Q&A with the ANZIAM 2016 Female Plenary Speakers

Vivien Kirk

VivienKirk-framed.jpeg What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Vivien Kirk. I am an Associate Professor in the Mathematics Department at the University of Auckland. I am an applied mathematician, with most of my recent research being focussed on applying dynamical systems techniques to models from mathematical physiology. My position combines research, teaching and admin, and I get enjoyment (and frustration) out of all three areas.

Why do you do mathematics?

I became a mathematician partly by accident. I enjoyed mathematics and physics at school and majored in both for my undergraduate degree but by the time I did my Masters I had decided to be a physicist. My PhD was in a department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics (at the University of Cambridge). I remember feeling determined, at the start of my PhD, to "stay a physicist"; I don't know what it was about my experience of mathematics and physics or the culture of mathematics and physics departments that made me feel that way, but I was clear I identified more as a physicist at that stage. However, the area in which I worked for my PhD (dynamical systems) often fits most naturally in mathematics departments, and I have happily identified as a mathematician ever since.

Historical contingency aside, I really enjoy the intellectual style of the mathematics I do. I like the mix of theory, computation and application to the physical world, and love the feeling when ideas that were muddled become clear and patterns emerge from the murk. I also enjoy the wider academic environment provided by universities, particularly opportunities to engage with students and to hear about the academic activities of colleagues and visitors from a range of disciplines beyond mathematics.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Most days involve elements of research, teaching and admin in varying proportions, but the relative proportions have definitely changed over the years, as has the times of day in which I am free to work.

Depending on my teaching schedule, I currently try to work at home a day or two each week. This gives me some relatively uninterrupted time to think about research, and for reading and writing. If I turn off email I can get a lot done! On days I am on campus, I tend to have a lot of meetings, with research students and colleagues, or with undergraduates or tutors for the courses I teach. I also typically spend some time preparing for and delivering classes and attending to administrative jobs. A few times a week, there will be seminars to attend or the opportunity to have coffee or lunch with a colleague or visitor. And then there are the committee meetings.... I frequently leave work a bit before the end of the standard working day, to attend to family commitments, then do a few more hours of work (especially dealing with email) in the evening.

The situation was very different when my children were younger. Working at home wasn't an option for various reasons, which meant that uninterrupted time was hard to get. I worked part-time for 10 years, so that I would have more time with my children. During this period I had a part-time teaching load but lots of admin, and scheduling time for research was tricky. In my early years as an academic, it took me much longer to prepare for classes than it currently does, but I definitely spend more time on teaching-related admin now than I used to.

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

I like helping to explain what makes the world work. I also really enjoy collaborative work, both the opportunity to develop ideas with other mathematicians and scientists and the chance to get to know some very interesting people.

Combining a research career with a young family certainly presented some challenges. Having very young children makes it much harder to travel to conferences or to visit colleagues, particularly when most of the specialist conferences are 12-24 hours flight away.

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

Keep trying to see the broad context for your research. You can help this process by taking opportunities to talk to colleagues, visitors and people you meet at conferences about your work and theirs, and by attending seminars and talks, including those outside your direct area of specialisation. New research problems and ideas for solving research difficulties can arise in unexpected places!

Look for mentors, both formal and informal. At certain career stages, it can be very helpful to have a formal mentor to help you sort through options, to check that you are finding an appropriate balance between different commitments, and to help plan for long term goals. At other times, informal advice from trusted colleagues can help you keep your sanity and negotiate difficult situations. Many institutions or employers will help you find a formal mentor if you want one, but you can use your own networks to find informal mentors. You don't have to tell an informal mentor that you regard them as a mentor - just make sure that you have ongoing opportunities to meet with them.

Petra Kuhnert

PetraKuhnert-framed.jpeg What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Petra Kuhnert. I am a Research Statistician working in "Data61" a new research arm of CSIRO that has integrated the digital productivity Flagship of CSIRO with the National ICT Australia (NICTA). I have just returned from maternity leave after having my second child. Prior to this I was working with the Land and Water, and Oceans Flagships of CSIRO on a range of environmental problems. These included finding mathematical solutions for quantifying the amount of pollutants entering into the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) lagoon from catchments in the GBR, providing statistical advice and assessment regarding the GBR Marine Monitoring program and its ability to assess the health of the reef, and developing a statistical tool for understanding what fish eat and what factors relate to their feeding habits and existence in oceans across the globe.

Why do you do mathematics?

For me, personally, mathematics is fun and provides a solution to problems. There was no particular person who motivated me to take this career path. I just really enjoyed this aspect of maths at school as I was not a writer and did not enjoy essay writing or writing short stories. (Little did I know that I was to write reports and papers as part of my career in mathematics!)

One of the aspects of maths that I enjoy most is collaborating with different people on a wide range of interesting problems. It is really satisfying helping others solve difficult problems and obtaining a result that helps them move forward with their own research or decisions.

What is a typical workday like for you?

When I first started my career as a Statistician, I was working for CSIRO in Sydney and started out working on a single project under the supervision of a superior. I spent a lot of time learning about new techniques, new computing systems and languages and gaining experience in a range of statistical techniques. I also put my hand up for a lot of additional activities (e.g. being on a committee for young researchers, attending various conferences and giving many presentations, support team member for S-Plus support). So the early stage of my career was about learning as much as I could. I was also not a very good speaker and became extremely nervous at every presentation. However, by consistently doing presentations at conferences and regular meetings within our group, I became more confident to the point where I enjoy giving presentations on the work I have done.

Now, my role has changed quite a bit. I tend to work on multiple projects and I tend to lead a lot of projects with people from different backgrounds and experiences. I often have to work to tight deadlines so managing projects and people is a priority, in addition to doing the statistical innovation for the project. I also spend lots of time talking to people and responding to emails. So trying to manage the administrative side to projects with the work required to develop the statistical innovation can be challenging at times. I have also had the opportunity to mentor various researchers at different stages of their career. This has ranged from Honours students and vacation students to PhD students and Postdocs. This has been both challenging and rewarding.

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

I really like to solve problems and develop a new and innovative solution to issues. I like developing statistical methods and techniques that can assist decision makers in the decision making process. This is very rewarding for me.

Probably the biggest barrier or problem for me is ensuring that my ideas get published before they get written up by someone else! This has happened to me on a few occasions unfortunately. Another issue has been around communicating the importance of statistics/mathematics to collaborators and external parties. Quite often a very ad hoc solution is in place and demonstrating a change to a method that is more scientifically defensible is challenging.

How important is travelling?

I think travel is important, although with a young family that can be challenging. Visiting other universities and mathematical/statistical groups can be quite a rewarding experience that can lead to new collaborations and the generation of new ideas.

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

Here are my important tips for those starting out in their mathematical/statistical career:

  1. It is very important to write up your ideas (if they are worthwhile writing up of course!). Aim for some of the high impact journals not only in mathematics/statistics but in your collaborating discipline. Your H-Index is important for promotions and unfortunately many of the maths/stats journals have very low impact (compared to other journals). They also do not get read by many applied folk no matter how great your work is. Having your papers cited is a real important part of research. So aim to mix up things a bit and publish in the applied areas as well.
  2. If possible, try to attend conferences and go on visiting sabbaticals, even if they are just for a short period of time. These types of trips will help to gain exposure, your confidence and generate collaborations on interesting topics. There are some grants out there that can assist with this.
  3. Get involved in extracurricular activities e.g. organising special sessions of conferences, participating in paper reading groups, lunch time seminars. This will also increase your exposure to various groups and build confidence with presenting.
  4. Make sure you actually spend some time doing research. This might sound easy but often you get bogged down with administrative activities that prevent you from doing the really cool stuff. While the admin is important, it should not detract from the innovation.
  5. Find a mentor, someone you really look up to for advice. I have found this really important throughout my career, particularly through the tough times where I have needed some really good and sound advice.

Karen Willcox

KarenWillcox-framed.jpeg What is your name and what do you do?

Karen Willcox. I am currently Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I am also Co-Director of the MIT Center for Computational Engineering and formerly the Associate Head of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. My research at MIT has produced scalable methods for model reduction and new multifidelity formulations for design under uncertainty. These methods are widely applied in aircraft system design and environmental policy decision-making. I teach classes in numerical methods, controls and design optimization. I am also active in educational innovation, both from a research and a policy perspective. I have two young children (aged 6 and 1). In my spare time (not much of it!) I like to trail run, hike and mountaineer.

Why do you do mathematics?

Because I enjoy it and I find it personally rewarding. And because mathematics has a huge role to play in solving society's most pressing challenges.

What is a typical workday like for you?

These days, a typical work day is almost entirely filled with meetings, other than the time I am teaching. This includes research meetings with my students and postdocs, project meetings, and meetings for the many committees and admin responsibilities that I have. As my career has progressed, I've become much more of a research manager than someone who sits and writes the code myself. I have a large group and it takes a lot of time to manage the group and all the sponsor interactions. But I am still deeply involved in the research; it just happens now through the interactions I have with my group. I also spend a lot more time doing service/leadership work (admin responsibilities, committees). That kind of work certainly takes away from research time, but it is another important way to contribute leadership to my university and to the community.

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

I love the flexibility (intellectual, strategy, focus, schedule) that my research position gives me. You could triple my salary and I would not give that up. I also love the collaborations and the fact that I am constantly challenging my own thinking and learning new things. The major problem I face is that there are too many interesting things to do. I need to get better about saying 'no' and making sure I have the time to do the important things well.

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

Be sensible about your choices, but do what you enjoy, not what you think you should do to get ahead. What good is success if you don't have a passion for what you do? I firmly believe that being passionate about your research/teaching/job is the most essential ingredient to being successful. And if doing what you love does not get you promoted at your institution, you are probably at the wrong place. Seek out mentors who can give you advice, but filter the advice you get. Figure out what is important to you and make sure that you have enough time to do those things well.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Make the most of your time as a grad student and postdoc — never again will you have the chance to focus so entirely on research and on learning new things. Trust your intuitive judgement — the best decisions I've made are the ones that felt right to me, even when more senior colleagues advised me to pursue a different path. Don't forget to have fun along the way!

Updated: 08 Jan 2016