PhD

Miren Zubeldia Plazaola

Miren Zubeldia Plazaola

Born in Oñati, Basque Country, Spain • Birth year 1984 • Studied Mathematics at Universidad del Pais Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (UPV/EHU) in the Basque Country, Spain • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics at UPV/EHU • Lives in Oñati, Basque Country • Occupation Math teacher and Yoga teacher

Curiosity and desire to know are words that describe me quite well. I have always asked myself a lot of questions about everything, and this also happened to me in Math classes, specially in high school. I wanted to know more, go deeper, make sense of all the abstract notions that we were learning. I was the annoying student that asked the uncomfortable questions to the teacher. But I never considered to study Math. Actually, my idea was to study Physical Education, since sports have always been an important part of my life and understanding the biomechanics of the human body has always interested me a lot.

It was my school counsellor who encouraged me to study Math. At the beginning I did not see it very clearly. I thought that I did not fit in with the mathematicians’ stereotypes that I had in my mind. I thought that it would be too hard, that I would have to study so much that it would be difficult to combine with my sport life, since I was playing in a handball team and did not want to give it up. But at the same time this idea appealed to me a lot and I decided to give it a try.

I really enjoyed my undergraduate studies at university. I fell in love with Math. I met wonderful people. Although it was not my plan, thanks to an amazing female professor, I decided to embark on the PhD journey. They were beautiful years, with ups and downs, in which I had the opportunity to travel a lot, to live in different places, to meet many people, to expose myself to new experiences, to learn a lot about Math and also about life, to get to know myself better. It was a rich adventure. I am very thankful that I had the privilege to experience this journey.

It was not an easy decision, but after 8 years since I started my Master, I decided to take a break and I quitted my short scientist career.

After my PhD, I went to Helsinki to work as a postdoc. It was there where I discovered Yoga, and I started asking even more questions about everything in general. I spend few years trying to fit in the lifestyle of academia, trying to find a way of being coherent with myself, my will and my feelings, dealing with millions of doubts about how to find the balance between my personal and my professional life. It was not an easy decision, but after 8 years since I started my Master, I decided to take a break and I quitted my short scientist career.

For me, Yoga and Math are very related. Both try to answer the existential questions of life, each discipline from its own point of view.

Since then, I have been very involved with Yoga. It has become in an essential part of my life. I founded a Yoga studio together with one of my friends in my hometown. For me, Yoga and Math are very related. Both try to answer the existential questions of life, each discipline from its own point of view. Both are abstract and awaken your inner imagination. Both disciplines give you very useful tools to manage your everyday life and to deal with everything that happens in life.

Nowadays, in addition to teaching yoga, I also teach Math at the university. This combination is a good balance for me. I do not know exactly what my future career path will be, but it is clear to me that in one way or another mathematics will be there. If you have a call to study Math, I would like to encourage you from the bottom of my heart. It will be enriching in all aspects of your life.

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María Eugenia Cejas

María Eugenia Cejas

Born in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina • Birth year 1988 • Studied Mathematics at Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in La Plata, Argentina • Occupation Professor of Mathematics at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and image consultant

About the end of high school time I noticed that I wanted to study something that was not common. I started to read some books of math (dissemination books, not formal books) and I discovered that I enjoyed very much how math could be applied to solve different problems. Consequently, I decided to study math at university.

During my university degree I did not encounter any big problems, I just realized that math is really different from what one expects after high school, it can be extremely abstract. The only thing I did during my university time was study to get the degree in time. I was very focused and dedicated to this subject. After graduation I started my PhD, I felt that I wanted to do that, but I also missed having the time to think about and explore other options. I let myself get carried away because it seemed like the next sensible step to take. I chose Harmonic Analysis as my field of research which is an area of pure math and even after studying this subject for more than 8 years, I cannot give you a direct application of it in real life.

I started to feel in crisis with my career, so I decided to study to be an image consultant and fashion producer. Now I am working in the fashion industry while at the same time I do research and teaching.

Two years after finishing my PhD the lack of applications started to bother me, I did not find that my work was helping anybody. It is like you are 10 years of your life studying a lot, following the crowd and you do not stop to think if this is what you want for your entire life. I started to feel in crisis with my career, so I decided to study to be an image consultant and fashion producer. Now I am working in the fashion industry while at the same time I do research and teaching. I am trying to reconcile myself with the mathematical part of my life, right now teaching and research have become my routine, a way to pay my bills, while fashion is my passion. I am leading a double life: I am a professor in mathematics during the day and an image consultant during the weekend and after 7pm during the week. Currently, I prefer to work as an image consultant because it gives me well-being, gratitude and satisfaction, and the opportunity to help others to feel better and more self-confident. In fashion I find usefulness that I do not find in my research field but as of now this is limited to my free time.

During my academic career I encountered some problems: I remember when I started to attend conferences, mainly in Europe, I felt that some “important men” in my area of research were looking down on me. I do not know if it was because I am a woman or because I am from a developing country. Looking back I remember giving presentations in many conferences and these colleagues did not pay any attention while I was lecturing. This type of situations made me feel excluded from the system. Mathematics is a field where there is a lot of competition but I believe that nowadays women are having prominence. Luckily, now there are gender commissions that discuss the problems women face in science and how these can be solved.

If I would have to give an advice I would suggest taking some time to think before making any big decision for the future. Stop to think if this is what you want, if this is your passion.

Summarizing my experience as a researcher I can say that on the one hand, this career gave me a lot of professional growth, made me feel sometimes empowered (mainly when I could prove that theorem that I conjectured), and actually is a crucial part of the woman I am. On the other hand, the job market in my country is frustrating, even before COVID-19 there was already a big financial crisis and there are not a lot of positions for researchers, especially for mathematicians.  Thus, pursuing a career in academia means to wait until you are 40 years old before finally getting a permanent position and a steady life. If I would have to give an advice I would suggest taking some time to think before making any big decision for the future. Stop to think if this is what you want, if this is your passion. Obstacles don’t matter, keep your chin up and go for it!  Maybe my story is not the ideal one, where everything is perfect and linear, but that’s life!

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Paola Console

Paola Console

Born in Taranto, Italy • Birth year 1983 • Studied Mathematics at Università del Salento in Lecce, Italy – PhD at Université de Genève • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Rome, Italy • Occupation Data Scientist at Enel

I was never good at math until high school. When I was a child, I loved spending my time reading and writing rhyming poems, so everyone in my family was sure my path would have had something to do with liberal arts. For this reason, they were really surprised (and probably worried) to hear I decided to start scientific studies in high school: for me it was a challenge, but I thought that by doing this I would have had a more complete education. There, I met a teacher who changed my life by starting to show math to me as a sequence of logical steps. I began finding it funny, logical, and telling everybody that to me, doing math exercises was comparable to playing crosswords.

After high school, it was logical for me to then start my studies in math in academia, with the idea to become a teacher. But in the end, I decided to complete my studies with a PhD in numerical analysis in Geneva, where I could also study different languages and meet people with different stories and backgrounds.

I really missed my country, my habits, my family, my friends, and therefore coming back home was a fundamental step to being happy in my life.

All the experiences I had while pursuing my PhD made me realize that I loved studying math, but that I prefer to apply it rather than develop new methods and proofs and, furthermore, that living in Italy was fundamental to me: I really missed my country, my habits, my family, my friends, and therefore coming back home was a fundamental step to being happy in life. I then decided to accept a postdoc position in neuroscience in Rome. I loved this job, but it was always meant to be a smooth transition towards the corporate world, where I would start to apply what I love to something more concrete by learning about machine learning and data science.

This experience helped me greatly in landing my current job, about six months after the end of my postdoc. I now work as a data scientist at Enel, one of the biggest private renewable energy companies in the world, in a huge group of data scientists that supports all the businesses and internal service functions, like procurement, in the company. My first projects consisted in applying machine learning techniques to detect faults in power plants, and I was very happy to finally see a real-world application for all my studies. Then I started to develop algorithms for the procurement field and now my main activity is undertaking a huge initiative to forecast the company’s income statement to support management decisions.

For all these reasons, when I think about my path, I am very happy about it, because it seems like I could, in the end, integrate all the different souls I had in my life (…)

What I really love about my current job is that it is based on applying math to the real world, but it is also really focused on relationships. Besides the modeling activities we carry out, I am also coordinating a small group of colleagues and I am involved in many other activities to spread data culture throughout the company with education and communication projects. One of the projects I am most proud of is the creation and the organization of an upskilling program called “Data School”, in which my team provides courses on topics related to data to colleagues of all areas. I think that engaging with people on topics related to data is a fundamental step to collaborate with them and support the data-driven transformation that is the main mission of my team. 

For all these reasons, when I think about my path, I am very happy about it, because it seems like I could, in the end, integrate all the different souls I had in my life: the little girl writing poems, the student that wanted to be a teacher, and the rigorous mathematician.

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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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Gabriela Capo Rangel

Gabriela Capo Rangel

Born in Pitesti, Romania • Studied Applied Mathematics at Politehnic University of Bucharest • Erasmus MUNDUS fellow in Mathematical Modeling from University of L’Aquila, University of Nice and University of Hamburg • PhD in Applied Mathematics in the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics, Bilbao, Spain • Lives in Okinawa, Japan Works as a Postdoctoral Scholar in Computational Neuroscience at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

My love for math started very early on. Since I was very young, I seemed to always have an analytical mindset and I adored solving puzzles. I was always the geeky kid, that was always curious about everything and I have always been a very solution-oriented person. My parents tell me I was determined to be a researcher from the age of 5, although I am not certain I actually understood what that meant. I used to love all analytical subjects, not only math, but also chemistry and physics. In fact, choosing my career path came extremely close between mathematics and chemistry. Somehow, I always missed chemistry, this is the reason why I went towards neuroscience and every now and then I get the chance to model some biochemistry.

I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys.

Being a woman and choosing to study mathematics, I had to always fight for what I wanted. I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys. Well, my memory has never been very good. I was lucky, because I had an amazing family that supported me in making my own choices and encouraged me to follow my own path.

[My high school professor] was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions.

My first role model was a young professor in high school. He was my math professor only for the first year of high school and he directed me towards mathematics contests and math olympiads. He was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions. In most of the contests that I have been, I was even the only girl or between the very few ones. The same trend continued at the university, where I went on and studied Applied Mathematics in Engineering. I studied in an engineering university, with under 10-20% of the total number of students being women.

After I graduated from university, I got an Erasmus MUNDUS fellowship for a Master of two years in Applied Mathematics, a highly competitive master program between three different countries: Italy, France and Germany. I got to experience the educational systems of the three different places, I had the chance to live in all these different places and learn the languages. Even in this international setting, I was still living in a world of men, having very few female colleagues and absolutely no female math professors in any of the three countries.

After graduating with the Master, I was awarded a Severo Ochoa Fellowship at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics to pursue my PhD in Applied Mathematics in Biosciences. Particularly, I was modeling the interaction between the electrophysiology, the metabolism and the hemodynamics in the human brain. This captivating research gave me the chance to study not only the mechanisms behind the normal functioning of the human brain during resting state or neuronal activation, but also during various pathologies such as brain ischemia and cortical spreading depression. We focused on understanding the strong interconnection between how the electrical signals are transmitted in the brain, the interaction between multiple biochemical species constituting the brain metabolism and the blood flow.

[During my PhD] I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered.

It was then when I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered. She inspired me to gain not only knowledge and passion in my research field, but she inspired me to fight and pursue my dreams, no matter how much work that involves. There are no words to describe the depth of my gratitude, respect and love for her. I can only hope that one day I will inspire somebody, the way she inspired me.

After my PhD, I did a brief postdoc in Bilbao, after which I came to Japan to work as a postdoc at OIST. Here, I belong to the Computational Neuroscience group and my research concerns the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls fine movement. I study the Purkinje neuron dendritic trees and I seek to understand how their morphology affects the spiking properties of these neuronal cells.

I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

The academic path is extremely hard to follow. I always feel like I am lacking stability. So far every few years, I have been changing between jobs, countries, friends and languages. Many times I dream about family life, stability and job security. I wanted to give up academia countless times, but I was lucky and I met people who inspired me to go on. I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

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Evelyn Cueva

Evelyn Cueva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ellese Cotterill

Ellese Cotterill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Dr Beate Ehrhardt

Dr Beate Ehrhardt

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

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

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

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

Ask for advice but know how to interpret it

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

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

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

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

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

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Lena Frerking

Lena Frerking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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