Q&A with the ANZIAM 2018 Female Plenary Speakers


Snezhana Abarzhi

SnezhanaAbarzhi-framed.jpg What is your name and what do you do?

Snezhana I. Abarzhi (aka Snejana I. Abarji), Professor and Chair of Applied Mathematics, The University of Western Australia

Why do you do mathematics?

I believe that this is the right profession for me. It gives me the opportunity to create and develop, to do the right things, to do the right things right, create opportunities, enable growth and produce results.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I try to organize my day efficiently and apply my multi-tasking skills in order to do as much as possible in a given time. I am punctual in action items and am more flexible with deadlines.

What keeps you in research?

I like my work. I like to do research. My main motive is to try to understand the fundamentals of nature.

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

Love what you do, be focused and dedicated, work hard.


Alys Clark (2017 J.H. Michell Medallist)

AlysClark-framed.jpg What is your name and what do you do?

I am a senior research fellow at a large scale research institute at University of Auckland (Auckland Bioengineering Institute). I hold a research Fellowship which enables me to do 'full time' research.

Why do you do mathematics?

I decided I was going to do mathematics in my first year at high school, mostly because of a great teacher who gave us lots of interesting problems to do and supported me for the rest of high school even though he wasn’t my maths teacher anymore. There were times that I thought I had changed my mind (for example, my first job after my undergraduate degree had nothing to do with maths) but I didn’t find another job that was as interesting to me as the application-focused maths that I ended up doing.

What is a typical workday like for you?

At the start of my postdoc career most days were filled with research. I am now involved in several multidisciplinary projects and supervise a number of students and so a large part of my day is taken up by research-focused meetings and reading and editing work of others (including reviewing papers etc.). I also have a reasonably large administrative or service component to my job (including managing budgets and projects, sitting on committees, chairing PhD examinations, organising outreach events). I still get to do research, but get to spend less time sitting and thinking about problems, although this is made up for by time discussing research work with others. Most days I get to spend at least a couple of hours deriving models, coding up solutions or writing journal articles. I start and leave work early to avoid traffic, as I have a young son, and try not to let too much work come home with me.

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

Mostly the fact that I am excited about the problems I am solving and really enjoy the research. For me, travel has been very important, as I need to establish networks of collaborators for the type of work I can do (mathematics focused on medical applications). New Zealand, and to some extent Australia, is too small a country to get large datasets on patients with some important illnesses, or to get experimental measurements with the 'newest' bits of equipment, so meeting and maintaining work collaborations overseas is really important.

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

Don’t underestimate your abilities, or wait to go for promotion till you are absolutely sure you tick all the boxes, seek and follow other people’s advice.

Don’t say yes to everyone and everything.

Work with, and find mentors in people that you can establish good personal relationships with.

Seek problems you are interested in, but, be aware that you need to be flexible to collaborate, and often to get funding.

Take time to do what you love (whether it is work or not), one thing I learnt after having a child is that it is completely possible to be productive in shorter hours and that you can be selective with the work you take on.


Louise Ryan

KateSmithMiles-framed.jpg What is your name and what do you do?

I’m Louise Ryan and I am a Distinguished Professor of Statistics at University of Technology Sydney. I also hold an adjunct position as Professor of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. I had spent most of my career at Harvard prior to returning to Australia in 2009. These days I am transitioning to retirement and work at 60% effort.

Why do you do mathematics?

I have vivid memories of loving numbers and puzzles as a young child. We had a complicated family and I sometimes found the world a bit overwhelming. Numbers, and as I got older mathematics, seemed to provide a framework that was elegant and simple, where things made sense. I recall being fascinated by algebra when we first learned it in grade 7. It was miraculous to me that you could work with a symbol that could take on any value and that you didn’t have to keep track of individual numbers any more!! I thought it was incredibly elegant. At the suggestion of a high school guidance counsellor, I started actuarial studies at uni. While I quickly found that finance was NOT my thing, I loved being introduced to probability and statistics — finally, a mathematical science that helped explain randomness and gave me tools for finding patterns in what could otherwise look like chaos. Over the next few years I moved into statistics and then biostatistics. It was deeply satisfying to me to work in a field where I could use mathematical tools and thinking to solve real world problems and contribute to a better world (improving people’s health).

What is a typical workday like for you?

My typical day has changed VERY much over the years! I was also quite active with various professional societies. I have never been the kind of person who liked to work alone, so I learned early on that working with other people was going to be my key to success (see further comment below). So I started working with PhD students and postdocs quite early on in my career. It turned out I was quite good at this and it really helped because my department tended not to overload me with so much classroom teaching. I also really liked collaboration and spent a lot of time engaging with clinicians and other subject matter experts. So from quite early on, my days tended to be filled with lots of meetings. In those early days, email was not so much a thing! These days, I’m afraid that I seem to spend a LOT of time with email! I do quite a lot of society work and much of that work happens via email. I also telecommute these days so I have a lot of zoom meetings with students and collaborators.

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

To tell the truth, I am starting to wind things down now that I have just entered my 60s. I have worked VERY hard during my life, sometimes to the detriment of other things, so now I have the luxury of relaxing a little bit so I can do those other things (cycling, yoga, time with friends and family). I feel a little embarrassed admitting this, but it is the reality!

I went overseas to study for my PhD (at Harvard Statistics Department) when I was 22 and really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I did not come from an academic family (in fact I was the first one to go to university) and to tell the truth sometimes felt a little lost. I found doing my PhD very hard emotionally because I struggled with my confidence and sometimes felt a bit down. But during my postdoc at the Harvard Biostatistics department (joint with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), I got swept up into the excitement of collaboration. Finally I felt I had some meaning and purpose in my life because I had skills and abilities that could make a difference. I loved feeling that I was part of a larger team and it gave me a sense of belonging and fulfilment that I had been lacking in my life. For the next 25 years, I was very much swept up in this exciting environment and succeeded very well, though I worked extremely hard to do so! Succeeding at the top of my field was exciting and rewarding, and helped fuel the motivation to keep on working really hard, travelling etc. But I must admit that it was sometimes challenging to maintain a good balance between work, family and personal life.

Because of issues related to ageing and unwell parents, I returned home to Australia in 2009. I have found it MUCH more difficult here because there does not seem to be the tradition of academic biostatistics like there is in the US. It has been difficult for me to find the same kind of satisfying collaborations and in general I have found the system in Australia to be more political. But these challenges have been a blessing in disguise since I think I now have a better balance with other things in my life. I am happy to share more with anyone interested over a coffee or glass of wine!

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

To really succeed in academia, you do need to work really hard. You have to recognize that publications and grants are the real currencies in academia. Other things like teaching and service are also really important, but if you want to get to the top level, you need to publish early and often. Grant funding will tend to come naturally as a result. In my opinion, it is not something that can be easily done in a standard work week and it requires a dedication and passion that motivates you to devote extra time, maybe some weekends, early mornings or evenings. So, one of the keys to success is finding your passion ... what really motivates you and excites you. If you can find a way to tap into this via your work, then you have a much better chance to succeed. The motivation/passion will differ for everyone. For some it might be the pure pursuit of knowledge. For me, it was feeling that I could contribute to making the world a better place by mentoring students and by working in a collaborative team solving real world problems in medicine and health. Working in a team environment really helped me on the publications side as well!

One caveat I would like to add is that the demands of an academically successful career do create challenges for other parts of life, especially family and personal interests. If I could offer advice to my younger self, I would perhaps suggest a more conscious effort to not let career things dominate quite so much! Finding ways to keep physically and mentally healthy (e.g. yoga and meditation) can really help you think more clearly about what you really want for your life. I wish I had discovered yoga when I was 20 instead of when I was in my mid 40s!! I think it would have been really helpful to me.

Finally, I really recommend reading an article I wrote a couple of years ago, having a conversation with one of my academic heroes, Professor Nan Laird. She is one of the most highly cited mathematical scientists in the world and has led a fascinating life. The conversation gives some great insights into what helped her succeed. You can get some extra background and also find a link to the paper here.


Kate Smith-Miles (2017 E.O. Tuck Medallist)

KateSmithMiles-framed.jpg What is your name and what do you do?

Kate Smith-Miles, Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Melbourne, and ARC Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow. I'm also the current President of the Australian Mathematical Society.

Why do you do mathematics?

I always loved the elegance of mathematics and wanted to keep studying it at university to learn more, without really knowing where it would lead. When I discovered as an undergraduate that maths could be used to improve things, like traffic flow, or cancer treatments, I knew that this would be my career path: aiming to have impact in the world through mathematics. I've specialised in applied mathematics areas like optimisation, but am always learning new areas of mathematics, and I enjoy the constant diversity of my work and the freedom to explore anything I find interesting (which is a lot!).

At The University of Queensland, when I did my degree, there were many great female role models including Anne Street, Sheila Williams and Elizabeth Billington. It was always clear to me that it was possible to be a woman in academia because I could see them right in front of me. Anne Street supervised my Masters, which was a great introduction to research.

What is a typical workday like for you?

A typical day is very diverse! Usually every hour is spent doing something different. A typical day involves a concatenation of one hour meetings from a subset of the following types (and across a typical week I would cover all of these types): meetings with PhD students or postdocs to discuss their progress and brainstorm new ideas; preparation of grant proposals; Skype calls with collaborators; reviewing and giving feedback to people about job applications, grant proposals, journal papers, thesis chapters; interviewing potential recruits; and lots of meetings to do with various committees that I am on. I am not teaching at the moment while on the ARC Laureate Fellowship, so that's one less thing to squeeze into the week, although I do miss the interaction with younger students. Earlier in my career a typical week would have been teaching, doing my own research, and a few meetings with PhD students.

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

At various points in my career I have been either predominately research focused or leadership/management focused (e.g. when I've been Head of School). After several years focusing more on one than the other, I start to yearn for a bit more balance, and switch the focus again. At the moment, following many years in Head of School administrative roles, I am enjoying the almost complete focus on my research again. It's especially enjoyable when you feel passionate about what you are trying to achieve, and I am enjoying travelling around the world sharing the results with various groups. I haven't been able to travel that much in the last decade or so, due to Head of School positions, as well as having young children, so I am making the most of it now!

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

I think it is important to love what you do, and sometimes that can change over time. So don't be afraid to explore new areas to keep things fresh and interesting to you, while also building on the strength of your original research area. Diversify your portfolio a bit to ensure there are always a few doors open. At some point, you might have enough runs on the board and interest in a new area that you leave behind your PhD topic, or apply for a grant or a job opening in an area that is newer to you. Mathematics is such a broad foundation for so many topics. Sometimes we go so deep into a topic that it seems hard to take a step back and start learning a new part of mathematics, to find connections with other opportunities, but a willingness to explore new areas is an asset for proactively shaping your career path, and ensuring you maintain passion.

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Updated: 23 Jan 2018
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