Q&A with the ANZIAM 2024 Women Plenary Speakers

Golbon Zakeri

What is your name and what do you do?

Golbon Zakeri. I am Professor of Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. My main area of interest is mathematical modelling and decision making under uncertainty as it pertains to an efficient, reliable, resilient and equitable transition to a zero emission energy system set up.

Why do you do mathematics?

I have always loved mathematics. I started graduate school wanting to do a PhD in pure mathematics. Gradually I gravitated towards applied mathematics. In my field, I have the benefit of drawing inspiration from the real world, this means that I have a way of benchmarking my assumptions in the modelling abstractions. Yet, I have the beauty and elegance that mathematics affords a mathematical model. The loop is then closed when I can extract insights from the math models that solve real world problems. My particular area is analytics and economics of energy and power markets which by definition are very important to the world. Weaving this with mathematics and computation yields a rich and intellectually satisfactory career.

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

While I was young my teachers and family members were nurturing with regards to mathematics. E. T. Bell captivated me through “Men of Mathematics” which I read in Farsi (a genderless language, so the book’s translated title was “Famous Mathematicians”)! Later, I found collaborating with my fellow graduate students and subsequently colleagues highly valuable. 

What is a typical work day like for you?

Typically I have my days divided into teaching focused (2 days a week) and research and service focused (3 days a week). On the teaching days I concentrate on lecture preparation, note development, problem set and exam setting, sometimes grading, office hours, answering emails and sometimes meeting. On the other days I meet with graduate students, write research proposals, read research publications (frequently this is a paper that I would have to review in the capacity of an editor or a referee and this is growing in numbers), write a review. I ensure that I allocate time to concentrate on forming and solving research problems (this sometimes entails coding).  Frequently, I set aside time to write (or more likely contribute to writing) a research manuscript.

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

I love doing research as problem solving has that inherently satisfactory “buzz” and that precious aha moment, when you make the connections and appreciate the beauty of math. There are a few problems I’ve had to overcome, and some that I’m still struggling with. I have become more confident as time has passed; I used to worry a lot about what if I can’t do it? I now know that if I put in the time, I will obtain a research result. I have learnt that forming the research questions  is an art, and the question is likely to evolve during the research process. It was difficult for me to concentrate in the later stages of my first pregnancy and before my first son’s first birthday. I have been fortunate with home support and I am persistent, so I have managed a research career while having two children.  

It was difficult for me to concentrate in the later stages of my first pregnancy and before my first son’s first birthday. I have been fortunate with home support and I am persistent, so I have managed a research career while having two children.  

How important is travelling?

I find travelling very important. Participation in conferences in particular brings the onset of many ideas, sparked by other researchers work and observations. This happens much more if I am present at a conference in person. 

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

I would tell my younger self to be confident and trust my research instinct, to do good work and not try to be perfect (I’m still working on this one). I would tell myself to protect my research time and to make sure that I write

Beth Fulton

What is your name and what do you do? 

My name is Beth Fulton and I am the domain leader for Integrated Ocean Stewardship in CSIRO Environment. This is an applied research role in support of all gropus interested in the ocean, though I work most with industries and regulatory agencies, creating tools in support of decision making.

Why do you do mathematics?

I do maths because its fun 😊 More seriously because it is my language for interpreting and exploring the world (and ultimately hopefully making the world a better palce by making sure we understand it and interact with it in a sustainable way).

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

I always had a natural love for it, but by the time I got to high school there were 3 teachers – Miss Marshall, Mr Duffy and Mr Griffin who encouraged that interest.

What is a typical work day like for you?

A typical workday involves coding models, exploring output, writing up reports, chatting with people about the models, what futures they want to explore, what should be in the models, think about how to solve new problems I’ve seen presented or that have come up. This is maths as a collaborative exercise with colleagues, at students and collaborators. And then there is email and the dreaded paperwork pile.

Has this changed between the different stages of your career?

Yes far more meetings and paperwork as I’ve gotten more senior 🤣 But also more capacity to be shaping what I’m doing (the direction of the work)

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

My husband says I don’t have a career, I have a life style. And as much as that suggests I may have failed on the work-life balance front it is a fair reflection of the fact I love what I do. I enjoy solving problems (in a team or solo), exploring things, finding things out. Research is what I do, even for everyday problems at home I take a research oriented approach. I can’t imagine any other way.

How important is travelling?

In this age of climate change travel does bring a sense of guilt, so even with offsetting etc if I’m doing it then its for a good reason. Experiencing new places is one of the reasons – because to really understand a system, the quirky little details that can be important, how it slots together requires experiencing it I find. You can only go so far on second hand information. In addition the new perspectives you encounter are enriching and open up new realisations.

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

Enjoy what you do. There are a lot of stressors in any life or career so make sure you enjoy the ride.

Adrianne Jenner

What is your name and what do you do?

My name is Adrianne Jenner and I’m a Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology and an ARC DECRA Fellow. My research focusses on using mathematics to answer biologically motivated questions, specially in cancer and immunology.

Why do you do mathematics?

I’ve always enjoyed mathematics, even when I was really young. I liked the theoretical nature of it and the way you could be presented with a problem and somewhere in your mathematical toolset there would be a way to solve it, you just needed to work it out.

Despite enjoying mathematics, I didn’t truly love it until I went on exchange to the University of Sheffield as part of my Bachelor of Mathematics degree in 2012. Whilst in the UK, I took a unit on modelling epidemics with ODEs. I was immediately hooked by the idea that the toolset I’d been learning could be used to answer real-world questions. I couldn’t wait to learn other ways mathematics could be applied to the real-world, particularly in biology.

Fast forward 11 years, and I still get excitement from applying mathematics to a biological problem. I think of it like being able to translate between two languages, one being biology and one being mathematics. I love hearing a biological problem and then sitting down to work out how that could be framed mathematically.

What is a typical work day like for you?

I’m currently classified as an Early Career Researcher (ECR) as I’m within 5 years of my PhD. My typical workday is a mixture of student meetings, teaching, and research. Every day is slightly different, but a typical week is usually made up of 1-2 days of research, 2 days of teaching and unit coordination, and 1-2 days of research student meetings. I am fortunate to have a group of incredible PhD students, so a lot of my time is spent meeting with them, reading their work and strategizing their next steps. I also answer a lot of emails, like a lot of emails, from students about the subjects I teach, or for admin regarding editor/review roles. I usually review a paper a month and I’m editor for two journals, which means I need to find reviewers for papers I’m assigned.

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

While the excitement of applying mathematics to problems in biology is what drove me to be in academia, I believe what keeps me in research is the collaborations. Over your academic careers, you get to meet and work with some really incredible people. I thoroughly enjoy learning and working on problems with others, and I believe that is what keeps me in research. While I’m also partly driven by wanting to help improve patient treatment and combat diseases, it’s only one small part of the reason I stay in research.

How important is travelling?

Travelling is very important. To be seen as a successful independent junior researcher, you need to show that you have built an international network of collaborators. You also need to show that you understand the ways in which research and academia is different throughout the world. Developing these skills is crucial to being competitive in interviews for ongoing positions. However, travelling can be really hard – especially moving overseas for a postdoctoral fellowship.

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

Get to know your peers, especially those overseas. If you are thinking about a career in academia, having a network of people around you that you get along with and collaborate with is crucial, not just for success but also for enjoyment. Some of the best parts of my role currently are working on problems with friends I met in the first year of my PhD, who are now lectures at universities overseas.

Also, particularly for women, definitely go for promotion earlier than you think. Don’t wait to tick every box on a list.