Q&A with the AustMS 2018 Female Plenary Speakers

Regina Burachik

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

Associate Professor Regina Burachik — I am a mathematician who does research in nonsmooth analysis, optimization, functional analysis, numerical analysis and optimal control. I also teach mathematical courses and supervise PhD and Honours students.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do mathematics because I enjoy it, it is a creative activity, that allows me to meet incredible people! Indeed, maths has given me a lot of happiness. It lifts me from everyday life. It provides a special world where I can have fun on my own, or together with some outstanding colleagues. At the same time, and as a byproduct, it helps solving concrete real-life problems.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Besides teaching and admin commitments, for which I spare around 30% of my working time, I cannot say I have a fixed structure for my working day. It is true that maths needs certain discipline, but not too much. It needs passion for the problem you are working on, and perseverance. I manage to do research at different times of the day, and I can also enjoy quite a bit of free time every day, usually at night. This hasn’t changed much during my whole career. Even during my student times, I have never lost a night’s sleep because of my math commitments.

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

I do research for pleasure. I did not have any barriers. At some point of my career, some researchers suggested me topics that I felt were not going to provide me enough enjoyment/pleasure. In those cases, I always declined. There are so many paths to follow! Why waste my time (and other’s time) with something that is not for me? I only accepted suggestions of new problems which I knew for sure I would enjoy. In time, these sequence of decisions resulted in what is now my unique mathematical profile.

How important is travelling?

It is very important to be able visit face to face the people we believe are going to be important in our research. The great majority of my current publications are the result of some travel.

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

Do only what you like, and follow only your own brain. Your personal enjoyment of topics should be the main guidance in any important decision pertaining to your future.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Choose mentors that leave you the freedom to be yourself.

Publish only when you like the results you obtained. The Maths community understands when a researcher gives more importance to quality than quantity. Keep that in mind when publishing, and make sure there is always a good amount of imagination and originality in the works you submit.

Do not let anybody impose their topics on you, even if this means rejecting some grant support. In the long run I do NOT think that working on other’s problems is a good policy, unless you really like those problems so much that you can make them your own. You will be proud of your choices and learn from your mistakes only when they are your own.

Isabelle Gallagher

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

I am Isabelle Gallagher — Professor of Mathematics at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, on leave from the Université Paris-Diderot. I am currently head of the Mathematics Department of the ENS. My activities vary between teaching, research and administration.

Why do you do mathematics?

I liked the subject in High School, and met some teachers who motivated me to do mathematics. I liked the fact at the time that assertions were either right or wrong, there was no room for guessing or approximating.

What I like now, beyond those facts (which turn out of course not to be totally true!) is the freedom I have to choose my subjects of study, the fact that most of my work is done with collaborators, some of which are now close friends. I like the fact that mathematics are done essentially in the same way everywhere in the world: you can travel to distant places, with very different cultures, and find a common interest in mathematics.

I also like to work on questions related to Physics, to try and help give a sound and solid foundation to well-known Physical principles.

What is a typical workday like for you?

A work day for me is usually separated in different parts (not all find their place in the same day!):

  • reading and checking parts of papers I am writing, with or without collaborators,
  • thinking on proofs of technical results needed in those papers,
  • thinking at a larger scale on open problems following the current research we are doing,
  • discussing with collaborators,
  • reading other people’s papers, often for refereeing purposes,
  • reading and answering emails,
  • going to a seminar,
  • preparing classes,
  • discussing with students,
  • discussing the progress of PhD or Post Doc students,
  • working with the administrative staff (on Budget/Human Resources/Logistics questions),
  • going to meetings with the directors of other departments, of the ENS or of other universities.

Earlier in my career the three last points did not exist (and the two last take up an big amount of time!).

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

I find it’s the best possible job. The daily schedule (at least for research) is totally free, so are the research subjects, one gets to travel, one meets varied and interesting people ... most of the time!

How important is travelling?

I am trying to travel less for many reasons (it ends up being tiring, and it is not very ecological). But it is important to meet different people, coming from different backgrounds, to take the time to discuss with them, to tell them about our work and to learn from them.

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

Try to get your work known, collaborate if possible with different people (at various stages in their careers). And although it’s difficult as long as you don’t have a permanent position, try not to focus on publishing at all cost ... at least as soon as your position is secured. Science is not just about publishing, it’s about progressing in our knowledge!

Joan Licata

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

I’m Joan Licata, and I’m currently an academic in the Mathematical Sciences Institute at ANU. I’ve been here for six and a half years, and my job involves research and teaching.

Why do you do mathematics?

I developed a pretty romantic vision of basic research as a kid, where it’s a quest to unlock the secrets of the universe. On good days, I still think of it this way! While I realise mathematics is done in many settings, I’m particularly happy to work in an academic one; I also have a pretty romantic vision of how research and teaching should interact in a setting where the primary goal is something other than making money. And on good days, this is what I see in my job. This description isn’t really specific to maths, though; I actually ended up in this field despite my best intentions. When I got to university, I took maths classes mostly to keep my options open, until they ended up being too interesting to walk away from. I enjoyed the feeling that I was tackling something hard, and as I invested more of myself in the field, I got hooked on the specific thrill of topology.

What is a typical workday like for you?

I love the flexibility of my job. After I drop my kids off at school and daycare, I usually settle down in a café on campus to work for a few hours before going to my office. Earlier this year I had a collaborator visiting from France for a few months, and this was the best part of the day for us to work together before meetings and classes took over. After this I generally teach a class or head to the department to take care of emails, often relating to the Honours program at ANU, which I convene. I usually eat lunch with colleagues, which is great. Research can be isolating, and I really value the fact that MSI is a friendly place. In the afternoon I meet with thesis students, hold office hours, and try to get some writing done. I often do some non-research work after my kids go to bed, like answering student emails and writing problem.

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

Research is an integral part of my job; I love the mix of wrestling new understanding from the unknown and sharing material I understand well with students.Collaboration is one of the things that makes research really fun, and having good people to talk to about interesting problems is my favourite part. When I finish a project, I always worry that I’ll run out of things to study; people feel differently about this, but the biggest stress of research for me is being afraid I won’t find a next good question. But so far, so good!

How important is travelling?

Travelling is really important, but what that means for me has changed. Early on, I think I got a lot of benefit from meeting people at conferences and workshops. I travel less frequently now, because of distance and family responsibilities, but I think each trip offers greater value. I find it possible to maintain a long-distance collaboration, but hard to initiate one, so it’s important to sometimes be in the same room as other mathematicians.

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

Avoid buying into the idea that there’s only one way to be a mathematician. If you feel like there’s a part of yourself that doesn’t fit your image of what it means to be a mathematician, change your image, not yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. As I’ve grown more professionally confident, I’ve become more willing to admit when I don’t understand something. This is good, but I think I wasted a lot of opportunities in the past when I was afraid to expose what I didn’t know. These were chances when I could have learned from people who did understand.

Both of the above are very general. At a practical level, don’t be hesitant to promote yourself, even if it’s awkward. It’s okay to email someone and ask if you can give a talk at their department; of course it’s nicer to get an unsolicited invitation, but sometimes you have to make your own opportunities.

Malwina Luczak

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

My name is Malwina Luczak. I am a Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Melbourne, and an ARC Future Fellow. Formerly (until the end of December 2017), I was a Professor in Applied Probability at Queen Mary University of London.

Why do you do mathematics?

As a schoolgirl back in Poland, I enjoyed studying lots of different subjects: biology, geography, physics, mathematics, languages, and was not at all sure that I wanted to become a mathematician. In fact, at the age of 16 I started a degree in English philology at Nicholas Copernicus University in my hometown Torun. After two years, including the second year spent at Keele University in the UK, I realised I was missing mathematics and took up studying it again in my own time. I then applied to do a maths degree at Oxford University and was admitted on the strength of my performance in the entrance examination. It was hard to secure the funding required and initially I only had enough money to last for one year. Fortunately, motivated and encouraged by fantastic tutors at St Catherine’s College, I came top of my year in my first-year examinations, which then enabled me to gain scholarships necessary to continue studying. As an undergraduate student, I also worked part time as a waitress and librarian at St Catherine’s College. Since that time, I never looked back, knowing that I desired a career as a mathematician. I came top of my year in my remaining undergraduate examinations at Oxford and succeeded in obtaining a scholarship from British Telecom to do a DPhil at Oxford. The early stages of my DPhil were a struggle, but over time I found problems to work on that fascinated me, as well as fruitful collaborations.

Even though my work is quite theoretical, I do love to work on problems that are motivated by applications, for instance telecommunication networks or epidemiology. I am also motivated by curiosity and desire to know how the world works, and further love problem solving (that extends to problems outside of mathematics!).

What is a typical workday like for you?

Currently, thanks to my ARC fellowship, I am able to devote most of my work time to my own research. This would normally mean thinking about a problem, scribbling calculations on a piece of paper, writing up a paper or checking parts of it already written. On some days, there are also other activities such as appointment panels (looking at applications, shortlisting), reviewing grant proposals, refereeing papers, etc.

Definitely, things looked different at different stages of my career. For instance, during the academic year 2016/17 at my previous institution Queen Mary University of London, I served as Director of Research in my department. This involved various tasks such as attending weekly meetings of the School Executive Group as well as other committees, also serving on a number of appointment panels and performing (together with the head of school) a mock research assessment exercise in the department.

Earlier in my career, I also did significant amounts of teaching at both undergraduate and Masters level.

I love doing exercise, especially swimming and running, and make sure I go to the pool or on the running track most days.

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

What keeps me doing research is the excitement and joy of discovery, curiosity and love of problem solving. These make up for the slog of making the ends meet in intricate mathematical proofs, as well as other challenges such as not seeing eye to eye with collaborators what the paper should look like or where the follow-up research should go, and setbacks such as not always being able to publish my work in my first choice journal.

At school in Poland, several teachers made it clear they thought I was not as good at mathematics as my male counterparts. Another challenge that I had to overcome later in my career was failing to get a promotion. In 2010, I was Reader in Mathematics at the London School of Economics, and my department put me up for promotion to Professor, with the expectation that I would get it. However, the Promotions Committee said no – apparently at least one of my reviewers said that `I wasn’t ready.’ Only a few months later, I proved them wrong by being appointed to a Chair at the University of Sheffield, as well as winning a prestigious five-year Leadership Fellowship funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

At various times during my career, I encountered gender bias, in some cases conscious rather than unconscious. For instance, I still very well remember one day, shortly after I started my first lecturing position, as an assistant lecturer in the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge, a no doubt well-meaning but very old-fashioned senior colleague said to me: `How gracefully you walked through that door.’ On another occasion, just a few years ago, a certain senior mathematician said that my mathematical degree from Oxford is `worth infinitely less’ than my husband’s mathematical degree from Cambridge.

During the past seven years I also had setbacks related to my health. In 2012, I developed a chronic pain condition, which has at times got severe and seriously affected my ability to work, although currently it is by and large under control. Additionally, at various points in my life, I struggled with an anxiety disorder.

How important is travelling?

Travel was very important for me when I was younger, both for conferences as well as to visit collaborators. These days, I am a lot more selective with where I travel, partly because my health issues mean I don’t sleep well in strange beds. I do get a fair amount of long-distance travel though, as I live between Melbourne and London — my husband works in London and we own a house there.

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

A quote from Martina Navratilova, someone I greatly admire, comes to mind about the `three Bs’: "break boundaries, be yourself and believe in yourself". Also, make sure your heart is in whatever problem you are working on, otherwise you may have a hard time making success of the project.

Be goal oriented and understand that your success is your responsibility.

Try not to stress too much, and remember the 5 by 5 rule: if it is not going to matter in 5 years, don’t spend more than 5 minutes being upset by it. (I still have trouble following this rule even now!).

Hinke Osinga (Hanna Neumann Lecturer)

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

My name is Hinke Osinga and I am Professor in Applied Mathematics at the University of Auckland (NZ).

Why do you do mathematics?

I never expected to end up as a mathematician, and certainly not in academia. I chose to study mathematics mainly because I liked geometry. I still like geometry and I generate new mathematical results primarily by using a geometric understanding of the problem. I combine dynamical systems theory with numerical analysis, that is, I develop new mathematical methods to investigate and explore new ideas. I very much enjoy this interplay between numerics and theory, and will grab every opportunity to visualise and illustrate the geometric structures that underly dynamic behaviour.

What is a typical workday like for you?

For as long as I can remember, I start every day with making a (virtual) list of things I want to achieve that day. And for as long as I can remember, I never actually do the things on my list. Making the list helps to prioritise things, and puts a perspective on where I am heading. As a PhD student, I would overestimate my computer coding skills, or how many pages I would type, but the list gave an idea of how far the end goal was. It never bothered me that I didn’t actually complete all of the tasks on the list; there always was the next day to continue. I find that, over the years, it is bothering me even less now! I use the list to prioritise and I already know at the start of the morning that I probably will get through only three things on the list. I am still working on getting more efficient and trying to complete a fourth, or even fifth item, but I usually only manage if it is something really simple or quick. A typical day will contain time spent on answering email, processing some admin task, like an online meeting or something like that, having an office hour or teaching a class, preparations for my teaching, and a discussion with one of my students on their research project. With any luck, I can get some writing done, or a computation, but it is more likely that I need to referee a journal submission or mark assignments.

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

There have been many moments where I seriously thought of quitting, which was also suggested to me by way of well-meant advice. In hindsight, I believe that what has kept me going was a combination of two things: 1) having a person in my life who continues to support and encourage me — this has been my husband for many years now, but it has also been a mentor, or even a teacher who perhaps made a casual remark that sparked just enough hope that it would all be alright in the end; 2) I come from a relatively strict family where appearances were considered very important: however much trouble there was, we were taught to pretend we had the perfect family life when there was a guest. I now view this experience as a thorough training to overcome imposter syndrome and I often spot the `pretend’ behaviour miles ahead in both women and men. By now, I have really entered the `she has made it’ phase of my career, an I pinch myself every now and then that I really did get this far.

How important is travelling?

I love travelling and to me it is a very important part of my job. Going to conferences or workshop, or simply visiting other researchers helps me to get new ideas and to create time for working on these ideas. As a PhD student and postdoc, I believe that participation in conferences and embarking on research visits –– the `seen and be seen’ –– were the most important for shaping my career. Not only am I convinced that I was offered positions as a result of my travelling, I also got to know many people and collaborators this way.

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

Always try to ask questions at conferences, colloquia, or seminar talks. As I am writing this, I am at a workshop for which I arrived one day late. One of the early-career participants told me how glad she was that I had arrived, because “I missed your questions!” It was then that I realised that I am often the only female mathematician asking a question; it takes a certain confidence to do this. However, if you give it a go, you will find that you also gain confidence from doing it. You can start by thinking of questions, but not actually asking them; and you will notice how often your question will get asked by someone else. I draw a lot of confidence from this, and it gets even better when you dare ask the question yourself. Furthermore, especially at meetings with only a few women in the audience, it is good to be noticed for your questions: others will remember you for academic reasons rather than, or perhaps not just, for your gender.

Nages Shanmugalingam

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

My name is Nageswari Shanmugalingam, and I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on research in geometric analysis and on teaching.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do mathematics because I find it to be interesting; it has the lovely ability to turn our intuition upside down and surprise us! I love that I can create an emerging picture of why things work the way they do just by working out related mathematical problems, one at a time. It is a fun jigsaw puzzle! I was interested in astronomy and physics long before I got interested in mathematics, but in my first year of undergraduate studies at the university I learned about cardinality and countability versus uncountability, and this got me hooked on math!

What is a typical workday like for you?

My typical work day involves teaching preparation, teaching, working with postdoctoral scholars and my PhD student on research, as well as performing service duties for my department, university and the wider mathematical community, including refereeing papers. During the rest of the time I do literature search on arXiv and MathSciNet, and spend a significant amount of time during the weekends thinking about the mathematical problem I am working on at that time. Early in my career I had more time to devote to research, but now my service duties (committee work, refereeing papers and writing reports etc.) takes a substantial portion of my time.

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

As I continued to do research, I found a lovely picture emerging — a picture showing interactions between geometry of a non-smooth space and the analytic behaviour of functions on the space. This development keeps my interest piqued. Early in my career this picture was not apparent, and sometimes I had trouble seeing what the natural questions and problems should be; at these times, I looked to existing mathematical literature as well as to my more senior mentors for guidance. Now I find that discussing mathematics with more early-career mathematicians such as PhD students and postdoctoral scholars to be very productive, as they do not bring in many preconceptions and baggage (“how things should be”) into research. This is a wonderful way of opening up one’s outlook.

How important is travelling?

Travelling to meet with and collaborate with colleagues is extremely vital. One cannot accomplish via email and Skype a free-flow of ideas needed in a successful collaboration. Moreover, travelling to attend conference is also very important, as we need to be plugged into what is being done by the wider mathematical community; we should not be too narrowly focused and lose the big picture, and attending conferences and meeting other mathematicians keep us from that trap.

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

Do not give up when the first five attempts at a problem fail, and do not let others tell you that you “should be thinking of doing something other than mathematics”! If you find that you do enjoy doing mathematics, continue to do mathematics, knowing that every single mathematician out there has faced hurdles in her or his research many times. Research is frustrating often, but then there are patches of sweet victory that makes up for all that! Also, gender does NOT give one an advantage or disadvantage, only social attitudes do that.

Natalie Thamwattana

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

My name is Ngamta Thamwattana (Natalie). I have recently moved from the University of Wollongong to the University of Newcastle (UON) to start a new position as a Professor in Applied Mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Currently, I am also the Director of UON’s Priority Research Centre: Computer-Assisted Research Mathematics and Its Applications (CARMA).

Why do you do mathematics?

I did a Bachelor of Science degree. In the second year of the degree, I needed to choose a major. Mathematics seemed an obvious choice to me as I enjoyed it and also I didn’t want to cut up animals or mix chemical substances.

In fact, I became interested in mathematics in Year 11 because of my teacher. She made maths relevant, fun and interesting and that's what I try to do when I teach, especially the 1st-year maths subjects.

What is a typical workday like for you?

My day at work always starts with an awesome cup of coffee, then I will do other things, such as answer emails, meet with my research students, prepare lecture materials, go to classes, work on my papers, write grant applications, attend to admin roles, read papers, talk to collaborators, etc. This has changed between the different stages of my career, where in early stage of my career, I would do a lot more research than now.

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

Personal satisfaction is what keeps me in research: doing interesting work, publishing results, getting citations, research students completions, excellent teaching feedback, obtaining grants, seeing success of people in my team, attracting students and working with many great researchers etc.

When I come across any barriers or problems, I always tell myself to "suck it up!", keep on working at it, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. However, I also tell myself that if I don't see the light and I have been in the tunnel for too long now, it is OK to seek help!

“No matter what happens, get up, dress up, show up and never give up”.

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

If you can, seek mentor early in the career and always publish and seek opportunity to be involved in grant writing while maintaining high standard in teaching. Also, think outside the box, look with open mind for opportunities to contribute to your research team, your research discipline, your School, your Faculty, your University and your community. However, be strategic about what to say yes or no. My final advice would be to stay healthy and think positively.

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Updated: 23 Nov 2018