Q&A with the ANZMC 2014 Female Plenary Speakers

Rosalind Archer

RosalindArcher.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Rosalind Archer and I hold the Mighty River Power Chair in Geothermal Reservoir Engineering at the University of Auckland. I hold leadership roles as the Head of the Department of Engineering Science and as the Director of the Geothermal Institute.

Why do you do mathematics?

For me mathematics is a language through with which I try to understand the physical world. I enjoy the creativity and the intellectual challenge that involves.

Was there someone in particular who motivated you to do mathematics?

At my all-girls high school the odds were in some ways stacked against doing mathematics. The school principal used to ask my parents why I wanted to do it, because it was a "silly subject" - her degrees were in art history. I had a fantastic high school teacher in my final year. By day she would teach a double stream of 60 students at once (I used to sit at the back and do my French homework at the same time!), but after school she would tutor a few of the top students in an extension class.

What is a typical work day like for you?

Every day is different. However when I am in the office my work day starts at 7am since I come to campus early to beat the traffic on the motorway. The time from 7am to 9am is precious reading, writing, thinking and strategising time. From 9am to 4pm my diary is normally fairly saturated with meetings and events. I am fortunate to have some fantastic professional staff working with me who help manage my diary and travel.

The thread that underlies everything in my diary is supporting and developing others - whether they are undergraduate students, graduate students or academic and professional staff. I am not required to lecture at all because of my chair's funding and my leadership roles. However I choose to give a small number of undergraduate and graduate lectures to stay connected to that aspect of University life. In evenings there are often University functions and events to attend, or email to be caught up on after my husband cooks dinner.

I try to protect one day per week to focus on a single thing - a day at a conference, a day consulting, or a day working from home on research.

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

Earlier in my career my diary was nowhere near as full! My graduate students used to be able to drop by whenever my door was open to chat - these days they would typically need an appointment. Earlier in my career I was navigating the balance between teaching and research, and the balance between smaller curiosity driven research projects versus work done through large grants and research teams. These days my research tends to be solely focused around the commitments of grants and curiosity driven work is left to my graduate students.

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

The challenge of trying to do or discover something nobody has ever done before is still alluring, probably because I have a stubborn streak. My research is in applied areas so I enjoy the fact that it has the scope to make a difference to the way energy resources are developed and managed. The chance to be involved in diverse interdisciplinary collaborations is still exciting. For example I suspect I am the only reservoir engineer to publish with researchers at the Mayo clinic.

I started my career on tenure-track in the US, before opting to return home to NZ instead of pursuing a tenured position. Tenure-track roles traditionally involve rather challenging workloads, and I was definitely not alone there. For example the Department (for some reason) thought it was OK to assign me to lecture an extra semester-length undergraduate class on 2 days notice.

My area is rather male dominated - however I used to see that as an opportunity rather than a problem. As a female wearing a bright red top I used to be easy to spot among the crowd at conferences with 10,000 attendees.

How important is travelling?

Making connections with potential collaborators and research funders is important. While the world has become smaller through technology, there is still no substitute for getting on a plane. I do not have children and am conscious that travel can be much more complicated for women for are mothers. I'd encourage everyone to look for creative ways to arrange visits from overseas academics to Australasia. Long haul flights are in some ways a blessing in disguise since the offer the chance to read, think or relax for long periods of time without interruption.

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

Mentoring is important, so embrace whatever formal or informal mentoring opportunities are available to you. Make sure you build and maintain visibility with senior people. They may be able to act as "sponsors" and offer you key development opportunities - but that will only happen if you are on their radar.

An academic career can be all-consuming so make sure spend time on things that recharge you – whether that is time with friends and family, time at the gym or the beach, or hobbies. Learn the “rules of the game” – both written and unwritten at your institution. You can’t necessarily rewrite those rules, but if you understand them you can better weigh up the choices you have along the way about how to spend your time and energy.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

That’s a hard one! I guess my answer would have to centre on self-confidence. Don’t ever let anyone or anything shake your self-confidence. It can be easy to let that happen in a system where academic staff are constantly being judged, evaluated and critiqued in different ways.

M. Angélica Cueto (ECR Lecturer)

MariaAngelicaCueto.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Maria Angelica Cueto. I am an NSF postdoctoral fellow in the Mathematics Department at Columbia University (USA). I have a half-teaching / half-research appointment.

Why do you do mathematics?

I was always attracted to mathematics since participating at the Math Olympiads in High School. I tried for a year to study actuarial sciences (as an undergrad), but after a couple of courses I realized that Math was my real passion.

One of the things I enjoy the most is the possibility to create new ideas, discuss with people and learn from my peers. I view Mathematics as an extremely social science that opens my mind to new ways of thinking as well as meeting wonderful people and lovely places all over the globe.

Was there someone in particular who motivated you to do mathematics?

My linear algebra teacher at the entrance course for college told me about the possibilities of doing a career  in Math and that research was a possibility (I was not aware of it when I started my studies in the School of Economics).

In my last year of undergrad/master's degree I was lucky to travel to a Summer School on Singularity theory. Until then I had spend months on the last part of my thesis project, with no success. The first talk of the first day of the School gave me the idea I was looking for for months. It also opened me to the possibility of going abroad for a PhD. That trip and that lecture completely changed my life and career path.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My work is balanced between a couple of hours of teaching (plus some office hours where I talk to students), attending weekly seminars and doing research. Since most of my collaborators are abroad, my time on projects are divided according to availability to talk to collaborators over conference calls or even visits to their institutions. I also spend a significant amount of my day in my office, working out examples, reading some papers, proving results and also writing them out while the math involved in a project is still being developed.

In addition, I give several talks per semester and travel to some conference to expose myself to the latest developments in my area.

In the past years I also organized 4 major conferences and edited a conference proceedings volume that took a significant amount of time (including emailing participants, emailing referees and also refereeing some of the papers myself).

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

As my career evolved I took more responsibilities and got involved in more research projects, so time is getting short.

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

Research has its ups and downs. It is often the case that I spend many days thinking about a problem with no new ideas and get discourage. When this happens, it is important to have other projects to work on, or take a break, go for a walk or a run, to clear ones mind.

Nothing beats the ecstasy of having that "Got it!" moment after a new idea comes in and solves the problem that has been troubling my mind for days or weeks. No other activity gives that pleasure.

How important is travelling?

Travelling is important to connect oneself with the research community, learn about other research and also communicate ones work. It also helps to discuss ideas, start new collaborations and get intellectual stimulation to go back home and continue working hard.

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

I would advise one thing: don't be shy. Travel, meet other mathematicians, and don't be afraid of asking questions. A simple idea discussed over a coffee break can be the origin of a lifelong collaboration.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

One advice I would have given myself is "try to learn as much as you can when you are in graduate school. Time after grad school gets shorter and you will never have so much freedom to learn technical theorems". I would also advise to publish less papers but better. Even though in many places publications are count by number, in other cases it is worth waiting and develop an idea further than hurry to publish a paper that could be improved much further in just a few months.

Nina Snaith (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)

NinaSnaith.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

I’m Nina Snaith, a Reader in Mathematics at the University of Bristol in England. (For those who don't know our system, a Reader is the second of three levels - lecturer, reader, professor - for a strongly research active academic). What I do has been somewhat varied over the years as I had a research fellowship for several years, meaning that I had fewer teaching and administrative duties than other colleagues, whereas now I oversee all of the undergraduate teaching in the School of Mathematics, which is a very large administrative role.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do mathematics because I love research. I love figuring out what the next question is and how to go about answering it. I think I could have ended up as an academic in one of many other areas of science, but a complicated combination of parents, teachers, friends and general ineptitude in a physics lab means I have ended up in mathematics!

What is a typical work day like for you?

This has varied throughout my career. I didn't realise how wonderful the daily routine of a graduate student or postdoc is until I achieved a more senior position in the department! Of course early in your career there are worries about doing good work and ultimately getting a job, but the joy of coming into work and sitting down to a day of thinking about a maths problem, possibly interspersed with an interesting seminar or some background reading is no longer mine! Now a huge part of each day is devoted to preparing to teach, being involved in the admin necessary to keep both research and undergraduate teaching in the department competitive, advising project students and graduate students, serving on University committees. I enjoy all these roles, but unfortunately it does seem that for those who don't have the possibility for work to expand into weekends and evenings, it becomes increasingly hard to find time for thinking deeply about research.

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

Doing mathematical research makes me happy and I love working with and being friends with my collaborators and students. I wouldn't want to give up research, despite the fact that there are lots of other very fulfilling ways to contribute to the mathematical community by teaching and communicating mathematics to various audiences. Doing research is a little bit selfish: I do it because I enjoy it.

However, certain barriers to continuing a research career are very clear to me, and I understand why many academics with other commitments outside of work decide to concentrate on the teaching or administrative side of their role and stop struggling to maintain the research side. I enjoy all of the teaching and administrative roles that have formed part of my career so far, but unfortunately it does seem that the sum total of what a mathematician who is willing to be involved with the mathematical community and with their University is asked to do equals more than can be fit into a working week. From my experience, academic workload does not seem to take into account the amount of time it takes to do all aspects of our job responsibly, particularly as we move away from a time when an academic could teach, assess and provide materials to their students in as relaxed a manner as they liked. I have observed that those with commitments outside of work face the decision either to avoid the parts of their role that serve the university or academic community, or to watch the time left for research being squeezed out. It is not clear that this is acknowledged by all Universities or that academics who take the time to do teaching and administrative jobs well are rewarded for it. This is issue is raised in an article in the Financial Times by Dame Athene Donald. I found it comforting that someone realises how much time it takes to do the more community-spirited side of our job, and that the value of it is recognised at least by some parts of the academic population.

My situation at home, having children as well as an adult relying on me for care, means I have very little time to devote to my professional life outside the regular working hours I spend in the office. This makes it very clear to me how difficult it is to fit all that we are expected, or might want, to do into a regular working week.

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

The main message is to do what you love doing! If you love mathematics, stick with it and don't let any doubts or set backs push you out of academia if you are happy there.

I'd say it's very useful indeed to find a more senior colleague who knows you and your work and is supportive of you. There are always times when we doubt our own abilities and our place in academia and sometimes we need someone else to help put these thoughts in perspective and give a more objective view of our progress. If you find someone you trust who can play this mentoring role for you then you have support there when you need it!

For mathematicians with other commitments besides their work, it is important to make a conscious decision what your priorities are. This can mean making a considered decision about balancing work and other commitments, but it also means thinking about which aspects of your role as a mathematician are important to you and about what the consequences might be in prioritising various aspects. I have put time into public engagement, supporting young researchers, students and minority groups in mathematics. While I might not do this differently if I went back and started again, I certainly did not do it following a conscious decision, and did not fully understand the negative impact it would have on the time I had to devote to my research and possibly to my career.

This all boils down to saying that we can each find a way to be a mathematician that suits us and our situation and that doesn't have to be same as for the person in the office next door. We are lucky that there is a lot of flexibility in academic life that makes this possible. We can also hope that the value of this diversity will be recognised by our academic institutions as it is how we, and the next generations of mathematicians, will flourish.

Mariel Vazquez

MarielVazquez.JPG What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Mariel Vazquez and I am a professor in the departments of Mathematics and of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of California Davis. I work in the field of Mathematical Biology, and my responsibilities include teaching undergraduate and graduate students as well as mentoring them in research. A lot of my time is spent doing research and giving service to the scientific community.

Why do you do mathematics?

Growing up I always liked mathematics! I didn’t know that people could do this for living so at first I thought I would follow my father’s steps and pursue a career in engineering. In high school, mathematics and molecular biology were my two passions. I was thrilled when I learned that I could study to become a mathematician, and that I could even apply mathematics to Molecular Biology. Getting the proper training to pursue these applications became my goal at that young age. There is great value in applying rigorous mathematical tools to tackle important biological questions, and I am particularly attracted to the application of tools from pure mathematics, for example knot theory and combinatorics.

What is a typical work day like for you?

I start a typical work day with a good coffee and a little time to organize my to-do list. I respond to the most pressing emails and deal with any urgent matters. Sometimes that takes the whole morning. As I progress in my career I see myself devoting much more time to service, be it refereeing papers or grant proposals, or serving in committees, evaluating fellowship applications etc… Teaching days are different from research days. On a teaching day I find a quiet place and devote myself to lecture preparation or to any grading that needs to be completed before the lecture. After teaching, I hold office hours and start the preparation for the following teaching day. In a typical research day I escape to a coffee shop to think about a research paper or a new problem. I have meetings with students who I mentor in research, and once a week I attend our group meeting where one of the trainees presents their work, or discusses a paper, and we all give feedback.

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

Thinking about interesting research questions and coming up with new problems and ways to solve them is what fuels my life as a mathematician. Doing research is not easy but I find it exciting and very rewarding. Of course I have had to overcome barriers and problems, but that is not unique to me, and the passion I have for my discipline keeps me going.

How important is travelling?

Travelling is very important! I have met my best collaborators, and have had the most fruitful discussions, at conferences. Once a collaboration is established it is possible to continue it by email or skype, but I find that there is nothing like meeting face to face.

Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career? What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

My advice is to find a passion and pursue it. Your career is part of who you are and you do not necessarily need to keep personal and professional lives apart. This goes especially for women in mathematics. If you can afford it, continue traveling to conference after having kids. My children have traveled the world as we go to conferences or to visit collaborators. They are very familiar with academics and adapt well to the routine. Getting work done on those trips is challenging, but it is certainly better than not going at all.

Updated: 15 Feb 2015