Q&A with the AustMS 2013 Female Plenary Speakers

Sommer Gentry

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Sommer Gentry, and I am Associate Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy. I teach calculus, computer programming, and optimization courses, but what I really get excited about is helping my students learn to ask the right questions and learn to write well. As an investigator with the Scientific Registry for Transplant Recipients, I work to improve organ allocation policy in the United States using discrete event simulation and optimization.

Why do you do mathematics?

I like to change things - the only kinds of problems I work on are those that make policies (like government policies, medical treatments, or business decisions) more sensible. I chose Operations Research, which is the discipline of applying mathematical methods to help make better decisions, because I am interested in everything! Operations Research gives me a flexible set of tools so I can work on different applications every few years.

But honestly, part of the reason I majored in Mathematical and Computational Sciences was that I somehow got the impression that some people thought I could not. It was a mountain and I wanted to scale it.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I give lectures, either to my own undergraduate students, or to transplant surgeons, or to general audiences, and I get to recapture the excitement from them that I felt when I first learned about that topic (countability of the rational numbers, how operations research can save lives, complementary slackness, historical development of limits of sequences, et cetera). I grade papers and meet with students. I write code to solve research problems, I have phone conferences about organ transplantation policy and tools, and I closely check page proofs to be sure that publications are error-free. When I was a graduate student I worked alone all day every day, and was a bit miserable because of that, but now I long for an interruption-free stretch of hours.

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

The primary barrier for me will always be the tradition of rigid disciplinary boundaries, the academic departmental silos and attitudes that say there is one right journal to publish in, one right audience, one right methodology, and one right way to get grants. For instance, I publish in medical journals and get support from the National Institutes of Health instead of publishing in applied math journals and getting support from the National Science Foundation. Fortunately, breaking out of your discipline is a great way to do novel and influential research; and so I have managed to get funded, published, and tenured without making myself into someone I am not.

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

Never stop looking for mentorship. Every person that you connect with (other students or professors at your institution, someone you chat with at a conference, an administrator, an old friend) might be the key to your next success, so follow up on contacts with concrete messages and be grateful and open to their support. I needed help from a number of people outside my advisor and my university to finish my thesis.

Advice for younger me: ditch the anxiety about whether the task you are doing is on the shortest path to research glory, and just do what you have decided to do as well as you possibly can do it. I wish I had worried less and worked more.


Natashia Boland

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Natashia Boland, and I am a Professor of Applied Mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle. My primary research work is in the field of Operations Research, but in pursuing this I have been involved in many different areas including airline scheduling, cancer treatment delivery planning, logistics, transportation, electricity networks, and even psychology! It's a very varied field, which keeps it interesting!

Why do you do mathematics?

This is a truly difficult question for me to answer, as I cannot really explain why I do mathematics. I have enjoyed it since I was very young, and it has always been a very natural thing for me to do. I would miss it a great deal if, for some reason, I had to stop. Why does a fish swim in water?

This natural urge was fuelled by some great teachers and mentors in my life who supported and encouraged my interest from a young age, through school, and into university, and who helped to direct my passion with extra work, discipline, and guidance. Their encouragement has inspired me to always keep doing what I love, and to work hard to achieve it.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I have become increasingly time-poor as my career has progressed, and so will save this question to answer further in person!

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

Challenges: One of the major challenges is the varied and complex nature of the academic workload. There are many competing needs, and it's important to prioritise, but it's equally as important to give balanced attention to everything.

Another challenge that never goes away is the need to constantly seek out funding. It's a vital part of pursuing excellence in your research, and you should start as early as you can.

My line of research can also be quite computer programming-heavy, which is a very time-consuming thing, so taking on PhD students and sharing your research with collaborators helps share the load, and gives all of us more time to do the important things.

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

Try to develop varied skills early on; don't focus on just one specialised area, as that's no longer enough to keep you on the cutting edge. We, as mathematicians, need to be able to function in a broad spectrum, and the only way to do that is by being flexible and expanding our potential through continual research and training. Excellence in communication is also an essential skill for success, and that means communication at all levels, whether it is brainstorming with a colleague, or writing a grant application, or making a formal presentation at a conference. Also take advantage of networking opportunities, get to know the people in your field, both nationally and internationally. And don't be afraid to ask them for help or advice. Everyone at all stages of their career can benefit from advice from those with more experience.

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Updated: 03 Nov 2013
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