UK

Claudia Garetto

Claudia Garetto

Born in Asti, Italy Studies Mathematics at Torino University, Italy • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Reader in Mathematics at Queen Mary University of London

My love for Mathematics started at an early age. I remember one day in scuola media (middle school in Italy) when my maths teacher sketched the graph of a function on the blackboard. She was explaining linear motion and I was blown away. I saw how maths relates to real life and how beautiful it is to explain maths, which is often considered a difficult topic, to others. I just wanted to be like her: a mathematician solving equations and sketching graphs on a blackboard, and this is exactly what I do now. It has been extremely important for me to see women do the job I am doing now. In Italy it is quite common for girls to study mathematics at university and to have women maths teachers in school: growing up I never thought that maths was a “boy” subject. Later, when I moved to Austria for my PhD studies and then to the UK for my first permanent academic position, I realised how lucky I had been.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) activities are becoming more and more important (I am the EDI lead in my school), so I hope the gender gap will become smaller and smaller in the future but there is still a long way to go…

In both of these countries, women are a minority in STEM and it is unfortunately still common to have almost no women professors in many maths departments. Consequently, it is still a struggle to motivate the best women maths students to take the academic route. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) activities are becoming more and more important (I am the EDI lead in my school), so I hope the gender gap will become smaller and smaller in the future but there is still a long way to go…

As an undergraduate at Torino University I loved Mathematical Analysis. I found the formalism of pure mathematics beautiful and reassuring and I got more and more attracted to the idea of proving my own theorem, of constructing my own mathematical theory. That’s how my original plan of becoming a maths secondary school teacher changed into becoming a researcher and to establish myself as an academic.

Every move has meant for me to grow as a mathematician but more importantly as a person. I have learnt to be resilient but also to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded.

I apparently had a very straightforward career path: PhD, postdoc, permanent position. However, I changed countries twice. In 2002 I moved from Italy to Austria to conclude my PhD studies. After 8 years at Innsbruck University, I moved to Imperial College London as a Junior Research Fellow and in 2012 at Loughborough University as a Lecturer. I have recently moved to Queen Mary University of London where I am currently working on the analysis of hyperbolic equations and systems with multiplicities: an extremely fascinating area of mathematics. Every move has meant for me to grow as a mathematician but more importantly as a person. I have learnt to be resilient but also to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded. These are in my opinion extremely important qualities in any social and work environment.

I often talk to girls of school age approaching the university world of mathematics. My only advice to them is to follow their passion. If you are passionate about maths nothing will stop you! It will not always be easy. Failure is normal but with your dedication and the support of the right people (colleagues, supervisor, mentor) you will overcome every obstacle.

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Evi Papadaki

Evi Papadaki

Born in Crete, Greece • Birth year 1992 Studied Mathematics at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece • Highest Degree MSc in Mathematics and Its Applications at University of Crete in Greece • Lives in Norwich, UK • Occupation PhD researcher in Mathematics Education at the University of East Anglia, UK

Either by chance or by choice, I always found maths attractive. My mum is a maths teacher, her sisters, too. So, I was regularly in the middle of casual maths conversations growing up. I was observing my mum teaching sometimes, and I was reading her maths books when I was bored. One of the advantages I had as a child was seeing my mum preparing for her lessons and devoting herself to solving problems, struggling, spending time on them, discussing methods and solutions with her sisters. I never found maths easy, but I knew that dedicating time was part of what made it meaningful, and I was up for it.

I remember when I was about 9 years old, I told my dad that I wanted to become an astrophysicist. He was very excited trying to explain ‘the plan’ to me: I had to finish school and study physics, then I should do a masters and a PhD in Astrophysics. I was shocked by the amount of work that I had to do and that was the moment I decided to become a maths teacher. As naive as it sounds, I thought I was doing well at maths already so I could teach others (!).  Yet here I am, 20 years later and having realised the complexity of the work, doing a PhD trying to understand how a teacher can talk to her students about mathematics.

I felt like I always knew about the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I even knew how to read or write, I could quote it without knowing what that means. I learnt how to use it in secondary school. I learnt what it means in high school and a teacher told us that it has over 300 different proofs.

I started thinking about the possibility of studying for a PhD in Mathematics Education in my final year as an undergraduate. I found it fascinating how all the things I’ve learnt throughout the years connected with each other as a gigantic 3D jigsaw puzzle. For example, I felt like I always knew about the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I even knew how to read or write, I could quote it without knowing what that means. I learnt how to use it in secondary school. I learnt what it means in high school and a teacher told us that it has over 300 different proofs. I learnt a couple of the proofs at university. Finally, I learnt that it can be generalised with other shapes and in more dimensions from a video on YouTube.

For me mathematics was never just a subject in school. It was a process of discovery inside and outside of the classroom and I wanted to study if there was a way to spark the curiosity of my students beyond the boundaries of a curriculum or programme of study.

I met people who thought teaching mathematics is purely applied pedagogy and disregarded my mathematical abilities because of that. I met people that thought I was wasting my potential as a mathematician. […] None of them is true!

When I decided that I wanted to follow a career in Mathematics Education research, I had the full support of my family, my friends and my mentors. Nonetheless, I had to fight a few stereotypes on the way. I met people who thought teaching mathematics is purely applied pedagogy and disregarded my mathematical abilities because of that. I met people that thought I was wasting my potential as a mathematician. I also met people that assumed that I am doing a quantitative study as I must be good in statistics. None of them is true! I am doing a qualitative study of how a teacher can talk to her students about mathematics in ways that are not anticipated in a typical mathematics lesson. For my project, I need to unpack the mathematical meaning of the conversations that take place between teachers and students. So, I challenge what I know about mathematics almost every day and I have learnt a lot more than I ever thought I would. Moreover, I am working at the student services of my University helping students with their maths, so I have the chance to expand my horizons in the variety of applications of mathematics making my interest in teaching and learning mathematics in ways that could aid students in different aspects of their personal and professional life even greater.

Looking back, I am grateful that those comments didn’t bring me down.

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Rachel Thomas

Rachel Thomas

Born in Perth, Australia • Birth year 1974 Studied Mathematics at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia • Highest Degree MSc (Research) in Pure Mathematics • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

When I started university, I planned to be a physicist or astronomer – I can’t deny I was heavily influenced by a love of scifi! I had a great time working in a gravity wave lab one summer, but the experience also made me realise I didn’t have the patience or practical ingenuity to be an experimental scientist. I found the theory fascinating. But at the lab flanges wouldn’t seal properly and huge niobium bars couldn’t be cooled low enough – I wasn’t as fascinated by the practical experimental problem solving.

I then remembered my other film-influenced career plan of becoming an archaeologist and took courses in Australian archaeology and Greek art and architecture. I had a brilliant time but again, I realised I didn’t have the patience required for the field work and analysis. I spent weeks trying (and not really succeeding) to make sense of tray after tray of very small grubby objects that I had dug up. I loved the ideas behind both of these glamorous careers, but the actual nitty gritty doing of the work just didn’t excite me.

Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with.

In the meantime, I’d been doing maths all along and I loved it. Originally, I took maths because I needed it to study physics. Then I kept studying maths because it turned out to be really fun. I really liked the actual doing of the maths – playing with linear algebra, proving something in group theory – each new area we were taught was so exciting with new concepts and new language or giving familiar ideas an entirely new perspective.

I loved doing research in semigroup theory for my Master’s degree and often couldn’t wait to get back to the desk to move my work forward. Unfortunately though, I didn’t really feel part of the community of my maths department. With hindsight, I’m sure this was partly due to being one of just a few female students when I was at honours and then postgraduate level. Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with. When things didn’t work out with my supervisor I nearly dropped out and left academia to work as a consultant mathematician on projects in government and industry. But fortunately, my generous boss, a brilliant female professor from the department, and my good friends supported me to finish my Master’s dissertation.

(…) it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

My work as a consultant was varied, and despite rarely crossing paths with the maths I’d learnt at university my degree had prepared me to learn quickly and to discern the structure of a problem and how I could use available data to answer meaningful questions. My maths training also helped me to communicate with the clients and it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

When I moved to the UK, I knew I wanted to write about maths. I was lucky enough to get a job with the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), a maths and education outreach initiative based at the University of Cambridge, before I left Australia. I quickly moved into working on Plus magazine, the part of the MMP that enables anyone who is curious about maths and the world to see the maths behind current events and keeping up to date with current maths research.

To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Twenty years later I still love working at Plus, every day learning about new maths and new applications and talking to the mathematicians who make it all happen. My brilliant co-editor of Plus, Marianne Freiberger, and I get to go on all sorts of amazing mathematical adventures. Our work has taken us around the world, we’ve spoken to brilliant mathematicians from academia and industry, we’ve written several popular science books, appeared on TV and radio and worked on documentary series for the Discovery Channel working with our colleagues at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. And over the last two years we’ve been lucky enough to work with epidemiologists working on the mathematical front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to explain and communicate their work. To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university. Despite no longer being an academic mathematician, I feel firmly part of the maths community today.  And I’m very happy that nearly half the mathematicians and researchers Plus has collaborated with over the last year are women. A new community spirit seems to be rising in many mathematics departments, heavily influenced by the experience and hard work of the female researchers already there. I hope that these networks, and projects including Her Maths Story, are helping women in mathematics find the support and the supporters they need to follow their own maths stories.

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Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

Born in El Adem, Libya • Studied Pure Mathematics at University of Lancaster, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics Education, University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Lincolnshire, UK • Occupation Director of NRICH, University of Cambridge

My journey is a story of twists and turns. There never was a grand plan, just a love of maths to help steer the way.

I wasn’t the healthiest of children, I missed more school days than I ever managed to attend. It would have been easy to fall behind in my studies, but my headteacher had different ideas. Textbooks appeared in my home and my mum was roped in as my teacher. Perhaps rather frustratingly for her at times, my curiosity was never satisfied; I always wanted to try different ways of doing things. I loved playing games, but also inventing new maths games too! I’d even collect the numbered cardboard doors off my advent calendar to use in them in my latest creation.  Numbers had a special place in my life from a very early age.

Having decided that maths was the subject I wanted to study at university, the transition from school to university maths was not as straightforward as I hoped; coming from an all-girls school, it was a shock to find myself on a course dominated by boys. I’d never really associated maths as a ‘boys thing’ until that point. Maths had always been something I just enjoyed doing, but perhaps not everyone enjoyed the same opportunities as I had growing up.

Wednesday afternoons at University  were spent on the sports field or at a local teaching college. Although I love sport, my curiosity meant that I eventually tagged along with the teaching group one day – and never turned back! Our tutor challenged everyone to subtract two numbers and record our method – not exactly a tough challenge for soon-to-be maths graduates but I soon discovered that I was the only person in the room to use my chosen approach, and there were two or three other methods in general use around the room. When we were asked to explain our approaches, there was a discussion about ‘milk bottles on doorsteps’ which totally confused me. What did milk bottles have to do with subtraction?  Turns out that the ‘milk bottles’ were place value jottings. No wonder so many people complain that they find maths confusing!

[…] through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too.

At the time of that college visit, I was focusing on my thesis exploring the different ways mathematicians had proved the Pythagoras Theorem, and through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too (without referring to milk bottles). And, as a female mathematician, perhaps I could be a role model too. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place and I applied for teacher training.

[…] I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge.

As a maths graduate, I opted for a secondary teacher programme which came with a generous grant for signing-up to teach a shortage subject. Tutors required trainees to spend their first fortnight in a primary school, I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge. Even though it meant losing my ‘welcome’ grant, I switched to a primary course and I’ve never looked back. Primary teachers are incredibly hard-working individuals who need to cover a wide range of subjects and inspire their charges all day, every day. They are amazing people. I soon found myself leading maths in my school and supporting the teaching of maths in other schools nearby by sharing useful resources. At that time, I became an advocate for the types of maths resources designed by NRICH which challenge and engage young learners.

After joining my local authority’s maths team, I helped to set up schools’ maths competitions and lead parental engagement events – opportunities for families to enjoy problem-solving and rethink commonly-held negative views about maths. By volunteering to lead maths masterclasses introducing some of my favourite undergraduate classes such as topology and networks, I hoped I could also act as a role model for younger female students. Ever curious, I began reading more widely about maths education and signed up for my Masters and later my PhD at Cambridge (where I investigated different approaches to calculation, of course!). Today, my love of maths means that I get to work in one of the world’s finest maths departments at the University of Cambridge, helping to support school teachers to inspire future mathematicians and researching ways to increase diversity in my chosen subject as the Director of NRICH – a project which had inspired my classroom teaching. It’s such a privilege working with the NRICH team, and we’ve got exciting plans for the future. Watch this space!

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Maha Kaouri

Maha Kaouri

From El-Khiam, Lebanon • Birth year 1994 Studied Financial Mathematics at the University of Kent, UK  • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from the University of Reading, UK • Lives in Cambridge, UK • Occupation Scientific Knowledge Exchange Coordinator in the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and part-time as a Study Skills Tutor (STEM) in the University of Cambridge Disability Resource Centre, and Associate Lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, The Open University

As a part of the Newton Gateway to Mathematics team at the Isaac Newton Institute (INI), I get to be involved in many important projects that bridge the gap between the mathematical sciences and the real world. A particularly exciting part of my job is that I get to work with the V-KEMS partners to develop study groups, where industry stakeholders pose problems to a group of mathematicians who then go on to work on these for a few days. The atmosphere at the INI is something really special and unique – it’s a place that brings together people from across the world to solve all kinds of maths problems, be it in person, or virtually. 

My role at the INI isn’t research-based, nor does it have any form of student interaction, but I find this works perfectly well with my part-time commitments supporting students with disabilities and learning difficulties at the same university, and with working as an Associate Lecturer at The Open University. I love the flexibility that working in academia gives you. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD (…) to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research (…).

My maths journey starts in 2010, when I began my A-levels. During GCSE, I struggled to get a B and so it was my family who pushed me to take Maths at A-level to open up opportunities. Surprisingly, I happened to excel in and enjoy it, so I focused most of my energy on Maths and got an A! I decided to continue into university with the subject that I was doing best at and that paid off as some of my favourite memories come from my time at the University of Kent. Studying Financial Mathematics meant that I was exposed not only to Maths, but also Statistics, Actuarial Science and Operations Research, which is something that broadened my knowledge of the potential applications of maths. 

My PhD journey was a struggle, but isn’t everyone’s? From being told by a professor that I can’t do a Maths PhD because I studied Financial Maths and that even if I did a Maths Masters, it still wouldn’t be possible, to dealing with the uncertainty along the way that my research wasn’t good enough to warrant a PhD. It was until the viva, when I was acknowledged for the quality of my research, that I got some certainty in my abilities. In fact, I’m in the process of collating my second paper from my PhD research on optimisation methods for data assimilation. I do know that my challenges are nothing compared to others who have battled through illnesses and losing loved ones, especially so during the pandemic. So, I consider myself amongst luckiest who only had to deal with personal challenges. I have had a lot of support along the way, but I still felt the need to avoid the dreaded ‘how’s the PhD going?’ question for years out of the fear that I will not make it. I think the way that I got through it is by building up confidence in my work and persevering even though I felt that the outcome might not be what I was hoping for and working towards. 

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment.

I guess the unique part of my maths journey is the fact that I am navigating my beliefs in an academic environment. As a Muslim, I need to pray at certain times during the day, so when I go to conferences, I would arrange my travel in such a way that allows me to do so, and I would take time out during lunch – when everyone else is networking – to pray. I would also need to ensure that my dietary requirements are met. In the UK, it’s been very easy to do so both during my studies and now. I am really grateful that when I mentioned that I needed to start praying in the office because the sunset is sooner, my colleagues offered me their offices! They have been really keen to make sure that I’m completely comfortable, which is something that I greatly appreciate. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I travelled abroad – I even visited a university which had removed their once purpose-built prayer room. But overall, it’s not been too much of a struggle wherever I’ve been. 

I think as a woman in maths, the main thing that I’ve noticed is that there are many more men than women participating in conferences and workshops that I’ve been to. I know that this is something that the INI are actively tackling, which is great to see and be a part of. The advice that I would give to a woman who is looking to pursue a career in mathematics is to persevere. There are going to be points where you’re told, either directly or indirectly, that you’re not good enough and that you don’t belong here, and it may come from people that you don’t expect it to, but if you know that it’s your ultimate goal to stay in academia, or to simply complete a PhD then I’d say just keep going with it and stay strong as only good things come through hard work and perseverance. 

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Natasha Karp

Natasha Karp

Born in United Kingdom • Birth year 1974 • Studied Biochemistry at Warwick University in United Kingdom • Highest Degree PhD in Chemistry from University of London • Lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom • Occupation Director Biostatistics at AstraZeneca

I really struggled at school in the early years, particularly with reading and writing; but then when I was around 12, it started to make sense. I was formally diagnosed as being dyslexic when I went to university, I guess when I was 12  things clicked into place as I found my strategies to get round my dyslexia. Those early years of struggling and being in bottom sets has left me with feelings of doubt but also a drive to prove people wrong. At 16, I selected mathematics with statistics, biology and chemistry as my specialist subjects and got the highest grades possible. I really enjoyed statistics and mathematics, and used to do extra work for fun. However, it was taught as a theoretical subject and I had no sense of what you could do with it. I also had no role models; I am the only person in my family to graduate from university. If you were a clever woman, you became a teacher or a doctor. Being a doctor didn’t appeal, so teaching became the ambition and I decided to study biochemistry with a year in industry at Warwick University and graduated with a first-class degree.

After I conducted some experiments, I felt the mathematical techniques used to make decisions were poor. Consequently, I started studying statistics (…).

I really enjoyed my year in industry, where I learnt the fundamentals of research, but after years of conditioning that my path was to be a teacher, I then trained as a secondary school teacher. After a couple of years teaching, I realised that I didn’t feel satisfied intellectually. I was working hard but didn’t feel I was growing. I decided to return to science and was offered a role back with the industrial placement company who sponsored me to complete a PhD in partnership with Imperial College, London. Unfortunately, the company folded but I just managed to complete my PhD. My confidence as a scientist felt low, I felt I had snuck in my PhD and I decided to work in academia to prove myself and joined the Cambridge Centre for Proteomics as a post-doc. I was very lucky and given a lot of freedom. After I conducted some experiments, I felt the mathematical techniques used to make decisions were poor. Consequently, I started studying statistics and writing papers exploring experimental design and data analysis for proteomic experiments. I was flying high and had 12 publications but then my first son was born and he was very poorly and I had to prioritise the family. I found a part-time job as a biostatistician with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute supporting in vivo research. It felt like I was starting again but I could meet my family needs and keep working. Over time, my son got better. The new environment gave me new opportunities; for example, I spent some time with database experts who helped me learn to code. I started publishing again in data analysis and experimental design for in vivo research. There wasn’t permanent funding in academia for this type of role so I applied to AstraZeneca, who had just relocated to Cambridge, as a statistician.  

I feel my dyslexia is a strength, as it helps me see the bigger picture, connect ideas and be a better manager.

What am I doing now? I now lead a team of statisticians for AstraZeneca supporting preclinical research. I still work part-time (80%) to meet my family commitments. The work is very varied and we have the opportunity to make a big impact. We jump into projects, assist the scientists, enable their research and then jump to the next project. I find it surreal that I, a self-taught statistician, lead these amazing statisticians. I feel my dyslexia is a strength as it helps me see the bigger picture, connect ideas and be a better manager. As a dyslexic woman who has an unusual career path I bring diversity to the leadership element of my role. I also give lectures around the world on my research topics of interest and get the opportunity to work outside of AstraZeneca on working groups exploring topics such as sex bias or reproducibility. I love my job. It is applied statistics having impact.

As an individual with imposter syndrome, you have to recognise your voice of doubt but not let it control you.

My career path has had many twists and turns. That is real life. There are benefits, I have more experience to draw upon. I feel my journey shows there isn’t one path that is right for you. You should be open to opportunities and change. Change is positive. You do have to be prepared to take risks. As an individual with imposter syndrome, you have to recognise your voice of doubt but not let it control you. From the perspective of maths, data is everywhere, being good with data is such a strength. You don’t have to be a theoretical expert to add value and have impact. Enjoy your journey but don’t expect to know exactly where you are going and keep growing and challenging yourself.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Masoumeh Dashti

Masoumeh Dashti

Born in Tehran, Iran • Studied Mechanical Engineering in Tehran, Iran • Highest degree PhD in Mathematics from the University of Warwick, UK • Lives in UK • Current occupation: Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Sussex

I enjoyed mathematics in elementary and middle school and at the beginning of high school among the four streams available to students in Iran, I chose mathematical sciences. When choosing my major for the university, I considered maths, physics and engineering and settled at the end for mechanical engineering as it seemed to have better job prospects in Iran. In engineering undergraduate programs in Iran there was a strong emphasis on mathematical foundations and theoretical aspects and I found myself enjoying those parts more than the practical side. I then did a master’s degree in mechanical engineering which made me more curious about advanced mathematical tools and structures through a course and then a project on dynamical systems. My master’s project advisor was very supportive and encouraging of my interest in mathematics. Later when I was applying to maths programs he introduced me to the maths institute that I ended up doing my PhD in.

I decided to change discipline to maths and started a master’s degree in the UK which led to a PhD in mathematical fluid mechanics.

During and after my master’s degree I worked in two engineering companies in Iran and also did an internship in an oil company in Japan. Comparing these experiences in industry with those of a part-time position I had in a research project at the university and my master’s project, I felt that I would prefer the greater freedom that a research job in academia could offer me. I decided to change discipline to maths and started a master’s degree in the UK which led to a PhD in mathematical fluid mechanics. It was very fortunate for me that people with diverse educational backgrounds were accepted to these postgraduate programs. My supervisor, teachers and fellow students were all very supportive as I was slowly filling out the holes in my knowledge of core undergraduate mathematics. A collaboration towards the end of my PhD led to a postdoctoral position after which I joined the maths department at Sussex as a lecturer.

I enjoy how in many instances in such problems the requirements and constraints imposed from the applied side push one to see the limitations of the theory and to explore new directions.

What I appreciate very much about my job are the freedom of working on the research projects that interest me and the opportunities of collaboration with colleagues and PhD students with similar or complementing interests. 

I work on the interface of the theoretical and applied side of partial differential equations and statistical inverse problems. I enjoy how in many instances in such problems the requirements and constraints imposed from the applied side push one to see the limitations of the theory and to explore new directions. Interactions with other researchers can be very useful in this process. Developing good and functional collaborations can take time and effort but I think they form one of the most rewarding parts of this job. 

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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.

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