In 2014, a woman was awarded a Fields Medal - considered the highest honour in world mathematics - for the first time. That woman was Maryam Mirzakhani, a world-leading Iranian mathematician who tragically died of cancer in 2017 aged just 40.
On 12 May, her birthday, the global mathematical community celebrated women in mathematics in her honour.
“I am deeply moved by the fact that we have chosen to celebrate International Women in Mathematics day on Maryam’s birthday,” said Payne-Scott Professor and Vice-President of the International Mathematical Union, Nalini Joshi.
“I hope this celebration reaches women across the world who are drawn to the discovery of beautiful patterns. I hope they see that women can be mathematicians, who are inventing, collaborating and contributing new ideas at the highest levels.”
This International Women in Mathematics day, we share the inspiring stories of three Sydney women who have forged exciting careers mathematics.
When asked what she loves most about mathematics, Dr Anna Romanov said: “It feels like exploring an unknown land – you are hopelessly lost in the dark most of the time, but every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the most beautiful patterns emerging from the darkness.”
Growing up in a small town in northern Nevada, Dr Romanov always enjoyed maths but had no idea that she could make a career out of it.
“Everyone told me I should become an engineer,” she says. “I decided to study maths at university on a whim, thinking I would change my major later - but somehow never did.”
After completing her PhD in Utah, she packed her bags, her husband and moved to “the other end of the world” for a National Science Foundation research fellowship, to work with Professor Geordie Williamson at the University of Sydney.
Dr Romanov’s research is in representation theory, which provides the mathematical language to study symmetry.
“In any situation where symmetry exists, utilising the symmetry can drastically reduce the complexity of the problem,” she says. “But my work is in tool construction rather than the tool use - I am interested in how we can expand the symmetry dictionary itself.”
Dr Romanov couldn’t believe that becoming an academic mathematician was a viable option that no one had told her about before.
“In graduate school, I realised how wonderful the life of a mathematician is,” she says. “Imagine getting paid to sit around and think about incredible things, then tell other people about them!”
Increasing visibility of female mathematicians and providing active mentoring in critical transition periods are two tactics for decreasing the gender imbalance in maths says Dr Romanov.
“It’s hard to imagine yourself doing something if everyone who does that thing looks nothing like you, and this is one of the reasons why fewer women study maths in university.”
Professor Sally Cripps pursued a career in mathematics because it was the only thing that made sense to her.
“It is a beautiful language; succinct, concise and logically consistent,” she says. “I am constantly amazed that a human construct explains so much of our world.”
“My undergraduate degree was in chemical engineering here at Sydney,” she says. “After working in the UK and completing my MBA, I decided to focus on what I loved and pursued my PhD in Bayesian statistics.”
Professor Cripps then worked in different roles around the world before returning to the University of Sydney in 2014 to lead the Centre for Translational Data Science. An internationally recognised scholar in Bayesian statistics, her research focus is on developing novel methods to flexibly model and analyse complex data.
“We develop new probabilistic models of complex phenomenon to understand the drivers behind these complex systems,” she says. “The impacts range from the evolution of the planet to the human metabolism, from criminology to air pollution, from ecology to mineral exploration.”
As the Head of the centre, Professor Cripps gets to, metaphorically speaking, “peek in everyone’s backyard”.
“From working with vets on automating the dairy industry to philosophers on the impact that artificial intelligence has on the human condition, I get to learn a lot and work with great people.”
She also shared that having more women in leadership positions is key to getting more women in mathematics.
“I’m fortunate to have a Head of School who is female, so I feel that being a woman in a school of mathematics is just as normal as being male - but unfortunately that is not always the case.”
Having loved maths since high school, Dr Emi Tanaka went on to study advanced mathematics and complete a PhD in statistics at the University of Sydney. While not knowing it at the time, she was on to something – statistics graduates were soon to be in high demand.
“I didn't think about what I was going to do with my career until midway through my undergraduate studies. I could see how statistics could be beneficial in the job market, so chose to focus on this during my PhD,” she says. “I had, unknowingly, placed myself well - when data science exploded, every employer seemed to be looking for someone with a background in statistics.”
Now, alongside her research work, she spends time shaping young mathematical minds in the classroom as a lecturer in statistics.
“I feel lucky that I get to do research I’m passionate about, while also educating the next generation in quantitative literacy,” she says. “I get a lot of joy out of creating an environment that helps students grow to their maximum potential.”
Dr Tanaka is also excited by the potential of making a real impact with her research. She is currently working on projects that use the power of statistics, genetics and computing to tackle challenges in plant breeding.
“I have really fallen off the wagon of a traditional statistical research path as I utilise more modern computing in my work,” she says. “I hope the application of this research helps to improve food production by making the use of resources more efficient.”
Promoting gender balance in mathematics could be improved if everyone was more aware of unconscious bias says Dr Tanaka.
“The big difference comes when senior members in a given situation are conscious of this and actively work to correct biases that occur.”