PhDStudent

Thi Mui Pham

Thi Mui Pham

Born in Hanoi, Vietnam • Studied Mathematics at RWTH Aachen in Germany • Highest degree: Master of Science in Mathematics • Lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands • PhD candidate in infectious disease modelling at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in Utrecht (The Netherlands)

I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Germany, lived in the UK for about two years in total, and moved to the Netherlands for my PhD four years ago. Having lived in various countries, I always saw myself as a cultural hybrid – bridging the gap between different cultures and traditions. My PhD topic similarly connects two different but intersecting disciplines:  I develop mathematical models to tackle the spread of infectious diseases.

When you would have asked me what my future job would be when I was 10 years old, my answer would probably have been “a detective”. I loved solving puzzles and finding solutions to a problem. What I particularly enjoyed about maths was its simplicity: In its pure form, you only need your mind and maybe a pen and a paper.

I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world.

After graduating high school, I decided to pursue a Maths degree at university. The reason was simple: I was eager to learn more about how to solve abstract problems through logical reasoning. Despite its reputation, you do not need to study maths as a lone wolf. A lot of my university time included working together with fellow students, discussing various solutions, and looking at a problem from different angles. Studying maths at university level was not always easy for me but I had a lot of fun, and I think that’s what counts in the end. When I was about to finish my degree, I felt a bit lost as I realised that I never really had a particular job or career in mind, and I had no real plan for my life. I knew I wanted to continue to do research in something math-related, but I also realised that I wanted my work to have an impact in the real world. However, I had no idea how exactly I could combine these two interests.   

By chance, I came across the 80,000 Hours non-profit organisation that tries to guide graduates towards a career that fits their personality but also “effectively tackles the world’s most pressing problems”. This gave me an impetus to contemplate more thoroughly my career choice and I started to do research on the applications of maths to address real-world problems. I quickly learned about the serious risks that infectious diseases pose to our world and how mathematical modelling can provide valuable insights into the field. Luckily, I was able to find a PhD position in infectious disease epidemiology in Utrecht. In hindsight, accepting this position was one of the best decisions in my life as I can genuinely say that I am very happy with my work, my research group, and in particular with my supervisors. They gave me just the right balance between guidance and freedom, and a positive environment to thrive.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools.

When I started my PhD my main topic was to study the transmission dynamics of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I am using my background to model the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in various settings, for example in hospitals or secondary schools. It has been a very challenging time as my workload has doubled but at the same time, I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to use my skills to ‘do good’ while truly enjoying my work.

The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems.

Infectious disease modelling is rather versatile: It requires translating biological problems into the language of mathematics, analytically investigating the research question using the developed model, and finally translating the results back to the real world to obtain implications for infection control policy. The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates perfectly that mathematics does not necessarily have to be far from reality, and that it can be a powerful tool for solving real-world problems. Maths used to be underrated and maybe even underappreciated but by showing people how mathematics can be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, I hope we can spread a little bit more love for mathematics.

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Christina Graf

Christina Graf

Born in Vienna, Austria • Birth year 1994 • Studied Mathematics at Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria • Highest Degree Master’s in Mathematics • Lives in Graz, Austria • Occupation University Assistant at the Institute of Medical Engineering, Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria

As far as I can remember I have been in love with math. In school, I always did my math homework first, and I actually procrastinated a bit to spend more time doing math without having to move on to further homework. I was interested in many things as a kid and I was always enthusiastic – this enthusiasm never left! But honestly, I did not realize that being a mathematician could be my job description one day. My mom is a teacher -yes math- so I thought about math only from a teaching perspective for a long time. My dad was a radiologist and I considered becoming a doctor myself. I knew what his daily work and workload was like and I was fascinated by this clear boundary setting between „good“ and „bad“ (he specialized in breast cancer detection and divided tumors he found in “the good, the bad, and the ugly”). Funnily, clear decisions also occur in math! So, for a long time my plan was to apply for medical school after graduating from highschool and my parents generously supported me, not only in terms of financing, but – more importantly – emotionally. 

That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

I was in 11th grade when my mom said, more incidentally: „You know, you always start with your math homework!“. I think she had no idea what she started with that! So, I slightly started thinking: „Could math be an option?“ My social environment was not so supportive, I heard comments like „It is so damn hard, do you want to do it?“ or „Mathematicians just do programming“ (and I hated computers during that time). But I am not a person who is easily influenced and when someone doubts my ability to do something, I usually get in the „I am gonna show them“ mode. During that time I learned that I need to have the faith in myself that others might not have in me! I often sneaked into my mom’s office to read some applied math books and soon she found her missing books on my bedside table. That was the first time I learned about the Fourier Transform – I was so fascinated, I could not stop reading about it!

So my plan changed and my new aim was to go to a technical university. My parents were extremely supportive from day one, believing in me, but also always telling me that I had the option to leave to do something else if math did not turn out to be the right thing. With that in mind, I started university, as motivated as I could ever be, completely oblivious to what will follow. The first months were hard, there is nothing to gloss over here, but not a single second I thought about leaving, I just loved it.

I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now.

The years went by, I received my Bachelor’s degree with plenty of ups and downs and enrolled in the Master’s program. During this time I was not entirely happy with what I was doing. I still enjoyed math a lot, but I got the feeling that I learnt plenty of things „for nothing“ and that I actually wanted to start doing something with it now. Ultimately, I was unsure if math was still the right subject for me. So, during a Sunday afternoon in the university library where I was unhappy with doing my homework, I scrolled through other institutes‘ webpages, interested in what they do. I spent a few minutes on the webpage of the Institute of Medical Engineering – the curiosity in medicine never left – and there was an open Master’s thesis sounding mathematical, but with an actual application of that. On the next day, I met with the PI (who is my PhD supervisor now) and soon after, I started working on my thesis. I just loved it from day one. I finally felt like being „home“, I could use all the fancy math skills I learned and I could actually utilize them for real-world problems. Eight months and some exams later, I graduated and received my Master of Science in mathematics with specialization in technomathematics. I did not need to think about what to do next for too long, as I knew exactly that I wanted to continue with math. And so I started working on my PhD at the same institute after two months of traveling the world.

I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

For my PhD, I’m working in the field of optimal control for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Here, I’m optimizing radiofrequency (RF) pulses, which form the basis of every MRI scan. Goals of the optimization include making the RF pulses shorter, reducing the scan time, and reducing the energy it produces, among others. It allows me to combine mathematical methods with a medical application, namely Magnetic Resonance which is used to obtain images of the human body. During my PhD, my enthusiasm for this subject has not decreased – I grew even more fond of it. I love to do research, to try out new things, to travel to conferences and to get to know like-minded people, and I really enjoy teaching.

At the moment, I have the strong tendency to stay in academia; frankly, I can‘t think about anything else. While writing these lines, we are at the end of the third „Covid-19 wave“ in Austria and I really feel this desire to leave the country and go abroad. Due to Covid, I was not able to travel to international conferences, but as always, this is not an excuse, but a motivation to get going again. I am excited to leave my home and ready to take every opportunity that is presented to me. For the future, I’d like to make the world a little bit better with my knowledge and what I do. Furthermore, I would like to continue sharing the joy of mathematics with my students every day.

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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.

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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