Q&A with the AustMS 2017 Female Plenary Speakers


Georgia Benkart (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)

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

My name is Georgia Benkart. I am Professor Emerita of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and for the past eight years, one of ten officers of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and on the Scientific Advisory Board of the American Institute of Mathematics and am a member of the US National Committee for Mathematics of the National Academies. From 2009 to 2011, I was president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). Although I have retired from teaching, I remain active doing mathematics. Over the course of my career, my research has focused on Lie theory, noncommutative and nonassociative algebras, quantum groups, representation theory, and combinatorics.

Why do you do mathematics?

I began my undergraduate studies as a chemistry major. Due to an extreme shortage of graduate assistants in chemistry, I was asked to teach a chemistry lab in my sophomore year after having taken 3 university chemistry courses. The experience ignited my interest in majoring in mathematics. I had been taking honors mathematics courses all along, so the transition was smooth, and I went on to earn a PhD in mathematics. I found that I enjoyed learning new mathematics, solving problems, and communicating mathematics. I especially enjoy collaborating with others and sharing the excitement of discovery. I have had 21 doctoral students and a large number of research collaborators.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I have no typical workday. As an Associate Secretary for AMS, each year I am in charge of the scientific programs of two AMS sectional meetings, and every four years, of a joint meeting of all the US mathematics societies as well as a joint international conference between the AMS and a mathematical society of another country. This requires a great deal of communication and travel, some of which is very concentrated. But it also means that I am exposed to a lot of interesting and novel mathematics presented at those meetings. I attend and speak at seminars at my home institution. I try to work on mathematical research several hours most days, but when a problem is really tantalizing, it is hard to put it down.

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

Earlier in my career I had a traditional academic appointment. I taught undergraduate and graduate courses, mentored graduate students, and served on many departmental and university wide committees in addition to devoting a substantial amount of time to research. I was one of only two women faculty members in my department for about 15 years, and one or the other of us was usually asked to serve on all the significant departmental committees. Now the department faculty is about 20% women. Computers and the internet have revolutionized how mathematics is done. Waiting 6 weeks for a technical typist to type your paper is unimaginable now, but it was standard when I began my career. And the same was true of waiting weeks to receive a reply to correspondence with a collaborator in another country.

How important is travelling?

Travel is essential. I encourage early-career mathematicians to organize a session at a meeting of the AMS or another organization as a way of putting themselves on the radar of established mathematicians. It is critical to seize opportunities when they present themselves. I have met one of my coauthors many times at the coffee shop in the baggage claim area of the airport in his town to discuss mathematics when I had time between connecting flights. My career has brought me in contact with an amazing number of people and a number of amazing people. I have expanded my view of mathematics and human nature through them. My work has given me the chance to travel to places that I might not have visited otherwise.

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

Explore and evolve. Research develops at a rapid pace and evolves in directions one cannot imagine. It is important to evolve with it and explore new areas. This might entail working with new collaborators who bring a different expertise to the effort or taking time to learn a new subject. It is also important to be resilient. There will be times when it is difficult to do research. At present, I am working with various organizations to help women resume their research after time off. During my time as president of AWM, we planned a 40th anniversary celebration research conference and started a biennial series of research symposia for women. These have been wildly successful. The connections made through them and through AWM's research collaboration conferences and networks for women have jump-started careers and have enabled women to stay connected. WIMSIG and all of its activities have had a tremendous impact on mathematics in Australia. Hats off for all your accomplishments!

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Have more confidence and relax.


YoungJu Choie

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

This is YoungJu Choie. I am a professor in Mathematics at POSTECH (Pohang University of Science and Techology) in South Korea since 1990. I am working on Number theory, in particular automorphic forms. I am interested in exploring the properties of L-functions associated to automorphic forms.


Why do you do mathematics?

During my teenager period I was desperately looking for something unchangeable absolute truth. Somehow I had a vague idea Mathematics can do the job. So since my middle school days I would like to do mathematics during my life time.

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

Yes, indeed I was motivated by many people such as middle school teachers, University professors (female mathematicians), my thesis advisor, many good collegues in number theory, ...

What is a typical workday like for you?

I start my day going to swimming pool and sauna. Then I come to school and stay at school until about 6 pm. After then I go to dinner and come back to school again to work until late night.

In school I have several things to do not only research but also teaching, seminar and attending committee meetings. Moreover, we have a colloquium or special seminar every week. After then I join dinner with guest at least once or twice a week. I also agreed to serve a couple of committees activities outside of school for the Korean science community.

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

For me attending and meeting people in the workshop (rather specialized workshop) has been motivating my research. I could catch up many new ideas and desire.

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

Do whatever you would like to do. Having passion and patience seem to be the most important. Nothing is to be late and try to attack the difficult problems.


Catherine Greenhill

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

My name is Catherine Greenhill. I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW Sydney. I have a traditional academic role with a mixture of research, teaching, supervision and service.

Why do you do mathematics?

I always enjoyed mathematics, and can remember playing around with numbers from a young age for fun. But it took me a lot longer to consciously realise that I was a mathematician. At university I started off studying physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science as part of a Science degree. By second year, I had narrowed it down to mathematics and computer science, and soon I had to decide between Honours in mathematics or a combined Honours in both mathematics and computer science. I asked one of my maths lecturers for advice: which would be a better choice for when I'm “out there” (in the real world). He told me that (a) I could always stay “in here” and that (b) “Catherine, you are a mathematician!”. I guess I realised that he was right.

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?

During semester, a typical work day involves teaching (either lectures or tutorials, or both), supervisions (with Honours students and with research students), possibly committee meetings, and dealing with emails. If I'm lucky, I get to spend some time thinking about or talking about research. Quite often though, I'm too busy to think about research during the day. So it often happens that I end up doing some work in the evening, after my two kids have (finally) gone to bed. This is the most peaceful time when I can get stuck into some research without interruption. I don't work every evening, but there certainly are evenings when I work late. (I'm absolutely not a morning person so there's no chance of me getting up early instead!)

When I was a postdoc, on the other hand, I almost never did work at home. So that's something that's changed throughout my career. Probably I say “yes” to too many things and end up with too much on my plate, but I think I also enjoy being busy. Particularly since becoming a parent, I've accepted that working from home is necessary if I want to maintain my research.

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

I still find it really satisfying to solve a hard problem. I also enjoy the definiteness of mathematics, where an answer is either right or wrong. There are not many other areas in life which give us that kind of certainty. Research can be frustrating at times, and you need to be persistent and stubborn. But when you finally prove something that you've been working towards for a long time, it's very rewarding. I enjoy collaborations, with colleagues in Australia and around the world, and with students here at UNSW.

The main challenge for me is work-life balance, I suppose. Maternity leave was a bit disruptive (I took two 12-month periods of maternity leave), but working part-time after maternity leave helped ease me back into things at my own pace. Ironically, the incredibly slow pace of publication in mathematics journals can help to “smooth out” the impact of a career break on your publication record: a senior colleague of mine in the UK gave me this advice before I had my first child and I found it very reassuring.

How important is travelling?

Travel is definitely important. I usually go overseas at least once a year, with one or more domestic trips. Most of my travel is to attend conferences or workshops, these days. I probably should do more travel for collaboration, but have been finding it hard to schedule lately, especially as I sometimes want to spend a mid-semester break on holidays with my family! Australia is quite isolated from the rest of the world, so I think it's important to show your face at international conferences, to tell everyone about the work you've been doing and maybe make some new contacts. (My travel is enabled by my very supportive partner and very understanding kids.)

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

Stick with it! Don't be afraid to ask stupid questions. Find out what support networks are available at your institution and make use of them. If you encounter a problem, let someone know. Don't worry too much about what other people think of your research: if the work is good and you keep doing it, people will eventually notice.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

I think I'd probably give the same advice as above, though I was always pretty good at asking lots of stupid questions!


Yvonne Stokes

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

My name is Yvonne Stokes and I am an Associate 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 February 2017 I have been the Chair of the Women in Mathematics Special Interest Group of the Australian Mathematical Society (WIMSIG).

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. I usually start with attending to emails and I’d easily spend more than an hour at this! Then, as a full-time researcher, I can get down to research activities, which might mean writing 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. At present, I am also writing an Honours course and I am spending many part-days and some whole days on this. On 2 or 3 days of the week I have meetings with postdocs and PhD, Masters and Honours students. 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, 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. I’ve also been fortunate to have (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.

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. 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: 16 Nov 2017
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