PhDStudent

Marilyn Gatica Briceño

Marilyn Gatica Briceño

Born in Santiago, Chile Birth year 1987 Studied B. Sc. in Mathematics and ​ B. Sc. in Mathematical Engineering at Universidad de Santiago in Santiago, Chile B. Sc. in Mathematical Engineering lives in Valparaiso, Chile currently a Ph.D. candidate at Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile, and at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain

Since the early years of my life, I was interested in maths because I was fascinated with the idea that everything fits. In high school, I studied in a female school and was very interested in sharing with my female classmates the solutions for the mathematical problems. Some girls had innovative ways to approach and solve a problem, and it was inspiring to hear their ideas. I loved the concept of learning and sharing.

My father’s neurologist told me: “we need mathematicians in this area”, and at this point, my journey began. Some years later, I decided to become a mathematical engineer and apply maths in neuroscience.

On the other hand, we have my other interest: neuroscience. My father has a brain tumor, and when I found out, I was intrigued to understand the brain (even though I did not like biology). This idea gathered strength when, in a routine conversation, my father’s neurologist told me: “we need mathematicians in this area”, and at this point, my journey began. Some years later, I decided to become a mathematical engineer and apply maths in neuroscience. Naturally, before starting my studies, I did not know what it meant to study mathematics and how one could apply mathematics in neuroscience.

During the first years of my undergraduate studies, I realized maths was more than calculations, there was so much logic and formalism involved. However, only in the last years of my studies, I could use maths to understand the brain, because at that moment, maths, neuroscience, and of course, computer science finally all came together. I am thankful for having had great professors who introduced me to the computational neuroscience discipline.

During my Ph.D. now, I still enjoy learning new concepts from different scientific areas and sharing research results with other people, like I already did in high school.

I hesitated to continue postgraduate studies, because in Chile there is little financial support from the government in research, and in addition to that, there are not many women working in this field. For these reasons, I worked several years as a research assistant and some months as a project engineer before beginning my postgraduate studies. Currently, I am a Ph.D. candidate in the computational neuroscience area at the Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile, and at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain where I am focused on understanding the changes in the lifespan of healthy brains and also on learning about what happens in brains with pathological conditions. Furthermore, in collaboration with other colleagues, I teach introductory classes to computational neuroscience for mathematicians. During my Ph.D. now, I still enjoy learning new concepts from different scientific areas and sharing research results with other people, like I already did in high school. In the next years of my life, I expect to continue with both, research and teaching in this area.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Tamara Dancheva

Tamara Dancheva

Born in Skopje, North Macedonia Birth year 1993 Studied Computer Science in Skopje and Sweden Master in Computational Engineering from the University of Strasbourg currently a PhD candidate at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics in Bilbao, Spain

My path to becoming a researcher in applied mathematics has been anything but calculated. My first childhood dream – that I actively started pursuing – was to become a librarian. I was and still am a massive bookworm. At the beginning of primary school, I became part of the library section. I spent nearly all of my school breaks and free time before and after school at the library bookkeeping, sorting books, and taking part in the organization of literary events. By the end of primary school, I started taking part in library competitions and even ranked at the top. Since most likely you wonder what a library competition is, it is about the history of writing, books, libraries, and classification systems to organize library resources. At the same time, I was studious, and I did well in school. I liked maths, but I was much more passionate about literature.

By the time I had to decide on a secondary school, I was old enough to realize that being a librarian or any profession related to it, unfortunately, would not offer me too many prospects in my country. My parents insisted I should go in a general direction first. So I went to a gymnasium. During my secondary school years, my parents got me and my brother our first computer. It became my second passion. Like many other kids at that time, we got obsessed with it, mostly playing video-games, and painstakingly surfing the Internet at a speed of a few kbit per second. For my part, eventually, I became obsessed with how it works. I became determined to learn how to build a computer. And how to develop video games.

That is how I decided to study computer science and engineering. The local university had just opened an independent faculty for computer science, and I became part of its first generation of students. I got to know everything I wanted to know and tried my hand at many different things like computer architecture, algorithms, desktop applications development, system administration, and web development. However, my first two years of university completely changed my relationship with maths for the worse. I had a couple of extremely demanding maths professors that required us to learn whole books of theory by heart. It almost completely stifled my motivation for learning maths.

I took a course on scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe.

In the final semester of my bachelor’s, I was still considering continuing my education with video games development or working as a web developer. Then I took a course on Scientific computing with concrete applications in biomedicine that completely turned my life around. That is when I discovered a whole new universe. Inspired by the classes, I started taking all the courses I could find on Coursera about scientific computing on various topics to see what is out there. I went back to exploring partial differential equations, mathematical modeling, and physics, with different eyes, in much more detail. This time, I saw an infinity of possibilities in the intersection of scientific programming and natural sciences.

I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies.

That is how, to my utmost surprise, after an intense period of finishing my Bachelor’s, simultaneously working as a developer, and applying for master’s degrees, I found myself in Strasbourg. I started studying Computational Mechanics, diving into mathematics and physics with applications in many other fields, such as the mechanics of solids, fluids, hydrology, and geomechanics (the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil). I was reluctant at the time to make this step because it was a radical change for me, and I had made a split-second decision to leave my job at the time. I found myself a student again, earning a living by freelancing mostly as a web developer to support my studies. It was a risky step that I have come to regret during certain difficult times on the way.

Each time I did, I found something that fascinated me and won me back to research. I stuck to it and even continued with a Ph.D. in solid mechanics and high-performance computing. Today there are times when I still doubt my choice. Doing a Ph.D. is an arduous journey (or a labyrinth) that can be very exhausting and equally rewarding, the latter driving me forward.

I realized that the world is an open book, today more than ever, for those that dare to read it. While in the past, it used to be a library, with different books strewn across the globe, not easily accessible to others, today it has merged all into one book. Many times we are the ones that constrain ourselves, not the world around us, as we can make ourselves believe. With time, I have learned to accept uncertainty and volatility as a good thing. I like to think that I have infinite choices. Next year, I could take a project in environmental studies or computational astronomy. I could just as well open a book shop in New Zealand. Chase your passion and dare to go on an adventure!

Posted by HMS in Stories
Rachel Furner

Rachel Furner

Born in Plymouth, UK • Birth year 1985 • Studied Mathematics at Oxford University, UK • Currently studying for a PhD looking at using machine learning in oceanography, based at Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey

My grandma heavily influenced my love of mathematics – as a child she let me have as many sweets as I could count, so I began school with excellent counting abilities! She was also an avid fan of maths and logic puzzles and would do these with me, as a child she had me working on puzzles aimed at adults. As I went through school, I began to appreciate the reality of maths, how it was so much more than counting and arithmetic and instead more closely related to all these puzzles and problems I had loved solving.

I especially enjoy the way maths can be used to understand so much of the world around us and see it as a brilliant language to describe and understand physical processes.

I don’t recall ever deciding to study maths, it just felt like a given. For me it was such an obvious pathway that it never needed to be stated or chosen. And the more I learnt about maths the more I loved it. I especially enjoy the way maths can be used to understand so much of the world around us and see it as a brilliant language to describe and understand physical processes. For me, one of the most enlightening moments of my career was learning about fluid dynamics at university. I had already learnt a lot about standard mechanics (how forces act to move objects etc), but the idea that we could also understand things like the way the ocean changes and moves in an incredibly detailed and definitive way was incredible!

I finished my undergraduate keen to start ‘doing’ something rather than carrying on learning, and my interests led quite naturally to a job building computer models of the ocean for forecasting weather and climate. I loved the work; it was such a great application of the maths I had enjoyed so much. Sadly though, over time I found that being female in this environment was challenging. Many small but persistent issues grew to become more than just tiresome and got in the way of my love for my job. Little things like women being talked over, or not given as much credit as the men we worked with, and people asking questions of my male colleagues in areas where I was the expert. I then moved teams and went from having an incredibly supportive and encouraging manager, to one where I felt there were notable gender issues, and this coincided with a time where the senior leadership’s approach to gender issues were really in the spotlight, and I didn’t feel supported enough by their actions. Eventually I realised I dreaded going to work, and the time had come that I needed to change things. I looked at other jobs, and decided to leave research altogether, but my love of maths was clearly still influencing my decisions, and I started working as a coordinator for two mathematical research centres. It was the perfect tonic after a difficult time. I refound my love of going to work and the sense of satisfaction from it. I remembered how exciting and interesting maths was. And most importantly I had two incredible managers. They supported and encouraged me, reminding me of my skills and abilities. They asked whether I’d considered doing a PhD, and, while I had often thought about it in an abstract way, their remarks gave me the confidence to seriously consider it.

I quickly realised that while I might not be the ‘average’ student, I was far from old, and that there are so many people who don’t follow the traditional academic pathway.

At 33, feeling like this was a foolhardy thing to begin at such an age, but also super excited about the chance to spend 4 years absorbed in something for the pure interest of it, I began my PhD looking at using machine learning to model the ocean. I quickly realised that while I might not be the ‘average’ student, I was far from old, and that there are so many people who don’t follow the traditional academic pathway. Really, there is no average student. We all come to this with such a different perspective and history, and so many individual advantages and disadvantages. I found (as I’d hoped) that my background meant I have many relevant skills that have made things easier. But also, my fundamental knowledge was rusty, and my brain felt so slow at times when trying to pick up new things. Alongside this, it feels my life is much more complicated now than it was in my early twenties, and a number of difficult things in my personal life have impacted my work, and I’ve really struggled at times. Throughout this though, I try to remind myself of the privilege of being able to sit at my desk and spend my time thinking about something which I still find so incredibly cool – the way we can use this brilliant language of mathematics to understand the world around us.

I’m lucky to have had some incredible people support and inspire me along the way, helping me to get to this point – thank you to them all!

Posted by HMS in Stories
Tamara Grossmann

Tamara Grossmann

Born in Germany • Studied in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree M.Sc. • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation PhD Student

To be honest, I don’t really know where my fascination with maths has come from. None of my family members are doing anything related. But I remember an instance in first grade where we had a small test on multiplication tables and I got quite competitive to be the first one to finish. I think at that point I decided that I wanted to be good at maths. This didn’t really carry through all my school years, but maths kept being a subject I enjoyed. I became more interested again in secondary school when one of my teachers involved me in a maths club. Another student and I started working on a small project together which we presented at a youth research competition. This was probably the first time I really sat down and used the maths I’d learned so far to solve a specific problem. We ended up winning the local round. Ultimately, I think the support and affirmation from my teachers during my school years gave me the confidence to believe I was good enough to go on and study maths.

It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

After high school I went off to university excited and full of energy, just to realise in the first two semesters that studying maths was a lot harder than I anticipated. I barely passed my exams even though I had studied a lot. It was a big adjustment to the different way of thinking, and I needed to figure out what to focus on in order to pass my classes. However, in my mind there was no option to quit. I guess my competitive side from first grade came out and I saw it as a challenge to finish my Bachelor’s. Things got better eventually, especially when we started electing more specialised courses. Throughout, there were always little things that got me excited again about doing maths. Our department organised events every semester where alumni came to present the work they do now and the companies they work for. I remember someone talking about his work in imaging and the connection of mathematics and image processing. It fascinated me that there were highly applied fields of this very theoretical subject I was studying, and I started hoping I’d later find a job like that.

“Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.”

During my Master’s, it became less about just getting through the degree and more about finding interesting courses and projects. The classes were smaller, and we had more contact to the lecturers. After one of my oral exams, I was asked about my plans and what I wanted to do next. I was startled, because I didn’t quite understand why a lecturer would be interested in this. I told him that I wanted to do an internship somewhere in industry before finishing my degree. I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after my studies, so this seemed like a good start. He offered his support in finding an internship position. Half a year later I summoned up all my courage to chase him up on his offer and asked if he’d know a company that would take interns to work in medical imaging. I think this got the ball rolling to get to where I am now. Through his and another professor’s support I started an internship at the university and with the supervisor I am doing my PhD with now. It is still astonishing to me that it took so little as a question, to start figuring out where I wanted to go next. The research group I did my internship at was very welcoming and many shared their stories and decision-making processes with me. This probably influenced me the most. From the outside you often just see these really smart people producing amazing work. But for me it was more encouraging to see their struggles and understand that in order to do a PhD you weren’t expected to know everything already or to be a genius. I think this would also be something I’d tell my 19-year-old self before going to uni. “Don’t compare yourself too much. Focus on the work you’re doing and dare to go for the things that fascinate and excite you even if you don’t believe you’re capable of achieving them, yet.” I guess it’s something I’m still learning to this day. But I have found a group of amazing women that remind me we’re all doing the best we can, and a great research cohort that is encouraging with all the small achievements.

Posted by HMS in Stories