Q&A with the ANZIAM 2020 Female Plenary Speakers

Ami Radunskaya

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Ami Radunskaya. I am a Professor at Pomona College, part of the Claremont Consortium in Claremont, California, just on the outskirts of Los Angeles County.  My job is half teaching, and half research, and most of my students are undergraduates. I do have the opportunity to supervise PhD students through the Claremont Graduate University, and I have so far shepherded three students through their doctorate. I like my current job because I can combine research with my teaching, my students are wonderful, and I still have time to do my own work with collaborators all over the world.

Why do you do mathematics?

I did not start out with the idea of doing mathematics, although I always thought it was fun. My father encouraged me when I was young through his own love of mathematics.  We’d talk about different kinds of infinity, logic puzzles, and how to understand the laws of physics through equations. I went to university after a decade of playing the ‘cello professionally, and – even then – I thought I would go back into the music industry in some capacity after getting my degree. But as I got deeper into the filed, I realized that what I loved about music: patterns evolving through time, symmetries and the joy of the unexpected – these were all mathematical ideas! I could immerse myself in these ideas abstractly and derive the same pleasure out of them as I did doing music. I also discovered that I enjoyed teaching; in my experience, teaching mathematics is much easier than teaching someone to play the ‘cello.

After getting my degree, I discovered somewhat accidentally that there are many problems in the “real world” that can be attacked by mathematics. I found that I enjoyed collaborating, something I had not done as a graduate student or post-doc, and that I liked working across disciplinary boundaries. Now I work on many problems, both theoretical and applied, and I work with a lot of different groups of people.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My work days change over the seasons.  During the school year, I typically spend a full day in my office. I try to set aside at least two days to focus on research (of all sorts), and the other three days are taken up with classes, office hours and meetings with students and committees. A lot of my research time is spent on video calls since most of my collaborators live in other places. I like to start my work days walking to school (about 1.4 miles) with my dog. This gives me at least a half hour of quiet thought before the rush of the day. Earlier in my career I was a lot more stressed out about how good my work was – now I just enjoy doing it, and look forward to working with my collaborators. Another thing that has changed throughout my career is the number of emails and requests I get for advice and help. I try to answer all of these, but sometimes I get behind, and I hope that people forgive me for that! In recent years, I have become more active in professional organizations. For example, I just finished my term as President of the Association for Women in Mathematics. While this was a big time commitment, with lots of emails, meetings and administrative tasks, it was also rewarding to meet people from all over, and to understand how diverse our community is, along many different axes.

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

Doing research is the most fun part of my job.  I really like working on a problem, and figuring it out. Early in my career, I had a hard time with confidence issues.  I was never very confident in my writing, and so getting a negative review on a submission just made me think that none of my work was any good. This is where having collaborators has been very useful: one of them said to me once “stop talking about our work as if it’s no good!” I realized that I didn’t think of HER work that way, just mine. Why was that, when we had done the work together? Now I know to surround myself with people who are supportive; doing so gives me the courage to face whatever challenges come my way.

How important is travelling?

I like traveling because I get to meet and talk to people who are otherwise just names on paper. I love listening to people talk about their work when they are excited about it, and I always come away with new ideas. Traveling is also tiring, and I am still learning that sometimes it’s better to stay at home and take care of things there. But, despite all the available video-conferencing tools, there’s nothing quite like meeting face to face. My favorite math travels involve small groups of people getting together in a nice spot to work on a problem intensely together.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

If  I could talk to my younger self, I would repeat the adage  “don’t judge your inside by other people’s outside”.  I was always comparing myself to other people and coming up short: I didn’t respond quickly enough, I phrased things badly, I made mistakes in my write-ups, I couldn’t draw a very good circle on the blackboard ….. So many deficiencies! What I learned is that, when people know me, they don’t see those deficiencies. So, find a few people – even one person will be a good start – that you trust, and work with them. Support each other, and keep telling each other that you are awesome. Because you are.

Elizabeth Bradley

What is your name and what do you do?

Liz Bradley, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado; Faculty Affiliate with Department of Applied Mathematics.

Why do you do mathematics?

My father was a student of Courant and there was always mathematics in the air in our house. I love the lens that it provides on the world.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I’m not sure that there IS a typical day. When I’m teaching, I spend the two hours right before class preparing—that way the ideas and the delivery are fresh in my mind.  When I have a day saved for research, I often start at a coffee shop so that I have the right stimulants and minimal distractions while I read and think and draw. It is very important to me to work on physical paper, with physical writing implements. Of course I look things up and read papers online, but I find that a computer screen stifles good thinking. Often, my students come find me at the coffeeshop; they know they’ll get more and better attention from me there.

Now that I’m close to 30 years into my professorship, though, I don’t often get to save a whole day for research. There is just too much service work to do: handling papers that are submitted to the journal for which I am an Editor, reviewing proposals of different kinds, etc. A huge chunk of my time goes to the US Computing Research Association’s “visioning” board, the CCC (cra.org/ccc), which I help lead. And like everyone else, I’m drowning in email.

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

As a senior woman in STEM, my service load is crushing. There are too many deeply important things that won’t get done unless YOU do them. It’s important to preserve your own time and to try not to feel guilty about it.

How important is travelling?

Very. In-person interactions are irreplaceable.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

Never say yes to anything without thinking about it for at least 24 hours first. Stop and do some journaling now and then, so that you can assess the balance between research, teaching, service and the rest of your life. And while being strategic is important (e.g., publishing a lot and in the right venues), don’t sacrifice meaning or passion for strategy (e.g., dicing up a good paper into chunks so you have more bullets on your CV, working on something you don’t enjoy because it will get you more papers).

Jennifer Flegg

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Jennifer Flegg. I’m an Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics at The University of Melbourne in the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

Why do you do mathematics?

I always really liked mathematics from when I was at school and so it seemed like a natural choice to study maths at university. I was exposed to applied mathematics at QUT and from there was drawn into mathematical biology since it was an exciting area with lots of new applications available to work on.

What is a typical workday like for you?

A typical day would involve meeting with students to discuss their projects, keeping on top of emails, reading draft work from students, some committee meetings or other administration-type activities and some writing (papers/grants). I’d love to say that a typical day involves lots of coding, but that seems to be less common now and I miss it!

What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?

I have an interest in the applications that I work on and I like working with people outside of mathematics (biologists/clinicians). There are lots of barriers to overcome in academia. There are so many times that grants/papers/applications are unsuccessful and it takes a little getting used to.

How important is travelling?

I think it’s important to establish an international reputation in your research area. That might be through travel, but there are other ways to achieve that too (publishing in international journals, being an editor for a journal, getting on boards/committees, etc). I’ve found it difficult to travel more recently with family commitments, so have tried other ways to keep my name out there.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? 

Try to make those 5 years post-PhD count as much as you can – I realised this only towards the end of the 5 years. Also, try to compete against yourself, rather than comparing yourself to other people.