Q&A with the AustMS 2019 Female Plenary Speakers

Astrid an Huef (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Astrid an Huef.  I am a Professor of Mathematics at Victoria University of Wellington.  I have a traditional academic appointment where theoretically I divide my working time into 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do mathematics because I enjoy it. I never had a master plan. Each time a career choice had to be made I just moved on to the next stage (from undergraduate to Honours to the PhD etc) because I was enjoying myself. I like immersing myself in a mathematical problem, though sometimes I get a little too obsessed with it.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Most days, I start by reading my e-mail after breakfast.  I walk to work, which takes about 45 minutes. During that time I try to sort out what my priorities for the day are. During teaching times, a typical work day involves giving lectures and/or tutorials (or preparing for these), appointments with students, supervising research students, committee meetings and dealing with the inevitable emails.

I like to block off chunks of time during the week for some uninterrupted thinking time to do research-related tasks. I try to work on just one or two research projects at a time (preferably just one), but that is sometimes hard to arrange depending on where collaborators are at with their research time and efforts. Sometimes, all research time is taken up by writing a grant proposal, refereeing a paper or reading a thesis.

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

I enjoy the mathematics, and especially collaborating with other mathematicians.  Proving a theorem, when it happens, is immensely satisfying. Though I tend to move on to the next problem too quickly instead of savouring the success! The main barrier for me is to find the time for research.  I take both my teaching and service duties very seriously, and they both take time. In particular, I find it hard to say “no” to jobs that are important for the School, University or the mathematical community.

How important is travelling?

I find it quite important.  It’s much easier to find out about new trends and work at a large-ish conference in my research area as opposed to monitoring what  is posted to the arXiv. I’ve found knowing and being known in my research community very helpful for my career.

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

Learn how to write well. You have to be clear, accurate and unambiguous, while keeping our language as simple as possible. This will help you get published quicker and in better journals, it will help to increase your readership, and  eventually get research grants.  At times we have to describe very technical concepts to non experts, and that is hard to do! 

Take a tutorial for each course that you lecture to help you gauge where the students are (as opposed to where you wold like them to be). Talk to your students.

Find yourself mentors for the different aspects of your job. In particular, peer mentoring is extremely useful.

Nalini Joshi

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Nalini Joshi and I hold a Payne-Scott Professorship in Mathematics at The University of Sydney.  This year I took up an elected position as Vice-President of the International Mathematical Union.  I find myself talking to people a lot about mathematics, but I am also very interested in issues related to equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM. I chair the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Australian Mathematical Society  and co-organize an annual Mentoring and Guidance in Careers (MAGIC) workshop for female and gender-diverse researchers who obtained a PhD in mathematics, physics or chemistry in the past 7 years.

Why do you do mathematics?

I was born in Burma, now called Myanmar. When I was a child, I was fascinated by games that involved counting patterns. I don’t remember what they were called, but I remember many games involving levels and patterns that became more and more complex at each levelLaterI remember doing experiments in physics in high school, and finding the predictability of the results fascinating. One experiment involved a ball rolling down a ramp on a table and I had to place a cup on the floor at the exact place where the ball would land. I was obsessed by finding out what the initial speed should be for the ball to fall in the same cup over and over again. Around that time I was deeply interested in reading all the science fiction I could lay my hands on. I daydreamed about travelling in space as an astronaut to other star systems, and finding out what these strange objects called “quasars” might be. Mathematics was a natural counterpart of this exploration in my mind – I realized then that I actually wanted or needed to know more mathematics to get where I wanted to go.

Was there someone in particular who motivated you to do mathematics?

Not really.  My father wanted me to be a doctor. My mother wanted me to marry an older, richer man. I had great teachers, but my decision to do mathematics at a deep level was mine alone.

What is a typical workday like for you?

An ideal day starts with me writing down something about my current mathematical dreams, before getting to emails, preparing lectures,  teaching, talking to students and post docs, and catching up on administrative matters. As I am writing this, I am actually attending wonderful talks at a workshop I co-organized. So I left home very early in order to do the marking I must finish before the talks start. When the talks finish, I will enter the marks from the exams I marked, attend to the emails I should respond to, then autograph a book for someone who read the manuscript before it was submitted. Then I will have space to think about the talks I am giving at a conference next week.

Has this changed between the different stages of your career: early career/mid career/now?

Absolutely! Near the start of my career, much of my time was taken up by my children. I used to rush into my classes with baby vomit in my hair! I had to make a special effort to get up 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the household just to have time to think. Time at the office was much freer – fewer emails, fewer administrative roles. I could spend much more time pursuing long calculations, except at times when I left to nurse a baby or children were ill at home.

At the mid-career stage, my children were at school, I spent a lot of time applying for grants, teaching, and supervising students. I contributed and led activities to increase gender equity in academia. I travelled to conferences approximately once a year and focused more on developing new collaborations.

Now, I have many meetings with students, post docs, visitors. I try to inspire people to do the long calculations I am itching to do. More time is spent on administrative roles related to Mathematics – such as editorial roles – and on outreach, whether it’s on social media or giving talks to non-mathematical audiences. I also travel a lot more – this year I was trying to cut back on travel and turned down invitations to Canada, Scotland and Spain amongst many others I received. Nevertheless, in less than a year this year, I’ve travelled to Germany twice, USA twice, and New Zealand once. I have also focused more on communicating my research area in a more accessible way to others, such as by writing books and reviews.

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

Every time I allow myself to open my mind to think about mathematical ideas and problems I’ve tackled before, a new idea sneaks up on me. I have learnt to trust these ideas. They give a glimpse of something deeper and I have to pursue them to find something that eventually turns into an amazing insight. It might be amazing only to me! But, the experience is like a window opening into my mind and it gets flooded with light. I find this incredibly satisfying. Some of these glimpses and insights have led me to solve problems in ways that no one else seems to have through of. These new pathways give me more insights, and the whole cycle repeats over and over again. These addictive treasure hunts are what keeps me in research.

While I did not think I had barriers or problems at the time, I look back and think that there were many. At earlier times in my career, I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the underlying issues that led to the problems. Nowadays I describe them as due to micro-aggressions, competition and a lack of clarity in communication. The nature of the problems are such that I don’t think they would have happened if I had been a man, or part of the dominant ethnic group in the settings I have worked in.

How important is travelling?

Travelling was essential when I was building my career. It allowed me to hear other mathematicians explain their ideas, to ask them questions, and to hear about new developments immediately, rather than by waiting to read papers that might take some time to be published or posted on arXiV. It was also essential in another way. It allowed others to hear my ideas and this was important because the ethnicity of my name might have led them to ignore my papers. A third way in which it was essential was that it gave me time to think away from the responsibilities I had at home.

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

The key to success lies inside yourself. Don’t wait for others to come to you, go and find people you can talk to and work with them. Don’t be constrained by the traditional boundaries of your areas of research.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Don’t let the turkeys get you down. Don’t be so scared. Allow the wonder and excitement of ideas to guide you to new discoveries.

Leanne Rylands

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Leanne Rylands. I’m an Associate Professor at Western Sydney University and am on secondment half time as head of our mathematics and statistics support group, the Mathematics Education Support Hub (MESH). So I have two jobs.

As an academic in the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics I do the usual teaching, research and administration. I’m a member of the Centre for Research in Mathematics and Data Science.

As Head of MESH, within the Learning Futures Portfolio, I have a team of six people who work across six campuses to support students at all levels with their maths and stats. A large part of my job as head is administration and management.

The people I work with are wonderful.

Why do you do mathematics?

I love maths. I’ve always liked it. I always loved solving puzzles, by which I mean mathematical puzzles. I consider myself very lucky to have a job where I can, when I get time, work on the maths of my choice. Research in maths education arose from trying to understand more about my students and issues around this.

What is a typical workday like for you?

There is no typical day. I usually succumb to email as I feel I need to see if anything is urgent (many people do expect quick responses and some actually need them), but that takes too much time.

Depending on the day, diary, time of year it’s teaching, students, meetings, administration and informal but useful chats with others. I’ll spend time on any pressing projects (maybe something is due). Research and writing papers are squeezed into this.

Over the years administration has increased and I’m doing less teaching. I’ve got a better overview of the university landscape. I take a much broader view than I did when I first started working.

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

I like it. The feeling of proving a theorem or submitting a paper is good. It’s also expected of an academic and necessary to get ahead and it’s more interesting than some other aspects of the job. I find that working with others is good as I’m less likely to keep putting projects off, as I feel an obligation to those I work with.

How important is travelling?

It is important, I’ve always gained by meeting new people and seeing people again, and hearing what others are doing.

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

Learn to write well; try to enjoy writing. If I’d done that earlier I’m sure that I would have written up more work and done it faster and better. Seriously consider opportunities that come your way as you are sure to gain skills, broaden your network and learn. Learn to say “no” to unreasonable demands, and perhaps get advice from more experienced people about what is reasonable and what is not.

Joanna Sikora

What is your name and what do you do?

Joanna Sikora, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology, College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. My position involves teaching, research and administration with teaching accounting for the largest share of my time allocation.

Why do you do mathematics?

Ever since I’ve started my academic career, one of my roles has been teaching introductory statistics to Arts students. I try to explain basic numerical coding of social science data, how to interpret means and standard deviations and what the basic logic of an ordinary least squares regression is. I never thought I would end up in this area, because my first encounter with statistical research methods as an undergraduate was not entirely successful. As a result, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do stats. I ended up using statistical methods in my doctoral dissertation and after that I ended up teaching others how to use statistics in sociology.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I don’t start very early in the morning, but I often work late at night and this includes time on weekends which is not a good habit. As years go by it is very important to have some time to yourself away from work, not to check emails all the time, which I tend to do. In fact, designating a specific time for dealing with emails, perhaps one hour in the morning and another in the afternoon would be good for me, but I do not achieve that on most days. Over time it seems that emails about various issues, teaching, administration, peer reviews, meetings of various committees etc. take up all hours in the day with nothing left for research.

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

My research involves the use of statistical methods and empirical data to highlight mechanisms that entrench inequalities in education and employment. I am particularly interested in structural inequalities that relate to gender and science. This is a challenging area, because the operation of such inequalities is not easy to demonstrate empirically. As is probably the case with every other academic, I have experienced some hurdles in my career, one of which was lack of role models and mentoring commensurate with my needs. Having a mentor is not a sign of weakness. It is ensuring that we are on the right track. Mentoring is constructive for all involved and I would love to mentor someone in my field.

How important is travelling?

Mobility is extremely important in academia, and this means travelling to conferences, but also moving jobs and seeking higher level appointments elsewhere. Yet, this is often incompatible with family life. This is where many academics with caring responsibilities have restricted access to mobility. Nowadays some universities have special grants to deal with this problem (some thanks to SAGE). This is great! Yet, often such schemes are available for short term trips e.g. mothers with young children going to a conference and cannot be used in other situations (e.g. adolescent kids+ single parent + going away for a few months) so mobility can still be hard to achieve for parents or carers. We need to work on changing attitudes and support policies around these issues.

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

Look actively for a mentor who can understand your situation, e.g. problems related to health issues such as Repetitive Stress Injury or other chronic conditions, cultural barriers, non-English speaking background, being the only woman on your team, working as the only person in a particular field in your department, family obligations or whatever circumstances you are dealing with. Don’t give up until you find someone. They do not have to be like you, but they need to understand you. Work on good habits to protect yourself from long-term effects of overworking. Sometimes academic careers get compared to elite sport, to succeed you need periods of effective recovery so that you can keep going.

Corinna Ulcigrai

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Corinna Ulcigrai, I am a pure mathematician and a full professor at the Institute for Mathematics at the University of Zurich (since 2018, previously I was Professor at University of Bristol, in the UK where I lived for 10 years). My work is in dynamical systems and Teichmueller dynamics, at the crossroad between ergodic theory and geometry.

Why do you do mathematics?

I think that doing Mathematics, especially pure research, is a passion. It is not easy and often frustrating, but is it also extremely stimulating and rewarding. I especially enjoy discussing mathematics with other mathematicians, such as collaborators, visitors and younger researchers. Research is a very creative process and very much a team-work, you learn and get inspired by listening and talking to other mathematicians and brainstorming new questions and new ways to attack them with them. I also enjoy many of the other aspects of being an academic. I enjoy teaching and also travelling (even if I do it much less now that I have children) and I try to mentor younger colleagues, support younger women mathematicians and organize scientific events activities, all of which is also very rewarding.

What is a typical workday like for you?

No day is the same, the structure of my day changes a lot according to the day of the week and the period of the year, but overall it is a mixture of various components, including research, teaching, supervision, and administration. I prepare my lectures for the days in which I teach (which is another very rewarding component of an academic job) and on some semesters I also take part as a participant in courses and working groups on specialized topics. Mondays we have our research seminar and I often host and discuss with our scientific visitors; I also spend a lot of time in meetings discussing with my students and postdocs. Some weeks I have collaborators visiting, then I spend almost all the day discussing at the board! Sometimes it is hard to find enough quiet time to sit and think or to write the mathematics down.

My commitments have changed a lot with the stages of my life and my career. I had much more time for thinking alone when I was younger, now I miss that but more and more of my research happens through discussions. Now I also find myself doing much more administration work for my University (such as meeetings, committees, hiring, …) and for the scientific community (being editor of journals, writing reference letters and reports for grants, being part of committees for thesis, promotion or hiring, organizing conferences and summer schools…). Furthermore, I have two young children and I try to protect time to spend with them, early evenings and weekends are family time for me. It is a busy life though and sometimes I find myself replying to emails after they are in bed.

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

Throughout my career, I was fortunate to get to know many brilliant mathematicians who were also wonderful human beings and were deeply influential role models for me. A crucial role in my career advances was played by the support and encouragement received by more senior colleagues, which had encouraged me at different stages to be ambitious and apply for grants and promotions. I think mentoring and encouragement are very important in particular for women academics, who sometimes tend to be less confident and ambitious.

I think that one of the hardest parts of my career path was perhaps the beginning, and a lot of it was due to lack of confidence. I knew I loved mathematics and I loved research, but I was not sure I was good enough to succeed. I studied in competitive environments, in Scuola Normale of Pisa, in Italy, as an undergraduate students, then at Princeton University, in the USA, as a graduate student. I had overall positive experiences there, I learned a lot, in particular by fellow peers (and I also had a good amount of fun), but I spent a lot of time worrying, about my abilities or about the future and I would have enjoyed it more if I had worried less.

When I was younger, I was also questioning whether I could have an academic career and a family at the same time. I found it very inspiring to see around me many female mathematicians, both more senior and just a little above me in their academic paths, who had succeeded or were experimenting new ways of achieving this. I now have two children, aged 4 and 7 and to me, being a mother and being a mathematician are two equally essential parts of my being. Trying to find a balance between academic commitments and family time is not always easy, but even if my life is now very busy, I feel very fortunate in being able to combine these two aspects of my life and I try to appreciate it and get the most I can out of both worlds.

After I became a mathematician mother, I experienced the only discrimination episodes in my career (such as being denied a grant extension for maternity leave or being forbidden to stay and have lunch with colleagues in a famous conference center because I travelled with my breastfed baby). I think there is a lot of work still to do to support mathematicians’ mums, but there is more and more attention to the issues and the situation is quickly improving.

How important is travelling?

I think travelling is still an essential part of research, both for extended periods (e.g. going abroad for academic positions), and for short term visits, for conferences and/or for collaborations. Communication technologies are offering us more and more possibilities (watching recorded conference talks, collaborating or attending a panel in a videoconference, etc.), but still nothing replaces a face to face discussion at the board, especially at the earliest stages of a collaboration. Travelling is also enriching and allows to meet new mathematicians and possibly form new collaborations.

Since when I started a family and had children, trips became harder for me to organize and I try to limit them to spend time with my family. I became more selective and also more creative, in finding solutions to allow me to participate, sometimes also bringing children along (together with a family member or finding local childcare). Getting third party funding also allowed me to invite collaborators much more often then visiting them, so it is often others who do the travelling to work with me and I can stay at home with my children. Selected conferences became now also a chance to take ‘time off’ family duties.

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

Find your own role models, possibly different ones for different aspects of being a mathematician (such as excellent researchers, great teachers, efficient and balanced people…) and look out for mentors. Don’t be shy and approach other mathematicians, younger or older, to discuss math, ask for academic advice, and for networking.

Be ambitious, and humble at the same time, both in the problems you choose to work on and in the choices you make (where to submit a paper, whether to apply for a promotion, …). For example, always try to work on a ‘high gain-high risk’ and and easier but safer problem at the same time.

If you think research in mathematics might be your path, follow your passion and believe in your abilities. This is especially key for women, which sometimes tend to be less self-confident and not sure of their talent. Believe in yourself, and listen to others who tell you to.