Professor

Pamela  Estephania Harris

Pamela Estephania Harris

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico • Birth year 1983 Studied Mathematics at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI, USA • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in North Adams, MA, USA • Occupation Mathematics Professor

My love for math faded during my high school years. Being undocumented, living in the United States was challenging. Even though I was doing well academically, I thought I might never have the opportunity to attend college. I was sad, and at that time I turned to art as an outlet to deal with the challenges I was facing. I spent most of my senior year in high school in an art studio. I spent countless hours learning to draw, paint, and sculpt. I even dropped out of my calculus class just so that I could have more time to do art. I do not regret that choice, even though going a year without math courses hurt my mathematical skills. At the time, I needed something to help me deal with the anxiety and sadness I was experiencing, and art served me well. 

There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school.

After graduating high school, I was able to enter community college. How that was possible is a story for another day, but the main thing is that, upon entering the program, my mathematical skills were well below calculus. My first college math course was intermediate algebra, where I (re?)learned how to factor polynomials. I vividly remember that day’s lesson where the professor said “To factor x^2+5x+6 we need to find two numbers that add to 5 and multiply to 6.” I immediately raised my hand, proudly announcing that numbers did not do that. How can two numbers multiply and add to something different? Luckily, the professor was very kind and she allowed me to think of examples. After discovering that 2 and 3 did the trick, I felt such joy in understanding something that I had taken for granted: numbers are amazing and in fact multiplication and addition are two distinct things! From there my story began to take shape. 

After intermediate algebra I took all of the math courses the community college offered and later transferred to a four-year college to continue studying math. There I had a meeting where my mentor said “when you go to graduate school”. I had no idea what graduate school was, but I knew that if she believed in me, then I should go to graduate school. So, on I went! 

My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live.

I always knew that I would like to be a teacher. There is something so beautiful about seeing someone understand something. Most people call that an “aha” moment, and it truly is special. I also knew that education is a path out of poverty and into opportunity. Being an immigrant, I knew firsthand that having options is one key component to a happy life. So, I have always wanted to help others reach their goals and attain their dreams. However, it was not until almost the completion of my PhD that I decided to be a college professor. Finding this as a career option was great because it has allowed me to continue learning while doing research and teaching students. Creating new programs and platforms that provide mentorship and support for students from groups who have been historically excluded from higher education has also been deeply fulfilling. This outreach work keeps me grounded and reminds me that there is still a lot of work to be done in order for everyone to have meaningful and positive experiences with mathematics. My professional mission is to ensure that mathematics is a welcoming place for everyone, and I am eager to keep working on this for as long as I live. 

Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in.

Being an immigrant, previously undocumented, and a Latina woman meant I rarely saw people like me in mathematics. Throughout those early years I could have used a larger community of support and to see others like me occupy positions and careers like those I had an interest in. Sadly, it took a long time to find a community of scholars who shared similar backgrounds and heritage. Yet this motivated much of my past work and inspired me and Drs. Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Alicia Prieto Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa to co-found the organization Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences. Our goal is to share and amplify the contributions of Latinx/Hispanic scholars in math. We do this through a variety of means including Hispanic Heritage Month (in the US it is celebrated between September 15 and October 15) events, a podcast, and even a new book — Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians. The book’s chapters will be freely available one per month starting in September 2021 and our hope is that this book provides a way for those within the community to learn of our stories while also giving advice to those who want to learn more about us and how to support our work. Although there is much work to be done so that those from historically excluded groups feel valued and uplifted in mathematics, I am hopeful that initiatives like Lathisms are making this reality possible.

Links:
Lathisms: Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences
Testimonios: Stories of Latinx and Hispanic Mathematicians

Posted by HMS in Stories
Maylin Wartenberg

Maylin Wartenberg

Born in Braunschweig, Germany • Studied Math (diploma) at the Technical University in Braunschweig, Germany • Highest Degree Doctorate in Math (Dr. rer. nat.) • Lives in Meine, Germany • Occupation Professor at the Hochschule Hannover – University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Department of Business Information Systems, Field of Data Science

Analytical thinking has always been easy for me. Therefore, I enjoyed the rules and patterns that occur in math from early on. Luckily, I recovered quickly after the German high school greeted me with the minimum pass mark “adequate” in the first two math exams in 7th grade. In 9th and 10th grade, we had a very strict “old school” teacher who left a lasting impression. We always had to stand up to greet him, and if you used a swear word in class, you had to wash the glasses in the chemistry room during the next break. He was strict, but he liked me and I learned a lot. In 11th grade I spent a high school year in the US and after this year I wanted to take math as one of my advanced courses. That was a tough decision because all I did at the American high school was statistics whereas in Germany everyone had started with curve sketching. After my return to Germany, the first exam in 12th grade was about this topic. I didn’t know anything about it and I had 6 weeks of summer break to study. A former very kind teacher helped me with the material and I studied by myself and achieved a good mark. That was a major milestone to my decision to study math, since I was able to teach myself the topics of almost a whole school year. But I still wasn’t sure. Math or psychology?

After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

Both sounded very attractive to my 19-year-old self. The plans to move to Braunschweig with two of my friends were already settled and I finally chose math because it was giving me a wider range of options on what future opportunities to follow – because I had no clue what to do after my studies at that point. In the beginning we were quite a few students, but in the end only 4 of us were left in pure math – 25% women 😉. I chose most of my courses in abstract math – algebra, combinatorics – and did as little applied math as possible. I really enjoyed the study of group and ring structures and the book Algebra by Serge Lang was always by my side. I already dreamed of becoming a professor myself.

Yet, in the end, the question what to do with all the knowledge I gained crept more and more into my consciousness. That is why I didn’t pursue a strictly academic career, nevertheless I still wanted to secure the option, and chose a PHD position in business at Bosch (formerly Blaupunkt) in Hildesheim. No more group and ring theory, suddenly I had to write code in C++ for algorithms in navigation systems. I had avoided any computer science so far, thus, I was thrown in at the deep end. But I never regretted this step because I discovered that coding is not all at all as difficult as I thought – after all it’s logical – and I learned a lot about working in a bigger company. After all the ups and downs you typically encounter during this phase – 3 years for me – I finished my doctoral thesis in math (graph theory) two weeks before my first daughter was born.

I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience (…).

I stayed home with her and somehow managed the defence of my doctoral thesies with a 5-month-old baby and still deprived of decent sleep. After 8 or 9 months at home, my brain started asking to be challenged again, and I began to apply for jobs in industry. As a young mother I wanted to start part time, but as a woman holding a doctorate in mathematics that was not as easy to get as I hoped. After a long search, including several offers with 40 hours and more, I was finally rewarded by starting a job at VW Financial Services. My one-year-old daughter was able to stay at the company’s own childcare facility and I started with 27 hours a week as a systems analyst in the business intelligence department in IT. In almost 10 years I made my way from analyst, to project lead, to team lead all the way to head of two sub-departments and got enrolled in the management trainee program – most of this in part time including a maternity leave when I had my second daughter in between. Then, suddenly, another option which had gotten a little out of sight but was still a silent dream popped back in.

And that is my way to my current position as a professor in business computing, especially data science. I found the fitting position where I can combine my passion for analytical thinking, my academic background, and my work experience – all of that with the advantage of being my own boss, still doing interesting projects with different companies, giving talks about AI for lay audiences (schools, senior clubs, …), and guiding young people on part of their own story.

Posted by HMS in Stories
María Eugenia Cejas

María Eugenia Cejas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by HMS in Stories