Q&A with the ANZIAM 2017 Female Plenary Speakers

Claire Postlethwaite

Claire-Postlethwaite-framed.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Claire Postlethwaite and I’m a Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at the University of Auckland. My job is a mixture of research, teaching and service (all the other stuff!)

Why do you do mathematics?

I have always found mathematics fascinating, and at a very young age I discovered I was quite good at it. I also enjoyed other sciences, particularly physics, but I was always terrible at doing experiments. Although I really enjoyed the puzzles and abstract ideas that come with some areas of pure mathematics, I think my general interest in science is part of what has made me an applied, rather than a pure mathematician. I really love that I’m able to dabble in lots of different areas of science by being able to use mathematics to try and understand it.

What is a typical workday like for you?

At the moment I’m working part time (three days a week) because I have two small children who I spend the rest of the week with. This means my working days can be quite different depending on whether I’m currently teaching a class or not. Although most of my working days are spent in my office, either on my computer or scratching at paper, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “typical day” – what I work on on a particular day really depends on who or what is trying to get my attention hardest on that day!

During teaching time, I find my entire week is filled with teaching activities. These include preparing and giving lectures, holding office hours, writing exams/tutorials/assignments and dealing with student queries, to name just a few. Luckily I was able to get some teaching buyout after I returned from my second maternity leave and so my overall teaching load was quite low in 2016.

When I’m not actively teaching, my day could contain many different things, depending on what stage of a project I’m at, or what other pressures are currently upon me. Research-wise, this could include meetings with students or collaborators (possibly over Skype for international collaborators), doing pencil-and-paper or numerical calculations for a project or writing or proof-reading a paper. Other activities include writing grants, reviewing papers, and other service activities such as organizing the summer scholarships programme or events for Women in Science (two things I’m currently heavily involved with).

My day in the office finishes fairly early so I can collect the children from their daycare, so I’ll often do a couple of hours more work in the evenings. This is quite different from before I had children when I’d rather work a little later and keep all my work separate from my home life.

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

I absolutely love this job and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love the satisfaction you get after solving a difficult mathematical problem, or writing computer code that finally works! I also enjoy collaborations, both with other mathematicians, and other scientists.

Like almost everyone, I have at one time or another experienced “imposter syndrome”. My main worry has been that my research is boring, or pointless, or that no-one else finds it interesting. I’ve found that the best way to cure this is to go to a conference – I always come back feeling invigorated and excited to do more mathematics.

How important is travelling?

Travel is also important to keep up collaborations, as well as to attend conferences. This has become harder for me since having children, although my husband and I (he’s also a mathematician) are now in the habit of taking both kids with us to conferences and switching out childcare as we go. This is hopefully how things will also work for our joint sabbatical in the second half of 2017, but that remains to be seen! I’m hopeful travel will become easier as the kids get a bit older. One of the nice things about being in New Zealand is that collaborators are often keen to visit us, so that can be another way to keep collaborations alive when travel is hard.

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

I think that one of the reasons I’ve had the successes I’ve had is because I’ve had really good mentors throughout my whole career. Even back as far as my secondary school teachers, through my PhD and postdoctoral advisors and also here at the University of Auckland. So I think my first piece of advice would be to make sure, at PhD and postdoctoral level, you have a supervisor who values your career as well as your work on their specific project. If your supervisor doesn’t do this then find someone else (another member of staff), who does!

I think it’s important research-wise not to focus yourself too narrowly at the start of your career. It’s probably not the best idea to do a postdoc with your PhD supervisor, for instance. Try to branch out! For some people, this might mean you have to leave home, even leave your home country. During your postdoc, you should try and forge your own collaborations and start to establish yourself as a researcher independent from your supervisor. Finally, don’t be afraid to apply for things (jobs, grant, awards, promotions) because you think you won’t get them. You certainly won’t if you don’t apply and you might surprise yourself!

Maria Vlasiou

MariaVlasiou-framed.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Maria Vlasiou and I am an Associate Professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands. I am also a Scientific Staff member at two research institutes, CWI and EURANDOM, both located in the Netherlands, which are the national research institutes for mathematics and computer science and for different areas of stochastics, respectively. My research interests are mainly in stochastic processes and stochastic operations research. My tasks are the usual ones for faculty, i.e., broadly speaking, teaching, research and administration. I find I enjoy many aspects of these tasks. One of the things I love about my job is the flexibility to arrange the mixture of these elements to suit my moods and my interests.

Why do you do mathematics?

I guess the first seeds were planted by my father, who made a point of collecting riddles and logic puzzles for our daily bonding time. Finding the solution taught me to admire the beauty of a proof and ultimately, it drove me to mathematics. I loved that my age was not an issue: a proof is a proof, no matter who provides it. I did struggle with the idea of becoming a lawyer. I (naively) saw this as the job where you build a proof (of innocence), but now with laws as your toys rather than theorems. I have never managed to fully embrace this path due to what I once perceived as the arbitrariness of laws or human input in the process. The purity or absoluteness of mathematics drew me and kept me throughout my graduate studies.

Academia was the only choice I considered, even when struggling with the infamous two-body problem. I love guiding students and hopefully getting them excited about mathematics, I love the discovery when working on a juicy problem, and I love the freedom to switch between tasks. All three elements make me feel invigorated and happy to be going to “work” each day.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My working day has changed a lot with the years. As an untenured assistant professor without children, I put in a lot of hours in the office, focusing mainly on research and my PhD students, eschewing administrative tasks, and improving the art of efficient but yet effective teaching on the side. Over the last few years, I have had two children. Pregnancies and the subsequent maternal and parental leaves meant that I’ve spent at least two years off work. The year between kids that I was back to work was simply playing catch-up.

For the past few months, (work) life is back to normal though very different to what it used to be. Nowadays, I will typically wake up around 7.30, get the kids ready, drop them off and be at my desk around 9am. I unfortunately start with emails (a habit I am trying to get rid of for the past so many years, as the morning is my most efficient time) and then start with my most pressing task for the day. I try to schedule students for after lunch and bundle them in as few days as possible. The work day ends with tasks such as preparing for class, doing admin, writing grants (that’s the best time for me, as writing the grant is the easy part once my thoughts are crystallised regarding the proposed project). I leave to pick up the kids around 5.30pm and until they are both in bed, my time is theirs. Late in the evening though, I typically catch up once more with my emails and reply to students.

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

I’ve often said that I am among the lucky few in this world, as I am being paid to do something I’d do for free. I love research. I love focusing on a problem. I prefer to give problems where I have a (vague) feeling about what technique might work to students as they can be a good start for their training and focus on those that are either in a new for me area or are simply baffling me. Oftentimes, I feel rather guilty about this. My main motivation is learning more mathematics rather than a focus on societal problems. (Then I manage to soothe my conscience by reminding myself that I contribute to society in many other ways.)

Regarding barriers, earlier in my career, I had to find the balance between all the different tasks. I felt rather overwhelmed at times and that the day didn’t have enough hours. Right now, though I manage much more, I feel quite relaxed about everything that I need to accomplish and I feel that I am ready to take more. I did struggle quite a bit when pregnant with my first child as I knew what that would mean for my career or work day even though having children was clearly the right choice for me. I felt frustrated at times when being told that I was passed over this or that position because of timing or maternity leave or because a male colleague had indeed achieved a lot in the past 3 years that I was effectively out of any academic pursuits. All in all though, I have gained a lot through these experiences, not the least of which is a stronger sense of conviction regarding my choices.

How important is travelling?

I find it essential in one’s development. During my studies, I chose to follow Master courses in a different country than where I completed my Bachelors and then move yet another time for my PhD. Throughout all these years, I went to various other universities abroad for summer courses. It was a shock each time, both culturally and academically. I believe that changing countries between studies may have resulted in a slow start with both graduate programmes. Nonetheless, the academic environment in each country was so different that it set me to thinking more carefully about my choices. I felt that my future steps were better informed by having direct experience of different philosophies.

Early in my academic career, I was travelling for about 6 months per year. I was aware that travelling would be close to impossible once children came and thus saw my early career as the best time to build a network, be exposed to different ideas and investigate new topics with different collaborators. I think that I benefited enormously. I have formed collaborations (that turned to friendships) in directions that I probably would not have followed otherwise. I feel more connected to my work, as I have a good understanding of developments in my area worldwide. Beyond research, travel has informed my teaching choices, my approach to student supervision, and even my input in administrative tasks. I have a wealth of examples to draw from.

Given the expansion of the family, travelling is now a rare luxury that needs to be carefully coordinated not only with my spouse but also our extended family. My earlier networking makes me feel secure that my career will not be severely impacted by my absence from almost all major events in my area, as I have a strong earlier presence to rely upon. Ultimately, as these are only temporary issues, I believe that in the future I will travel again more (though not as much as early in my career) in order to refresh, connect in person for an extended period with my colleagues, and create pockets of time where my sole purpose will be to focus on new ideas.

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

Stick to your guns. No matter how well meant, any advice telling you that to secure tenure you have to follow this or that line of research is not necessarily to your benefit. Believing in your abilities, following your own dreams and ideas rather than those of well-meaning mentors, and having conviction in your choices will probably serve you better in the long term.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Work hard towards making errors. Being afraid of failure will only stop you from reaching your potential. Take risks and relax – believe that determination, passion, and hard work will inevitably bear fruit.

Martine Woolf

MartineWoolf-framed.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Martine Woolf. I lead the Regional Development Section in the Community Safety and Earth Monitoring Division in Geoscience Australia. We are a government agency that works across an incredibly broad range of topics, all within the sphere of ‘geoscience’. My work area is focused on understanding the impacts and risks from natural disasters. In my team, we works mostly on overseas projects in the Indo-Pacific region. We work with local counterparts, usually from technical government agencies similar to our own, to build a detailed understanding of what natural hazards exist, and how they might impact on communities. This understanding is fundamental to enable communities to anticipate and prepare for future events, and this is an important part of resilience against disasters. My role is to manage these programs, which involves working with multi-disciplinary teams of scientists, engineers etc.

Why do you do mathematics?

I ended up in my field more or less by accident. I thought I wanted to be a biologist, and started out working with ecological and environmental datasets. I found I loved analysis, programming and modelling, but I hated fieldwork (it was often very wet!) and don’t care about plants. To the dismay of my boss, I kept on identifying ‘interesting’ problems that needed me to try new analytical approaches to solve them; always behind a computer, not in gumboots. Eventually, acknowledging our mutual frustration, I left to do a PhD that combined statistics, mathematical modelling and environmental systems, but no plants at all. Natural disasters are a fascinating area to work in; it is never boring. It combines a wide range of mathematical, statistical and physics approaches to solve some very applied and real problems. There is no one discipline or approach that can solve the entire picture. You are forced to be pragmatic, to be inventive, and to collaborate.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Typical is probably that I have moved in recent years from doing ‘hands-on’ technical work or ‘science’ when I moved into a management role. This means that I spend much of my time trying to keep across the progress of work in our various programs, in order to anticipate issues and work with people to solve them. I probably spend most of my typical day talking to people, and reading their outputs and reports. Often, this involves talking to stakeholders, who may not be scientists. That means we need to consider how we communicate our work; as scientists we tend to speak our own language. As a government organisation, a big chunk of our time is also spent responding to requests for information or advice from Government. In addition, we get questions from scientists, the media and the general public, especially when a big event has happened, such as an earthquake. And then there is always work on developing new work programs: taking an initial idea, and turning it into a proposal that convinces others it needs to be funded. I find this simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating part of my job.

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

After over a decade working on the science of natural disasters, I am still excited by the problems we are trying to solve. Of course, I passionately believe and hope that our work can help make a difference, both nationally and internationally. But ultimately, I am fascinated by the complexity of the phenomena we work on, and the variety of approaches and disciplines that we use to understand them. I can’t imagine getting bored with it. I see this excitement in my colleagues, too, and I find that very inspiring. For some reasons, the science of natural disasters really seems to ‘grab’ people for life.

One of the barriers I deal with is a sense of frustration; the knowledge that our work is too often stuck in a report on a shelf. The damage from disasters still increases every decade across the world. We can improve our methods, we can use the biggest super computers, and spend years improving and validating our models. Too often, this doesn’t reach the people it should. Communities still don’t know their best options for improving disaster resilience, or don’t have the means to implement those options. Too often, policies are lacking or counterproductive. To combat this potential futility, we need to keep getting better at communicating our science, and think of non-traditional ways to bring science outputs beyond the technical literature to the stakeholders. This is about much more than adjusting language alone.

How important is travelling?

Travel is essential for my job. You cannot hope to understand and model the full picture of a disaster impact in a particular region or country if you have never been there, and seen the reality of daily life. Besides, you cannot begin to communicate the meaning of our work to people in a region or country if you never have been there - they’ll just shrug and dismiss you as a ’boffin’. Of course travel is always important for scientists. Modelling most natural hazards is done by a small but international community. There are global collaborations that produce excellent open-source models. International travel is an important part of participating in that community.

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

I’m not sure I can think of good generic advice (other than perhaps ‘an apple a day ...’). But I will try. Firstly I would say that there are many ways to work in mathematics or science; you don’t need to be an academic. Then, I think mentors can be really useful in getting the confidence to shape your career. However, I’ve seen people get very hung up on finding the right formal mentor. Yet, it can be just as useful having a few people who you use (informally) as mentors on particular aspects. That supervisor from your last role may be good to talk to about development opportunities, while an ex-colleague may give you feedback on management issues - as long as you buy her a coffee. Such mentors don’t need to be ‘high up’ in the hierarchy either; you can get great perspectives from people in other organisations or work areas, even if they are at a similar level as you.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Have fun!

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Updated: 14 Jan 2017