Q&A with the ANZIAM 2019 Female Plenary Speakers

Ruth Baker

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

Ruth Baker, Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Oxford.

Why do you do mathematics?

Because I find it fascinating, and I love that we can use it to solve practical problems and better understand physical processes, particularly in the life and biomedical sciences.

My high school mathematics teacher made me realise I could read mathematics at university, and then my introduction to mathematical biology came through an undergraduate course lectured by Philip Jaini and tutored by Santiago Schnell, both of whom went on to become my PhD advisors.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Reading, meetings with my group members, teaching, attending seminars and group meetings, writing grant proposals.

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

There is a lot less time for my own research! I spend a lot more time answering emails, and i have to keep track of a huge range of different projects.

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

There are always new and exciting projects to work on, and new things to learn!

Problems — work/life balance, particularly with a young family. Having enough time to think about mathematics (without being too tired, or having a lot of other things to think about too!).

How important is travelling?

Very, especially as an ECR, getting out and meeting/networking is crucial. However, it is important to only say yes to the right things, and work out how much time you can/want to commit to being away. I’d also say that it is one of the things that can really affect the careers of those with caring responsibilities most.

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

Get yourself and mentor (or two) and use them! Prioritise research, go to meetings, visit lots of other groups/researchers, and find collaborators that you love working with! Try to establish your own research niche (and have an "elevator pitch" for it), and always have in mind where you want to be in five years (so that the choices you make give you every chance of achieving your goals).

Judith Berner

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

I work in the atmospheric sciences, not strictly mathematics. I am a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, Colorado). I hold a research tenure-track position there.

Why do you do mathematics?

I always loved math, but when I changed high schools the new teacher thought I was not good at math and my grades and interest plummeted. I think it was the application to science (weather and climate) that brought me back.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Coding and writing papers 75%; Community service 20% (reviews, committees, user support (my stochastic schemes are released as part of a publicly-released weather model).

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

At this point, a mid-career change would be difficult, but I have been considering a change away from academia. The lack of resources and constant proposal writing are draining.

How important is travelling?

It’s important to meet people, but also get away from the everyday routine.

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

You have to be interested in the research, but fitting in with a bigger agenda or being ideally positioned for collaborations is as important. "You can’t have it all" — having a family is detrimental to doing science. You will work less hours than those who don’t have children or a stay-home partner. Choose your research topics accordingly.

Claire Postlethwaite

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

My name is Claire Postlethwaite and I’m an Associate Professor 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?

I currently work part-time (I am on an FTE of 0.9), having been gradually increasing my FTE over the last 3 years since coming back to work after the birth of my second child. I generally work fairly short days in the office, so I can be with my kids after school and for bedtime, and then often do a couple of hours more work in the evenings (for instance, I’m writing this at 8pm!). I normally work at least one day a week at home, so I can pick up my eldest son from school at 3pm. 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.

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! I try to set aside large chunks of time to dedicate to research, but this doesn’t always work! During teaching time, at least two or three days a week are filled with teaching activities. These include preparing and giving lectures, holding office hours, dealing with student queries and writing exams/tutorials/assignments, to name just a few.

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. At the moment I’m Chair of the Academic Committee for the Maths Department, so that means lots of meetings about undergraduate course development, both within the department and with other departments whose students take our courses.

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 occasionally in the habit of taking both kids with us to conferences and switching out childcare as we go. One of the nice things about being in New Zealand is that collaborators are often keen to visit us, so that can be another was 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!

Anja Slim

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

My name is Anja Slim. I’m a Senior Lecturer at Monash University. I have a joint appointment between the School of Mathematical Sciences and the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment. I finished my PhD in the UK in 2006, then went on to do two post-docs in North America. I then spent three years in industry before coming to Monash in 2014.

Why do you do mathematics?

My driving passion is wanting to understand the geological world. Mathematics for me is a tool with which to do that — without modelling of some sort (whether it’s a scaling argument, an elegant analysis, a full-blown simulation or an analogue experiment) sometimes it’s not even possible to say whether a proposed explanation is plausible, let alone "the" explanation. I get the most satisfaction when the phenomenon can be modelled in a rigorously justifiable way with a reduced model that in turn has an analytic solution.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I don’t think I have a "typical" day to describe! I need to balance the immediate things, such as preparing lectures and tutorials, meeting with undergraduate and postgraduate students doing research projects, doing my own research and keeping in touch with collaborators. But at the back of my mind there is always a thought to the future — the opportunities that I should enable for research students, where the next students will come from, how the research I’m doing fits into a bigger picture: who might use it and how can I connect with them, who might fund it and how might I convince them to, who might I collaborate with, where should my research go next?

My favourite times of year are when I feel justified in focusing on just one of my tasks for a few weeks, such as immediately before and early in the semester when teaching takes priority or after exams are over and research takes over. I find it challenging when all tasks overlap.

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

Be clear with yourself on what you want from your personal and professional life. What does success mean to you? What is most important to you? Be aware that this can change (and drastically so), particularly if you start a family.

Find a mentor. Probe them about their career and their challenges, where they see that others often struggle and what approaches they have seen work best to get around those problems. At the moment you are standing at the beginning of a maze with many possible exits. Navigating the maze to the exit you want is much, much easier with help from someone with your exit in sight. Monash has a fantastic, structured ECR mentoring program. If your university offers something, try it out. If it doesn’t, ask you supervisor, your peers, your university’s postgraduate and ECR support groups for suggestions.

Yvonne Stokes

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

My name is Yvonne Stokes and I am a Professor in the Dynamics, Modelling and Computation Group within the School of Mathematical Sciences at The University of Adelaide. For most of my career I have had a traditional academic role, combined teaching, research and administration. In 2017 I became a full-time researcher as an ARC Future Fellow. Broadly speaking my research area is continuum modelling and I focus on applications in fluid dynamics and mathematical biology. Over my career I have been involved in a number of activities to promote the study of mathematics to high-school girls. From 1 February 2017 to 31 January 2019 I have been the Chair of the Women in Mathematics Special Interest Group of the Australian Mathematical Society (WIMSIG) and, as of 1 February 2019 I will be the Immediate Past Chair.

Why do you do mathematics?

While at school I did well at maths and liked it as a subject in which answers were correct or incorrect so that marks were not a matter of subjective opinion. Nevertheless, I had difficulty with year 10 maths and it was a great teacher that enabled me to keep enjoying it through the struggle, and then convinced me to keep going with double maths at year 11 when I was contemplating moving to business maths. Once I was over the hill of year 10 I found it much easier. After school, I worked for a time as a detail draftsperson, which required a good understanding of trigonometry, and I became valued for my accuracy. Simultaneously with this I did my undergraduate degree, which I completed part time and externally, which enabled me to keep working. I combined maths and computer science and ended up finding maths more interesting with plenty of opportunity for computing. I was really turned on by a Level 3 course "Topics in Applied Mathematics" which showed the value of maths for solving real-world problems and, beyond undergrad, I focused on applied mathematics with a PhD in fluid dynamics. I also learned that mathematics problems may not have one correct answer! I enjoy the freedom provided by academia to follow one’s own interests, as well as interacting with students and colleagues, and I have been very fortunate in being able to follow an academic career.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My work, typically, varies quite a lot from one day to the next. In recent times I have found it necessary to add items, as they arise, to a to-do list on my phone and set it to give me alerts so that I don’t overlook something important. I usually start my day by looking at my email inbox and the to-do list on my phone. I’ll then spend an hour or two attending to the high-priority tasks and emails and, possibly, add other things to my to-do list for later. Following this I’ll read through essential documents and/or write notes for meetings during the day. Then, as a full-time researcher, I can get down to research activities, which might mean writing a grant application or position advertisements, looking at postdoc and PhD applications, reading papers, developing a model, writing and running code to solve a model, writing/editing a paper, preparing a presentation, and talking with a colleague, depending on the day. On 2 or 3 days of the week I have meetings with postdocs and PhD, Masters and Honours students. Some days are full of meetings and administration and I don’t get any research done. At times throughout the year I am heavily involved in organizing, running and assisting with events to encourage female high-school students to continue with mathematics. The position of Chair of WIMSIG, that I currently hold, also brings some administrative work and service. I often spend time on work (admin or research) in my evenings and on weekends, simply because all that I need/want to do in a day doesn’t get done.

Prior to 2017, when I was a teaching-and-research academic, I would spend much of my week on teaching related matters (writing and giving lectures and tutorials, writing and marking assignments, talking to students), but generally reserved a day each week in which to do research.

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

I confess that I have sometimes wondered if I want to keep doing research or, even, stay in academia. It has been difficult to keep going with heavy teaching loads and, at times, I have felt (and been made to feel) inadequate, especially when progress has been slow. However, I don’t easily give up, I don’t like to be beaten, I like to finish something I start and I’ve been interested in the research I’ve done. I think perseverance is important. Further, I lost at least two years in research due to serious illness which gave me a different perspective, namely that there are things outside of work that are far more important and that I need to set my own goals and not be too concerned with meeting the expectations of others. It seems incredible that it took illness to bring me to this realisation but it was a real mental release that has stayed with me. I have been fortunate to find (unofficial) mentors in the form of encouraging colleagues that believe in my abilities. I have developed some great collaborations which have made research fun and resulted in some great travel opportunities. They have also motivated and encouraged me. Supervision of students also keeps one going and seeing their success is rewarding. Most importantly, there is the pleasure of generating new understanding and, at times, the thrill of successfully solving a really hard problem and having paper reviewers acknowledge this, which have increased my confidence in my research. I’ve been fortunate to work with experimentalists who appreciate the value of mathematical input and have provided validation of my models which has been exciting and rewarding.

How important is travelling?

Travelling is essential. I feel this is especially true when you live in a place like Australia which is far away from much of the research activity in the world, though I am also sure it is true more generally. You need to travel to conferences and workshops to become known and to find out what others are doing. Travel is critical to establishing collaborations. Once these have been initiated, Skype and similar is very valuable but doesn’t compare to face-to-face communication. Simply being in the same place for a time, and making the best of the opportunity, drives research in a way that can’t happen when each is in their own environment, often in vastly different time zones and with different academic calendars. However, a lot of travelling is exhausting and can be disruptive to some aspects of my life so, when possible, I will also fund my colleagues to visit me.

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

Do research that interests you and believe in your abilities. If you are teaching as well, make sure you set aside some time, preferably at least a day, each week to do research. Set your own goals that are realistic in terms of other things you have/want to do in life. Find mentors that boost your morale. Work at establishing your own collaborations and realize that this takes time and effort; it will pay off in the long term. These people may also be valuable mentors. Always give a talk at a conference; this makes it far more likely that people will remember you. Take up or make opportunities to visit people, or invite them to visit you. And, finally, don’t lose sight of the fact that there is far more to life than work.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Worry less about what other people think of you and your work and be bolder when it comes to introducing yourself to others.

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Updated: 18 Jan 2019