ScienceCommunication

Marianne Freiberger

Marianne Freiberger

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1972 • Studied Pure Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from Queen Mary, University of London • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

I first became interested in maths when I learnt about the epsilon/delta definition of a limit at school. The fact that something as intuitive as a limit could be expressed so precisely in symbols blew my mind. Despite that interest, I didn’t really plan on studying maths at university. The reason I did was that I had moved to the UK from Germany after school and, when I finally decided to do a degree, thought my English wasn’t up to studying a more wordy subject (which is ironic given that I am now a writer).

I enjoyed my BSc, but by the end of it still didn’t think that maths would be part of my future. I spent a year working in all sorts of jobs and travelling, until a book by Ian Stewart re-ignited my passion. I applied for a PhD place with Shaun Bullett at Queen Mary, University of London, where I spent the next few years studying and researching holomorphic dynamics (which involves things like Julia sets and the Mandelbrot set). Shaun was a great supervisor who safely got me through my PhD (can’t have been easy!) and enabled me to stay on for another three years as a postdoc.

Because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine

Finding the next postdoc proved tricky and my heart wasn’t really in it. I didn’t want my life to revolve around my job, which as a postdoc is something you usually have to accept, and wasn’t sure I was a good enough mathematician. (Whether the latter was true or just down to lacking confidence — a notoriously female affliction— I still don’t know.) But it all turned out for the best: because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine. That was in 2005 and I am still at Plus now, co-editing along with my good friend and colleague Rachel Thomas.

Plus is a free online magazine about all aspects of maths, aimed at a general audience. It’s part of the Millennium Mathematics Project based at the University of Cambridge. My job there involves writing articles, producing podcasts and videos, and editing other people’s submissions. We cover anything from abstract algebra to astronomy, and theoretical physics to the science of sport. 

(…) Once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others

Starting at Plus was quite a gear change initially. My command of English no longer felt like such an obstacle, but I had no journalistic or writing training. I did a couple of writing courses offered by Cambridge University, but all the really important stuff I learnt on the job from the two brilliant writers and editors then working on Plus, Rachel Thomas and Helen Joyce, and by example from my boss, the amazing John D. Barrow (who sadly died last year).

Ironically, my ignorance also helped me with my writing, I think. I knew almost nothing about most areas of maths, let alone other sciences. This meant doing lots of reading and then explaining things back to myself in baby language — and once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others.

As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool

While writing gave me lots of joy, other things were harder to learn. When I started at Plus, I think many mathematicians weren’t as familiar and comfortable with public engagement as they are now. I struggled sometimes to be taken seriously. As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool. It took me a while to work that out and learn the courage to ask.

Today things are a lot easier in that respect (though I still sometimes spend ages trying to figure something out when I could just go and ask someone). The reason it’s easier is probably that attitudes towards science and maths communication have changed, and that I am older, a tiny bit wiser, and a little more confident.

At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience

I love my job because it allows me to do what research didn’t: to learn a lot about all sorts of topics but without having to dig too deeply into the technical details. I get to meet amazing people and there are lots of opportunities to branch out and learn more. Rachel and I recently worked as science editors on a Discovery Channel series about the work of Stephen Hawking and privately co-wrote three popular maths books. At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience. I feel very fortunate to have been given these opportunities.

To someone who’d like to go into science communication as a career, I’d say to get a good grounding in maths before (or while) you’re getting training in writing and communicating. Maths is everywhere in science, and if you can vaguely understand the maths in a piece of science, then you’re already a good way to understanding the rest. 

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