PhD

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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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.

Posted by HMS in Stories
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
Joana Sarah Grah

Joana Sarah Grah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories