the Master program in Business Analytics. 

The first time I embarked on teaching, I felt utterly lost during the preparation phase, a mix of thrill, excitement, and emotion engulfing me afterward. The moment before entering the classroom consistently brought a sense of forgetting my own knowledge, a feeling that dissipated upon seeing the students in front of me. As I began sharing my knowledge, passion, and experiences with them, the joy and gratitude reached their zenith when I observed the students understanding new topics and expressing profound appreciation. These moments stand out as the happiest and most rewarding aspects of my day, constituting a meaningful part of my teaching career.

In this current position, my focus has been on investigating statistical techniques and analyses for demographic studies, particularly on the ageing of the European and Italian population.

During the period in Geneva, my research interests transitioned from biostatistics to philanthropy, exploring specific statistical methodologies highly relevant to that discipline. My shift in research interests expanded further during my role as an Assistant Professor at the University of Florence, a position I held for 10 months just before transitioning to my current role as Assistant Professor with Tenure-Track at the University Ca’ Foscari Venice. In this current position, my focus has been on investigating statistical techniques and analyses for demographic studies, particularly on the ageing of the European and Italian population.

From epidemiology to philanthropy and demography, these are just a few examples of the myriad applications of mathematical and statistical methods. As Galileo Galilei once aptly stated, ‘The Book of Nature is written in the language of Mathematics‘. This encapsulates the secret and magic of this wonderful discipline.

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Anastasia Molchanova

Anastasia Molchanova

Born in Siberia, Russia • Birth year 1989 Studied Mathematics at Novosibirsk State University in Novosibirsk, Russia • Highest Degree PhD (Candidate of Science) in Mathematics • Lives in Vienna, Austria • Occupation REWIRE Research Fellow (Postdoc) at the University of Vienna

My path in mathematics was both easy and challenging at the same time. Coming from the distant town of Oljokminsk in Yakutia (it is a north-eastern part of Siberia), with a population of less than 10,000 and no neighboring cities within a 500 km radius, I was fortunate to have a supportive family, teachers, and colleagues who guided me along the way.

(…) An unexpected phone call brought a life-changing invitation — an opportunity to attend a summer school 600 km away from my home (…)

My love story with mathematics began in primary school when a wise teacher recognized my hidden potential and offered me additional classes designed for the brightest students, even though I was not among them. Then, during middle school, my math teacher encouraged me and other talented students to participate in numerous math competitions, where we submitted our solutions by post. Thanks to this, at the age of twelve, an unexpected phone call brought a life-changing invitation — an opportunity to attend a summer school 600 km away from my home in the regional center, Yakutsk. The journey from Oljokminsk to Yakutsk is usually far from being easy. You need a plane ride, a 12-hour ship journey in the summer, or a more than 12-hour car ride during winter (once such a winter trip took me three days due to harsh weather conditions!). Nonetheless, my parents didn’t hesitate for an instant and supported me wholeheartedly.

(…) Mathematics was never a subject that came effortlessly to me; it constantly pushed me beyond my comfort zone

Arriving at the summer school, reality fell short of my grand expectations. I discovered that I was not the top student among my peers, and my vulnerabilities as a teenager made me an easy target for bullies. However, amidst these trials, a remarkable teacher from St. Petersburg entered my life, seeing a glimmer of potential within me. And so, I got invited to join another summer school in St. Petersburg. At that moment, my obsession with mathematics was ignited, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to pursue a math program at the university.

In my research field, Applied Analysis and Modelling, I have been fortunate to collaborate with passionate individuals who foster a culture of friendship and support. And this unwavering support continues to inspire me, though I encountered numerous obstacles throughout my academic journey. Indeed, mathematics was never a subject that came effortlessly to me; it constantly pushed me beyond my comfort zone. While I excelled in my university studies, the research realm presented its own challenges during my PhD and postdoc. Thus, I have to admit that I often made “easy choices” to maintain a straightforward career path, which makes me sometimes wonder if I was truly choosing mathematics or was simply afraid of change.

(…) I believe that with our collective efforts, we can inspire a generation of aspiring mathematicians, cultivating a system that celebrates the brilliance and potential in every individual

Reflecting on my experiences, I have realized that my struggles lay not only within myself but also within the academic system. The unrelenting pressure to prove one’s worth affects your mental well-being. Receiving numerous rejections makes you question your abilities and leaves you feeling inadequate. Moreover, the “bottleneck” effect in academia — a surplus of opportunities for pursuing PhD and postdoc positions but limited permanent positions available — creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability in your life. And my hope here is that we, people in academia, can unite and strive for positive change to cultivate an academic environment that nurtures creativity, inclusivity, and fulfillment.

My journey through mathematics has taught me invaluable lessons in resilience, perseverance, and the power of a strong support network. I can proudly say that each challenge of my path has shaped me into the person and mathematician I am today. I maintain an unwavering optimism about the future of academia. And I believe that with our collective efforts, we can inspire a generation of aspiring mathematicians, cultivating a system that celebrates the brilliance and potential in every individual.

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Qiaoqiao Ding

Qiaoqiao Ding

Born in Linyi, China • Birth year 1989 • Studied Applied Mathematics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China • Highest Degree Doctor in Mathematics • Lives in Shanghai, China • Occupation Assistant Research Scientist

When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what maths studies would be like. But I always took every maths lesson seriously and finished all the maths homework quickly and correctly, which gave me a sense of achievement and satisfaction among peers. I was able to find regular patterns in numbers or common features, which I found very exciting. I was not a very confident girl, but maths gave me strength.

Therefore, I decided to study maths at the University. However, I did not feel like the smartest student and university mathematics was very different from high school. I felt a bit frustrated and didn’t know how to reduce or eliminate the gap. In the second year of university, computational mathematics appeared in my life, which can be regarded as the combination of maths and computer science. Using computer science to solve mathematical problems and translating computer programs into mathematics language are two main aspects. I was attracted by the variety of applications and began to pay more attention to this field in the following semesters. From my Master’s to my doctoral research, my major was always applied mathematics. I did not only choose it because of my interests but also due to the possibility to get into contact with different subjects. Even though I saw more and more women devote themselves to computer science and mathematics, I was still hesitant. Would I do as well as men, as I needed to spend more time with my family? Could I be successful in this field? Could I find my favorite job? I did my best to find the answers to these questions.

If I can solve a problem with mathematics and present the result with a computational method, I will feel very happy.

I encountered many difficulties during my PhD. My advisor is also a woman and she gave me a lot of good advice. She had published many excellent works in optimization and medical imaging and supported my own research immensely. After finishing my PhD, I applied for an academic job in Singapore and worked there for three years. During that time, my husband was working in the US. We had to conquer the difficulty of time and distance. In my opinion, family is a very important part of one’s whole life. Every researcher needs to balance work and life, especially women. In China, women play a more important role in the relationship between husband and wife, the education of children and the connection with friends and relatives. Two years ago, my husband decided to return to China and he found a position in Shanghai. Finding a job in the same city is a big problem for me. I received a lot of help and advice from my collaborators and friends.

Now, maths has become a part of my life. Everyday, I try to solve some problems using mathematics tools and try to deduce some theorem or lemma to interpret the methodology. If I can solve a problem with mathematics and present the result with a computational method, I will feel very happy. My husband works as an assistant professor of mathematics in a university and we can discuss many interesting topics together. I think I can say that maths is my job and my life.

If anyone meets any predicament, I would strongly recommend to struggle. Try it and you will find it worth it.

At this stage of my life, I know what I want, i.e., working on applied mathematics and realizing my ideas. In China, as a woman, I never felt deprived or discriminated against for working in the field of maths or programming at the university. In fact, the contrary is the case and most people I encounter admire that I work in maths and computer science. A common perception in Chinese society is that maths is the most difficult subject and only the smartest people work on the research of it. In China, in order to encourage woman mathematicians to work in academia, many policies about gender quota have been made. In many job applications, women will be preferred over a man applicant if they have the same research abilities.

I am satisfied about the path I took, and very happy I had the courage to choose maths. I used to be afraid that I would not do well. But I know I can do my best, even if I am not the best researcher. Many of the maths students I met went through the same process and most of them did not give up. I think that most of the students that choose maths will persevere in difficult situations. If anyone meets any predicament, I would strongly recommend to struggle. Try it and you will find it worth it.

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Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

From El-Khiam, Lebanon • Birth year 1994 Studied Financial Mathematics at the University of Kent, UK  • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from the University of Reading, UK • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation Scientific Knowledge Exchange Coordinator in the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and part-time as a Study Skills Tutor (STEM) in the University of Cambridge Disability Resource Centre, and Associate Lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, The Open University

As a part of the Newton Gateway to Mathematics team at the Isaac Newton Institute (INI), I get to be involved in many important projects that bridge the gap between the mathematical sciences and the real world. A particularly exciting part of my job is that I get to work with the V-KEMS partners to develop study groups, where industry stakeholders pose problems to a group of mathematicians who then go on to work on these for a few days. The atmosphere at the INI is something really special and unique – it’s a place that brings together people from across the world to solve all kinds of maths problems, be it in person, or virtually. 

My role at the INI isn’t research-based, nor does it have any form of student interaction, but I find this works perfectly well with my part-time commitments supporting students with disabilities and learning difficulties at the same university, and with working as an Associate Lecturer at The Open University. I love the flexibility that working in academia gives you. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD (…) to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research (…).

My maths journey starts in 2010, when I began my A-levels. During GCSE, I struggled to get a B and so it was my family who pushed me to take Maths at A-level to open up opportunities. Surprisingly, I happened to excel in and enjoy it, so I focused most of my energy on Maths and got an A! I decided to continue into university with the subject that I was doing best at and that paid off as some of my favourite memories come from my time at the University of Kent. Studying Financial Mathematics meant that I was exposed not only to Maths, but also Statistics, Actuarial Science and Operations Research, which is something that broadened my knowledge of the potential applications of maths. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD because I studied Financial Maths and that even if I did a Maths Masters, it still wouldn’t be possible, to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research, that I got some certainty in my abilities. In fact, I’m in the process of collating my second paper from my PhD research on optimisation methods for data assimilation. I do know that my challenges are nothing compared to others who have battled through illnesses and losing loved ones, especially so during the pandemic. So, I consider myself amongst luckiest who only had to deal with personal challenges. I have had a lot of support along the way, but I still felt the need to avoid the dreaded ‘how’s the PhD going?’ question for years out of the fear that I will not make it. I think the way that I got through it is by building up confidence in my work and persevering even though I felt that the outcome might not be what I was hoping for and working towards. 

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment.

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment. As a Muslim, I need to pray at certain times during the day, so when I go to conferences, I would arrange my travel in such a way that allows me to do so, and I would take time out during lunch – when everyone else is networking – to pray. I would also need to ensure that my dietary requirements are met. In the UK, it’s been very easy to do so both during my studies and now. I am really grateful that when I mentioned that I needed to start praying in the office because the sunset is sooner, my colleagues offered me their offices! They have been really keen to make sure that I’m completely comfortable, which is something that I greatly appreciate. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I travelled abroad – I even visited a university which had removed their once purpose-built prayer room. But overall, it’s not been too much of a struggle wherever I’ve been. 

I think as a woman in maths, the main thing that I’ve noticed is that there are many more men than women participating in conferences and workshops that I’ve been to. I know that this is something that the INI are actively tackling, which is great to see and be a part of. The advice that I would give to a woman who is looking to pursue a career in mathematics is to persevere. There are going to be points where you’re told, either directly or indirectly, that you’re not good enough and that you don’t belong here, and it may come from people that you don’t expect it to, but if you know that it’s your ultimate goal to stay in academia, or to simply complete a PhD then I’d say just keep going with it and stay strong as only good things come through hard work and perseverance. 

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