PhD

Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

Zoe Nieraeth (she/her)

Born in Maarssen, The Netherlands • Birth year 1992 • Studied Mathematical Sciences at Utrecht University, The Netherlands • Highest degree PhD from the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands • Lives in Bilbao, Spain • Occupation Postdoctoral Researcher at BCAM

Many of my career choices were made within a context that differs from my cis peers: for one, I entered academia not knowing that I was a woman. Women, or rather those labeled as such, have to seek out their inspiration by themselves, first having to unlearn the twisted traditions of our patriarchy, whereas those labeled as men are told that the sky is the limit. I cannot say that I enjoyed that privilege, though. It only made me deeply ashamed about exploring my identity, wanting to avoid it at all costs.

What I wanted above all else was to feel normal, but having to deal with being a trans woman in math did not feel normal at all.

My first puberty was rough, and I coped with it by indulging this avoidant nature. Doing math kept me in a state of hyperfocus, and so, distracting myself from the bleak outlook the real world had offered me, I took a deep dive into the abstract realm of pure mathematics. I wanted to keep this flow going, and decided to pursue a PhD. However, eventually research took its toll on me. I struggled through my PhD and at a certain point I realized that I was incapable of upholding my facade, forcing me to resurface. What I wanted above all else was to feel normal, but having to deal with being a trans woman in math did not feel normal at all. It did not feel like an environment where people would know how to respect me. Even now as a postdoc I can count my trans contemporaries that are out on one hand.

In recent years, many of the institutes I have worked at have been trying to strive for gender equity. However, to be perfectly blunt, I feel like the way inclusion is handled in academia is laughable. What is claimed to be gender inclusivity has very little to do with being inclusive. While they are patting themselves on the back for having made a breakthrough in the discovery of a gender that is not male, I am weeping for my gender diverse siblings. Their gender inclusivity” is binary and tokenistic. The people in power are middle aged white men who have neither the experience, nor the will, nor the knowledge to deal with the kind of feminism that requires an understanding of intersecting identities. How can you claim to be inclusive if your institute isn’t fully accessible, isn’t accepting of relationship forms other than those fitting within heteronormativity, others neurodivergent people even when they are the ones that propel our field, perpetuates racist stereotypes, upholds a class system that the poor cannot enter, or makes you feel like some women will not even be considered to be women at all?

I have been made to feel that the new possibilities provided for women are not for me. Ironically, there is the fear that hiring a trans woman will not count towards the quota of women.

The discrimination I have faced after coming out in academia has been astounding. I have been made to feel that the new possibilities provided for women are not for me. Ironically, there is the fear that hiring a trans woman will not count towards the quota of women. Transphobia is the norm, after all. To add to this, there are journals, databases, former colleagues, refusing to even acknowledge something as simple as my name, preferring to perpetuate a lie. I have seen my savings and then some dwindle into nothingness as this capitalist nightmare sucks me dry for daring to transition into a life where I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling disdain. Or fearing retribution. Many countries where my job wants to take me are simply not safe for me to exist in. Academia truly offers me the worst of both worlds. 

Despite all of this, I have come to a point where I can proudly announce that I am a woman and a mathematician. The fact that I am a woman is an act of defiance. My existence is political. As we are striving for equity in mathematics, ironically, the work yet again falls on our shoulders. We are the ones who have to labor to be seen. Who have to fight to be heard. Who have to tell our stories. In prose such as this, but even in my mathematical research papers, I strive to write with a lot of character and personal opinion, expressing my authentic self. I feel like showing ourselves like this is what is truly important. No matter how we are treated, the simple fact of the matter remains: our diversity is beautiful. Projects like Her Maths Story allow us to take control back in a setting where we are made to feel like we have very little control, and for that reason I truly commend initiatives like this. While we undoubtedly will continue to face oppression, our resistance will grow stronger. Progress is inevitable.

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Juliana Fernandes da Silva

Juliana Fernandes da Silva

Born in Goiânia, Brazil • Birth year 1986 • Studied Mathematics at Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil • Occupation Assistant Professor at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Through all my school years I have always felt that the more logical reasoning the subject involved, the more attention it would capture from me. I remember being the one helping out my colleagues preparing for math exams and being supported by others with the subjects of social studies. Although as a child I enjoyed very much pretending I was a teacher, assigning the seats to the dolls, I grew up hearing that it was an underappreciated profession in my country, with which people usually feel overworked and underpaid. Even after finishing high school I was very resistant to choose mathematics and teaching as a career, but I finally decided not to walk away from my dream role. The only (probably naive) argument for that was that I have always enjoyed studying mathematics.

While adjusting myself to the new life in a very large city and struggling with the exams, this period was one of the toughest in my academic career but also the first step towards professional maturity in research/academia.

Only when I got to the university for my bachelor in mathematics, I realized that I could perform poorly in a math exam, which was unfamiliar to me. I accepted the challenge and worked hard to finally achieve good results, especially in the more abstract courses. Algebra was particularly demanding, with a very tough and inspiring female professor. She often provided us with a lot of extra reading materials and required us to attend extra lectures, jointly with her graduate students. But since she was always willing to provide us with assistance, I felt very challenged and also wanted to get along with her. That pushed me to put a lot more effort into my studies. As a result, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in a different city, at one of the best universities in the country. While adjusting myself to the new life in a very large city and struggling with the exams, this period was one of the toughest in my academic career but also the first step towards professional maturity in research/academia.

The math-life balance also comes as a challenge, while trying to fulfill the pressure to be productive and achieve personal goals outside work at the same time.

My years of PhD and postdoctoral studies were used as an opportunity to perform my research under different scientific atmospheres, in some different centers in Brazil and abroad. The interaction with different research members and visiting fellows provided me with an enriching scientific experience, giving me the opportunity to engage in collaborations within my field of research. As luck would have it, I ended up having a very kind and talented professor working in nonlinear dynamical systems as my PhD supervisor. That period was, however, one of the hardest and exhausting periods of my academic life. Not only for the strong gender imbalance in mathematics but also for recurrently having no sense of belonging. The hard side of leaving the comfort zone, especially coming from humble backgrounds, is the general feeling that you are not as capable as your peers. At that point, one is also confronted with the fact that besides the technical scientific abilities, it is also necessary to manage other required skills of your career. Critical thinking, presentation and communication abilities, self-discipline, leadership and advising skills, among others, also came in handy. The math-life balance also comes as a challenge, while trying to fulfill the pressure to be productive and achieve personal goals outside work at the same time. All of that requires time, maturity and, more importantly, a great support in order to overcome the challenge.

In this journey, I realized that besides the urgency of creating an equitable world in the near future, where underrepresented groups don’t have to deal with biases in and outside the workplace, it is also crucial to find a stimulating and safe environment to work in. To do so, it is very important to be surrounded by like-minded peers and colleagues you can trust to talk about the work and insecurities inside academia. Taking advantage of all professional and personal opportunities and resources is also essential.

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Fulya Kula

Fulya Kula

Born in Turkey • Studied Mathematics at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, TurkeyHighest degree PhD in Mathematics Didactics • Lives in Enschede, The NetherlandsOccupation Lecturer at the University of Twente

I actually did not really like mathematics in primary school. I found it difficult to memorize all multiplication tables for example, as I did not really understand the concept behind them. However, during high school, I had a great teacher, who could explain really well. She introduced us to theorems and proofs, and I found this challenging and rewarding.

What prior knowledge is necessary to fully understand the concept of the derivative? And what happens when some of that knowledge is missing?

After that, I did my BSc in mathematics, but I was also very intrigued by the way my professors were teaching, maybe because of my experience in primary school. All were very talented mathematicians, but some of them were not explaining very well, while others were. This motivated me to do my undergraduate and PhD level in the didactics of mathematics. In my PhD for example, I focused on the concept of the derivative. What prior knowledge is necessary to fully understand the concept of the derivative? And what happens when some of that knowledge is missing?

I am now still working in the field of mathematics and statistics didactics. I investigate how we can improve the teaching and learning of mathematical and statistical concepts. This combines my pedagogical skills and scholarly knowledge. I try to gain a better understanding into how people learn, and how this knowledge can improve teaching.

I find this project particularly exciting because it can make a real difference in students’ academic lives, as I often see them struggling in the first year during my teaching.

I am currently working to make the transition from high school math to college-level math easier for students. This means that students should have a better understanding of several mathematical concepts and skills when they are at university. To achieve this, I investigate best practices in curriculum development. I will also create videos and practice material on topics that many students are struggling with. I find this project particularly exciting because it can make a real difference in students’ academic lives, as I often see them struggling in the first year during my teaching.

During my research, I focus on how we can teach mathematics in such a way that students can understand it more easily. I had very interesting results on teaching statistical inference for example. In statistics, you often make probabilistic statements about an entire population while you only investigate at a small sample of it. This concept is often very difficult to grasp for students. Usually, during a course students are first told about the sample (for example the sample mean), and are then told what this sample statistic tells about the entire population. My research shows that it is actually better to start discussing the population first, and how you create a sample from this entire population. After that, you can teach what this then tells you about the entire population that we started with.

I would really like to investigate the most common statistics textbooks to compare their way of explaining to my proposed model. Doing so will help me to slowly but surely change the way statistics is taught.

My research endorsed that this second way of teaching makes students grasp statistical inference more easily. I would really like to investigate the most common statistics textbooks to compare their way of explaining to my proposed model. Doing so will help me to slowly but surely change the way statistics is taught.

My goal is to make sure that research in the didactics of mathematics is actually applied in mathematical teaching. Despite the fact that there is plenty of research that could be useful, the connection between research and practical teaching is weak. I would love to create a course on didactics for mathematics teachers at universities as well. I feel that most people at the university really like their teaching, and are also interested in my didactical research, but it is difficult and time-consuming for them to get a good overview of the existing knowledge. In such a course, we could go over this together, and discuss how we can implement it in practice. In this way, mathematics education research can really make an impact on the way mathematics is taught.

I really enjoy teaching and find it very motivating. My favorite moments are when a student has an “A-Ha” moment and gains a better understanding of a concept. This is also very rewarding for myself, as I managed to make an impact on the student by teaching them a topic that they did not fully understand. It also shows you the beauty of mathematics: if a student understands all single, small concepts, they can understand a much bigger problem.

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Christina Schenk

Christina Schenk

Born in Wittlich, Germany • Birth Year 1986Studied (Applied) Mathematics at Trier University, GermanyHighest degree PhD in MathematicsLives in Madrid, SpainOccupation Postdoctoral Research Associate

Honestly, I do not really know when my passion for science, and in particular math first manifested itself. But from my experience, I can definitely say that being surrounded by the right people and mentors plays a big role in continuing in this direction and not steering towards following one of your other passions.

[..] in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along.

My favorite subjects in high school had always been math and languages. It was after high school that I was thinking about combining the two subjects but I did not see myself becoming an elementary, middle, or high school teacher which probably would have been a natural choice. I tried several other options realizing internships and applying for study programs but in the end in all of the career options that I tried, I was missing the logical and structured thinking and the challenges that math brings along. It was after a gap year in Australia that I remembered one of my math middle school teachers telling me that I would be the right person to study math. Despite not agreeing with him at that point in time, in the end, I decided to give it a try. I went from a Bachelor’s to a Master’s to a Ph.D. degree in (applied) mathematics.

[..] I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

On the way, I kept learning languages and following my other interests especially learning more about other cultures and getting to know more of the world. After my Ph.D., I decided to go to the US for a postdoc where I stayed for about two years. Then I moved to Bilbao, Spain for another postdoctoral position. After almost two years there, I decided to stay in Spain and move to Madrid. This is what brought me to my current position. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at IMDEA Materials. Here, I mainly develop models and algorithms for the acceleration of materials discovery for finding materials alternatives that are for example more sustainable. This means for instance that they are more inspired from nature, less toxic and do not deplete important limited resources. Having a background in applied mathematics, over the last 10 years I have had the opportunity to apply my mathematical knowledge in many areas reaching from cardiovascular stent design to optimization of fermentation processes to modeling cell metabolism to control of disease transmission dynamics to materials discovery. Looking back at my career decision, I think I would have been happy with studying computer science or engineering as well but it definitely had to be a science subject and I am very grateful for my choice as it allows me to not just learn more within my discipline but also about many others.

An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile.

There have been tough phases and I definitely cannot say that I have never thought about switching careers. But I think that I have always enjoyed the challenges that my career path has brought along, maybe not always at the moment but overall, I believe that from facing challenges you learn the most. An academic research career can bring along a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and not always supportive environments but enjoying the process of learning from every experience, having the opportunity to make the world a better place, and following your passion make it worthwhile. Mentorship programs can give a lot of support on the way to keep you focused on your path and dealing with many of the given challenges. I am definitely very grateful for those mentors along the way that supported me and encouraged me to follow my passions.

If I had the opportunity to talk to my 20-year-old self, I would have told her: “Never regret anything, be grateful for the good things that every decision brought along, follow your passions, hold on to your core values, do not let your fears rule you and most importantly enjoy the process and live in the moment without holding on to the past or having fears about the future. You do not choose your destiny but you choose your company. You will find your way. Do not get lost in too much work, there are also other important things in life and remember success is one thing but you do not want to die one-day having regrets, such as not having shown enough care for your beloved ones and not having followed your other dreams and passions.”

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Anna Konstorum

Anna Konstorum

Studied Biology/Bioinformatics at McGill University, Canada, and University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and Mathematics at University of California, Irvine, USA • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in United States • Occupation Research Staff Member at Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses

I came to applied mathematics slowly, and circuitously – but sometimes that makes for the best stories. When I was young, I fell in love with the complexity of biological processes, and thus I chose to study biology for my BSc. My grandmother was a math teacher and I have fond memories of us playing all sorts of educational math games growing up, which instilled in me a joyful, non-competitive view of math. But I never saw myself as a mathematician, it was just something I enjoyed ‘on the side’.

I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light.

It was only when doing my Master’s, when I took a course focused on using dynamical systems to study the life sciences, that I came to see that mathematics needed to be more than a hobby for me. I sat there in complete astonishment of the beauty and power of math to describe a world that I had realized I had always wanted to see in a mathematical light. And, I felt then, everything clicked. That my love for math and complex systems such as biology were not separate, but actually completely intertwined. It was this realization that led me to do my PhD in mathematics. I performed research modeling interactions of growing tumors with their microenvironment and took classes in a wide range of mathematical subdisciplines. It was very difficult as I knew I had less experience with mathematics than many of my peers, but I also had complementary skills in working on real-world scientific problems, which gave me a unique vantage point to think about the methods I was studying. When I kept my focus on the subject matter, I knew I was where I needed to be. It was one of the hardest, but most rewarding experiences in my life.

I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms.

Something you come to understand by taking a strong pivot, is that both you and the world have the capacity to honor a new stage in your life and career, especially if you approach the challenge thoughtfully and creatively. I had come to understand that for me, the next stage that I wanted to reach was to expand my applied mathematics capabilities to new domains in addition to the life sciences. And, really, I was ready! Studying the life sciences from a mathematical perspective prepares you to handle a variety of complex data problems. The field is full of extremely noisy data – but data that has, if you chip at it long enough, fascinating patterns and meaning underneath the noise. I now get to do just that as a Research Staff Member at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses (CCS/IDA). I work at the interface of data science and applied mathematics to help address challenging problem sets in national security, and more generally in the computational and data science realms. I’ve used approaches ranging from applied dynamical systems (PDEs and ODEs) to, more recently, unsupervised learning methods employing matrix- and tensor-decomposition frameworks. I also hold an adjunct faculty role in the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida, which allows me to continue to collaborate on projects in mathematical and systems biology.

I wish I had known to take advantage of all [professional societies] have to offer earlier in my career.

What I’ve come to realize is that your unique interests and capabilities, even when they may not fit easily into a clear label, do have a place in this world where they will be valued. My background in mathematical biology has given me a unique perspective on the challenges I face in my current role, both from a mathematical and applied sense. And it makes for some fun intersectional research.

Finally, I’d like to make a quick shout-out to the power of professional societies. I wish I had known to take advantage of all they have to offer earlier in my career. Societies like the American Mathematical Society (AMS), Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and Society for Mathematical Biology (SMB) all provide opportunities to network via conferences and meetings, and to learn more about opportunities in and outside of academia utilizing the skills you learn. You don’t need a minimum degree to join – just an interest to connect with like-minded researchers.

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Sherli Koshy-Chenthittayil (she/her)

Sherli Koshy-Chenthittayil (she/her)

Born in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates • Birth Year 1983Studied Mathematics at Mahatma Gandhi University in IndiaHighest degree PhD in Mathematics from Clemson University, USALives in Nevada, USAOccupation Data Analyst

I am an applied mathematician and educator with interests in mathematical biology and STEM education. I am also invested in increasing diversity in STEM, particularly, with respect to students with disabilities. As a third culture Malayalee Indian who was born and raised in the Middle East and moved to the States for my PhD, I have had the best of three worlds – India, the Middle East, and the States. In addition to my love for all things related to math, I love books (all kinds), movies, Shahrukh Khan (Hindi actor), K-dramas, and BTS (K-pop group).  My mathematics journey started in school, where I fell in love with the logic and grace of the subject. My other passion was teaching the subject I loved most. It came as no surprise to everyone who knew me that I would pursue a mathematics teaching career.

I moved to India for my bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a master’s degree in mathematics, and even a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education. The theme is clear: I love mathematics. During my degrees, the beauty of proofs, and the varied applications of math spoke to me. I then started my own tutoring center in India and as a tutor in both higher education and K-12, I designed group projects as well as mathematics trivia games to increase inquiry and class participation.

Dealing with accessibility and gender representation in my math classes turned me into an advocate for women and people with disabilities in the STEM fields.

I was born with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and transitioned to a wheelchair in 2011. I then decided to move to the States for my PhD in applied mathematics. Dealing with accessibility and gender representation in my math classes turned me into an advocate for women and people with disabilities in the STEM fields. Working with like-minded colleagues has helped me realize the power of math in fighting social issues and in self-advocacy.

Leadership positions helped me navigate academia with confidence.

My journey after my PhD took me to Connecticut where I was a postdoctoral scholar. I used mathematical models to investigate biology and education related questions. I also was the President of the postdoctoral council. Leadership positions helped me navigate academia with confidence. Further nuances of the world of math were revealed to me during my postdoctoral tenure. I realized how mathematical models could be developed with constant input from my wet-lab colleagues.

I am looking forward to the discoveries of the versatility of mathematics.

I currently work as a Data Analyst with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Touro University Nevada. My job responsibilities include advising faculty, student and affiliate investigators on research design and analytical approaches to optimize research study quality and providing descriptive and inferential data analysis for a diversity of biomedical, institutional, and educational projects. I am looking forward to the discoveries of the versatility of mathematics.

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Nicola Richmond

Nicola Richmond

Born in UK • Studied Mathematics and Computer Science in Edinburgh, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Algebra and Algebraic Geometry • Lives in London, UK • Occupation VP of AI

As a child, I enjoyed solving logic puzzles and spent a lot of time teaching myself BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20 that my dad had given to my brother for Christmas – my brother wasn’t remotely interested in the computer – I was obsessed by it!

My love for the problem-solving aspects of mathematics was solidified at school. I was lucky to have amazing mathematics teachers who made my learning journey both interesting and enriching. After regularly getting decent marks in school tests, I realised that I also had an aptitude for the subject and specialised early on by taking double mathematics A’ Levels.

(…) The inherent precision and rigour in mathematics helps keep my wandering mind constrained!

I went on to study mathematics as an undergraduate at Edinburgh. While there, I gravitated to pure mathematics – I love the logical nature of abstract mathematics and how concepts and rules can be linked together to develop new ideas and prove theorems – the inherent precision and rigour in mathematics helps keep my wandering mind constrained! I intended to pursue an academic career in mathematics, but with permanent academic positions in short supply, I settled on IT as a sensible Plan B and stayed on at Edinburgh to take an MSc in computer science. After that, I headed to Leeds to study for a PhD in representation theory of finite-dimensional algebras; and this was the end of my pure mathematics adventure – a career involving computing beckoned!

Looking back, there were several junctions along the road where I could have taken a different direction. The first was leaving my IT consultancy role to join Unilever on a two year contract. This introduced me to the world of chemoinformatics which I could link to mathematics by considering molecules as graphs of atoms connected by bonds. When my contract at Unilever came to an end, and with no sign of the recruitment freeze lifting, I decided to go to Sheffield as a post-doctoral researcher to work on developing a (commercialised) approach to facilitate computer-aided drug design.

Just over a decade was in the computational chemistry department, developing methods to find small molecules with medicinal properties.

Following the post-doc, I spent 18 years at GSK. Just over a decade was in the computational chemistry department, developing methods to find small molecules with medicinal properties. I then made an internal move to focus on bringing novel data analytics methods into GSK. This GSK chapter exposed me initially to the world of deep learning and its application to computer vision, and then later to new drug modalities, like antibodies, when I was responsible for a portfolio of digital, data and analytics projects.

The final four-year leg of my GSK journey I spent in the newly-formed AI/ML organisation. There, I learned the virtues of good engineering best practice and agile development, which was excellent preparation for my current role as VP of AI at BenevolentAI. I was also put in charge of building and leading the GSK.ai Fellowship Programme, which ignited a passion for developing, mentoring and nurturing junior staff members.

While I no longer have the opportunity to indulge in pure mathematics, mathematics is omnipresent in what I do.

Now at BenevolentAI, I focus on the company AI strategy and our centre of functional excellence in AI. While I no longer have the opportunity to indulge in pure mathematics, mathematics is omnipresent in what I do. I spend a lot of time reading the AI literature, which really combines probability theory, statistics, linear algebra, calculus and optimisation, and thinking about how we can leverage AI to accelerate drug discovery.

Young students often struggle to visualise how the study of mathematics may translate into practice. Many believe they’ll end up being a banker, an accountant or a mathematics teacher (which are of course worthwhile professions). I never really planned my career-journey, I did what felt right at the time, and I would never have imagined that I’d end up using my skill-set to find life-changing medicines for patients. So here’s my advice: we’re living in challenging economic times, so be flexible and responsive – seek out and embrace new opportunities that play to your strengths; and most importantly, follow your passion for mathematics – it can take you anywhere!

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Juliet Nakakawa Nsumba

Juliet Nakakawa Nsumba

Born in Kayunga district, Uganda • Birth year 1986 • Studied Mathematics and Physics (B.Sc. with Education) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda • Highest Degree Ph.D. in Mathematics • Lives in Kampala, Uganda • Occupation Lecturer at Makerere University

Currently, I am a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. It is so exciting that today I consider myself one of Uganda’s most successful women in mathematics. At my primary level, I used to struggle with mathematics but was always intrigued by the challenges it would cause me to think about. I finished my primary level with mathematics as my worst subject. My secondary education was a turnaround. I would struggle with math until one time we had a change of teacher and he gave the first test. I got a 20%, and in the second test a 40% and after that my performance drastically improved and my passion for the subject grew so that it became my best subject. My math teacher encouraged me a lot. I had to redefine my friends to have those with similar interests. I would discuss this with my peers irrespective of gender. The reading of mathematics became easier.

Regarding the negative image that mathematics was for men: I guess I refused to believe that. I saw it as a challenge that had to be solved.

After my O’ level, resources were scarce in that my parents couldn’t afford my education at the kind of schools with equipped laboratories to enable me to continue pursuing my math/science career. But they were so determined to see me excel. My mom would always encourage me not to lose hope. At that time, I belonged to a supported program of Compassion International. That is where my help came from at the moment. God used Compassion to fully provide my sponsorship throughout A’ level. Of my A ‘level subjects, mathematics still seemed easy and would still be my best. Of course, I had support from my teachers who always encouraged me. Regarding the negative image that mathematics was for men: I guess I refused to believe that. I saw it as a challenge that had to be solved. I spent most of my time with the boys. Thank God they were quite helpful. When they noted I wasn’t going away, they knew we had to work together. When I completed my Uganda advanced certificate, I was given a Bachelor of Science degree with education (mathematics, physics). To be honest, I had never dreamt of being a teacher. I wanted to do Telcom engineering. My grades couldn’t push me there. Today I am grateful that my passion and desire for mathematics never came to an end. I decided to do my best to get good grades during my Bachelor’s degree. This opened more doors for me.

(…) I decided on mathematical epidemiology. I have seen so much of its application with endemic diseases and the consistent outbreaks of new viral diseases, especially in my country.

Later I joined the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which provided a platform for me to see how I could use mathematics. I have always loved the application of mathematics. It is not surprising that when I decided to choose the direction for my career, I decided on mathematical epidemiology. I have seen so much of its application with endemic diseases and the consistent outbreaks of new viral diseases, especially in my country. After my Ph.D. which I completed in my home country, I felt equipped to be part of the solution to our health sector. Yes, I am still growing in my career and every day I notice my effort in changing the lives of my people and Africa as a whole.

The limited resources never stopped me from pursuing my dream – instead, I would utilize whatever opportunity I could get to excel.

Being a mathematician has changed my status; by this, I cannot consider myself poor or financially disadvantaged, I have gained respect even among my peers just because I chose mathematics up to the highest academic qualification. As a mentor on several forums, I have got a number of young people who look up to me as their role model, something I lacked as I pursued the mathematics journey. I have inspired many to pursue the subject and STEM fields. I am an advocate for girls in STEM, and sharing my story with those young people struggling and almost giving up on mathematics is my passion. Once in a while, I do outreach programmes where I get to visit schools so that I can encourage young people that they can achieve much more as others before them have achieved. The mathematics journey is always interesting, but only those who choose not to give up can succeed. The limited resources never stopped me from pursuing my dream – instead, I would utilize whatever opportunity I could get to excel. The change of attitude and not dwelling on negativity from those around me enabled me to excel.

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Sophie Huiberts

Sophie Huiberts

Born in The Netherlands • Studied Mathematics at the University of Utrecht • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in the USA • Occupation Postdoctoral Researcher

I definitely did not always want to be a mathematician when I was young. I had a great mathematics teacher in high school, who was very enthusiastic about it. Still, I thought that mathematics was a bit boring, as it did not touch upon any of the subjects that interested me as a teenager. However, I did like programming at that time, which I did as a hobby. At some point I found out that the algorithms I programmed also had inventors. For me, that was a real revelation, and being an ‘inventor of algorithms’ seemed like the best job in the world to me! These people were described as mathematicians and computer scientists, so this made it easy for me to choose my majors at university after high school: mathematics and computer science as a double bachelor program in Utrecht.

At some point I found out that the algorithms I programmed also had inventors. For me, that was a real revelation, and being an ‘inventor of algorithms’ seemed like the best job in the world to me!

In my master program I already chose for mathematics over computer science. I found the theoretical aspects of algorithms more interesting than implementing them in practice, on which the computer science degree put a heavy focus. I really liked my master graduation project, so when my thesis supervisor posted a vacancy for his first PhD student, I applied for this position, and that is how I got into research professionally.

These types of algorithms solve optimization problems that can for example create train schedules, allocate personnel to different tasks or design large sports competitions.

Funnily enough, my research now is still about algorithms, so that interest stuck with me. I now focus on a very particular type of algorithms: the ones used in linear programming and integer linear programming. These types of algorithms solve optimization problems that can for example create train schedules, allocate personnel to different tasks or design large sports competitions. In theory, these algorithms can take a very long time to run. Nevertheless, in practice these algorithms are extremely fast. I  investigate how this difference between theory and practice arises, and try to come up with theoretical models that better explain why these algorithms work so well in practice.

I am most proud of my recently published results on the so-called `diameter of random polytopes’. This was an open problem in my area for quite some time, and I solved it as part of a research team. But I am most proud of the fact that this was the first project where I was really in the lead as a scientist. During the beginning of your PhD, you usually rely on your supervisor for guidance, and they often give you problems to work on, broken up into manageable chunks. This was the first time that I really took the lead in a project, and I ended up being the one to give specific tasks to my coauthors to complete. This experience gave me a lot of confidence and made me certain that I would like to remain in academia.

Most postdocs I knew were often stressed by their uncertain and temporary positions. This was not something I wanted for myself.

Even after this positive experience, I was a bit doubtful about the postdoc phase. Most postdocs I knew were often stressed by their uncertain and temporary positions. This was not something I wanted for myself. I therefore decided to only apply to two positions that seemed great to me. If they both would not work out, I would leave academia. One of the positions was here as a Simons fellow at the University of Columbia. Someone I knew asked if they could nominate me for it, and of course I said yes. In the end, I even got offered both positions I applied for, so that made me more certain that I am welcome in the research environment. As a fellow, I have a three year position with a grant and not many obligations. This makes the postdoc experience much more pleasant.

To me, the best part about being a researcher in mathematics is the fact that I am sometimes the first person who finds the solution to a particular problem, the first person ever to know a particular fact. This is a very special experience, and I can be happy about it for weeks. I also really like the fact that I can sit in my office, and just think about a problem for a while without time pressure.

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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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Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Born in India • Studied Applied Mathematics at New Jersey Institute of Technology in New Jersey, USA • Highest Degree PhD in Applied Mathematics • Lives in Chicago, USA • Occupation Science communicator and Digital marketer

Growing up in India in the 90s and early 2000s, becoming a software engineer was a rage! The country’s obsession with software engineering was second only to a lucrative career in medicine. Although I went through a similar grind and familial expectations, by the time I finished high school, my mind was fraught with a constant debate between pursuing the software engineering versus physical sciences route such as math or physics – two of my favorite subjects in school. However, not being proficient at writing software codes it was easy to narrow down my choice. Experiencing calculus, vectors and 3D geometry in high school had piqued my interest enough to pursue my Bachelor’s in pure mathematics.

While my passion and curiosity for math never waned all through college, I started to wonder about the practical applicability of math in daily life. To this end, I started researching for universities with an applied mathematics graduate program. My foray into research started as a PhD student at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) where scientists applied math models to explore diverse phenomena ranging from detecting underwater submarines to the complex workings of the human body. These studies exposed me to the repertoire of math and also led me to think why I was oblivious to it until then. Perhaps it was the lack of communication, which stifled a wider appreciation.

I learnt how to translate, synthesize and communicate complex math equations in a manner that the biologists could easily relate to.

After completing my PhD, I did a couple of postdoctoral fellowships, during which I had frequent interactions with our biologist collaborators. I learnt how to translate, synthesize and communicate complex math equations in a manner that the biologists could easily relate to. In a way, I felt this was my first taste of “science communication” that left me wanting for more; since it bothered me persistently that I was still communicating science among scientists. 

At this juncture, I got an opportunity to freelance as a science writer for an online English language newspaper based in Germany – ‘The Munich Eye, (TME). I took this up as a challenge to disseminate science to a wider audience. A few years into this experience made me realize that I was happier communicating science than doing the science myself. I decided to switch gears and pursue a career in science communication. To shore up my science communication skill sets, I pursued a Master’s degree in science journalism at Northwestern University. I have never looked back since then and consider it to be one of my best career decisions.

Something that I encountered quite frequently as a science communicator was that scientists often struggled (or perhaps were reluctant) to be good marketers of their own work.

As a science writer, I freelanced for several popular science online and print outlets, communicating in lay a wide gamut of technical topics from climate change to science policy. I found that my technical expertise and research experience always came in handy when sifting through scientific work and translating them into easy-to-digest summaries. Until recently, I worked at a non-profit organization, communicating dementia science to a diverse set of stakeholders including the general public and donors. 

Something that I encountered quite frequently as a science communicator was that scientists often struggled (or perhaps were reluctant) to be good marketers of their own work. Understandably, part of this fear stems from the philosophy of not wanting to brag about one’s own research findings. However, I found this to be an interesting challenge – how do you then make an obscure field such as STEM also appealing to a lay audience? To this end, I recently completed an online certificate course in digital marketing from Northwestern Kellogg School of Management. I now look forward to applying my digital marketing and communications skill sets to promoting better awareness of science and enhancing public engagement between researchers and the general public.

Although you may think as a PhD you are solely trained to specialize in a niche area, doctoral training provides several useful skill sets (…).

Does all of this mean my PhD degree is not being put to any use? Absolutely not! Although you may think as a PhD you are solely trained to specialize in a niche area, doctoral training provides several useful skill sets such as writing, researching, mentoring, managing projects etc. coupled with professional life hacks such as resilience and tenacity, among others. I find myself regularly applying these handy skill sets in any work setting. I believe my academic background has better prepared me to have a fulfilling career in science communication and marketing in several indirect ways, for which I am forever grateful.

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Nancy Reid

Nancy Reid

Born in Niagara Falls, Canada • Birth year 1952 Studied Statistics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada • Highest Degree PhD in Statistics • Lives in Toronto, Canada • Occupation Professor, Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Toronto

As a professor my days are busy with teaching, research, and committee meetings. I enjoy all three, but my research time is special, as that’s when I get to do whatever interests me the most at the time, and there is always more to discover. Currently I’m working on some mathematical problems related to the theory of inference, and a colleague and I have been working with some astronomers to help analyse their data.

The research environment at Stanford was so exciting that I became completely hooked, and have made my entire career in academia.

I majored in mathematics as an undergraduate, but my plan was to specialize in computer science, as that was rumoured to be “the future” (in 1970). I did some programming, and realized I had no talent for that at all, but I really enjoyed the statistics courses. That was my first glimpse of using mathematical and statistical ideas for advances in science, medicine, health, social science, you name it!, and I found that fascinating. I was quite unsure about graduate work, so I went to the University of British Columbia for an MSc degree, and then I thought I would look for a ‘real job’. But that degree required a research thesis, and I got hooked on research. I had great advisors at UBC who steered me to Stanford for graduate work. Without their encouragement I’m sure I would not have had the courage to consider this. The research environment at Stanford was so exciting that I became completely hooked, and have made my entire career in academia.

So even if I was the only woman on seven hiring committees in a row, when I went to an international conference, or a small workshop,  I would go to women’s talks, introduce myself to women in groups, and seek out “my people”.

At many times in my career, I was often the only woman in the room and it was sometimes lonely. I got used to it, because there didn’t seem to be many options, but it’s not as nice as having more women in the room. Something that helped me was to make sure to seek out women when I had opportunities, for example at conferences. So even if I was the only woman on seven hiring committees in a row, when I went to an international conference, or a small workshop,  I would go to women’s talks, introduce myself to women in groups, and seek out “my people”. I made some great friends along the way. As I got older, and felt the situation was changing only very slowly, I became more outspoken about the lack of diversity.

The biggest shock to the system though was having children. I was already full professor and relatively old when my first (of two) daughters was born, and even with great support from my partner, and a well-established career, it was a challenge.

I was very fortunate to have very helpful mentors at every stage in my career, for which I am still grateful. I’ve tried to “pay it forward” by being encouraging to students and young faculty. While I never felt actively discriminated against at all, I did notice at some point fairly far along in my career that men were actually listening to me in meetings, and I was so surprised that I deduced this was rarely the case when I was younger. The biggest shock to the system though was having children. I was already full professor and relatively old when my first (of two) daughters was born, and even with great support from my partner, and a well-established career, it was a challenge. When younger colleagues starting families ask me for advice, I always say “Accept as much help as you are offered, and buy as much help as you can afford”.

Posted by HMS in Stories