Q&A with the ANZIAM 2014 Female Plenary Speakers

AlisonEtheridge.JPG Alison Etheridge

What is your name and what do you do?

Professor of Probability at the University of Oxford. I have a joint appointment between maths and stats and I am also currently ‘Associate Head of Division (finance)' which is a grand way of saying I do a lot of admin.

Why do you do mathematics?

Initially, I chose to study maths for all the wrong reasons - I thought I stood a better chance of getting to Oxford to study maths than just about anything else and I was good at it without having to work too hard. Later, I realised that I actually enjoyed it a lot - and I wasn't ready to stop at the end of my first degree. If I'm honest, I also hadn't really thought very hard about what else I would do, and my only alternative career option to a doctorate in maths was a job in theoretical physics at a government research site near Oxford. It has been up and down over the years as I have always had a hard time justifying what I do for a living to myself (and to the family I grew up in), but as soon as I stand at a whiteboard with a colleague talking about maths I get sucked in to it and find myself having fun. I have also always enjoyed teaching, which was another motivation to stay in academia after my doctorate.

I had a couple of school teachers who pushed me ahead in maths - creating a lot of work for themselves as it meant that they had to teach me on my own during breaks and free periods in a large and not particularly academically focused state secondary school. They stretched me enough intellectually to keep me interested even within the confines of the rather narrow British education. My physics teacher was also accommodating which meant I was able to leave school a year early and have a gap year before going to Oxford (which was great preparation and allowed me time to make some money and to make up some of the gaps in my knowledge compared to more `typical' Oxford students in those days).

What is a typical workday like for you?

If I am in Oxford, then I get to the office soon after 9.00 (straight after dropping my younger child at school). I'll have already checked email over breakfast and decided if any of the messages in my Inbox really need dealing with urgently. Generally these days, at least during term time, I'll have at least one meeting on most days and I have to be sure that I am ready for those - that is I have read the papers and thought through the issues. Happily, as I become more senior and have to chair the meetings more often, I also have more support and so often I can rely on having been well briefed. Unless I have a meeting scheduled, I'll have settled in and passed on a few jobs to our wonderful admin team by about 9.30. I try to organise my time in blocks, so, for example, I'll try to see all my graduate students and postdocs on the same day or over two afternoons say. This can involve eight one hour meetings in a day, which is exhausting, but fun. My undergraduate teaching load has varied enormously over my career. At the moment I don't do any, but when I am teaching I also try to organise it in blocks.

A couple of days a week I'll try to get to seminars. One of these is organised immediately before lunch so that the whole group can get lunch together. This is a good way to make sure that we actually see each other at least once a week. If I don't have a seminar or a lunchtime meeting, I'll try to go to my College for lunch. I find it is a good way to get away from it all and I end up talking to colleagues from other disciplines, which is always interesting (and sometimes has even resulted in us working together). During term there's not much time left for research of my own and, in particular, I can rarely get long enough stretches of time to write things up. However, I find I do have time to collaborate and often I'll have visitors. When that happens, I make sure that I schedule as little as possible when they are around and we stand at a whiteboard and discuss ideas all day. When I am on my own, I find the time between 5 and 7 in the evening to be particularly productive. I can read, answer the emails that I deemed non-urgent (but where the senders may have other views) write references and sometimes think a little. Soon after 7.00, I go home. I try not to work in the evenings, although I do often sneak a few hours to deal with emails and chores at the weekend.

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

I simply enjoy research. I find it difficult to think of my own research as all that important, but once I start doing it, it becomes all-consuming. I have found that I particularly like collaborating with people. In my early career I usually worked on my own and this can be very isolating (and progress can be very slow). More recently I have been extremely lucky in finding collaborators whose skills complement my own and who are simply fun to be with. When I started out, I changed job quite a bit (partly trying to solve the two-body problem). I found I was constantly writing new lecture courses and adapting to new institutions. As a result I wasn't writing enough papers, even if I was doing the research. My solution was to travel a lot so that I knew what was going on and I was able to present my results. Eventually I wrote a book which contained many of the results that I'd never got round to writing up. This probably wasn't ideal from the point of view of my publication record, but I was sufficiently well known through conference talks that it didn't seem to harm me. I think it is tougher now and young people have to be more diligent about writing papers, but hopefully the world is a bit more aware of the pressures of moving jobs. When I started out, it was still not unusual to have colleagues who had been at the same institution since they graduated (if not before). Many of them were not research active and didn't necessarily recognise that expectations were changing.

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

Follow your heart - don't work on problems because you think it is a good way to get lots of easy publications - that isn't the point of doing research! My only advice to a younger version of me would be to start collaborating sooner and to be less sure that everyone else knows everything.

Lisa Fauci

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Lisa Fauci, and I am a Professor of Mathematics at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

Why do you do mathematics?

I have always loved the clarity and structure of mathematics. After I learned in graduate school that this structure could be coupled with computational methods to impact scientific inquiry, I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

One of my earliest childhood memories, before kindergarten, was that my older cousin Damian would give me addition and subtraction problems to solve for fun. It made me so proud to get the answers right! Later on, I was fortunate to have many excellent and supportive teachers. It was my advisor as an undergraduate at Pace University, Dr. Michael Bernkopf, who suggested I go for a Ph.D. in Mathematics. This had never crossed my mind, and, in fact, I don't think I even knew what graduate school was when he suggested it.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My typical work day: Prepare lecture, meet with graduate students, write a letter of recommendation, meet with undergraduate students, write a referee report, meet with postdocs, write part of a grant proposal, meet with other faculty, write part of a research paper, go to a colloquium, write a tenure letter, etc. Of course, this may not happen all in one day, but I want to emphasize that much of what a Professor does is write - even a math Professor.

Compared to earlier stages of my career: I have much less time to read and think on my own (never mind write computer code). I do spend a lot of time working with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in my group - who I hope have the time to read and think on their own!

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

The motivation for my research in mathematical modeling and scientific computing always comes from a wish to understand fundamental processes in biology. I do love reading about new biological discoveries, and love the challenge of developing simplified models that can shed light on the underlying processes. Of course, I have had barriers – there was a time where this type of interdisciplinary research was not completely embraced in the mathematics community. Those days are gone. Now my main barrier to doing research is just the time to do it.

Traveling to conferences and workshops is essential. On the one hand, this is where you get to hear about the new and exciting things going on in your field - and you may get a good idea or two while you are listening to others. On the other hand, it is important for you to let others know about the new and exciting things being done by you and your students!

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

If you love what you are doing, keep doing it. Don't get bogged down by too many things outside of your research (in the beginning of your career).

Make sure you put aside some time each day to write!

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Updated: 07 Jan 2014
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