It is no secret that there is an implicit bias against women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and in recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on recruiting women into such fields. However, many who have left careers in STEM posit that there are also issues within these industries and fields themselves that need to be addressed in order to retain women. So what is it really like for young Australian women scientists? In this interview series, we find out.
I talk to several young women from different fields of science about their work, as well as any instances of discrimination they may have experienced or witnessed, and their hopes for the future.
The next interview is with Marielle Ong. She is a former President of the Mathematics Students Society, and tutors maths courses at the University of Queensland. She is currently undertaking her first year of a Masters of Philosophy (a research Masters) in pure mathematics at UQ.
YEN-RONG: Hi! Just introduce yourself a little – what kind of research have you been involved in, and what are you doing now?
MARIELLE: During my honours, I was studying geometric analysis – the lovechild between geometry and calculus. In particular, I looked at the Ricci flow – the means of deforming the curvature of a surface over time. I switched over to complex algebraic geometry in my Masters and am studying non-abelian Hodge theory and Higgs bundles. It’s a little hard to explain what those are. The project is more learning-based.
On a side note, I did study how bees can be left or right-handed in my second year. It involved handling and feeding bees, watching them fly through a self-made tunnel for hours and spending sunny days under a glasshouse lab at QBI.
YEN-RONG: What made you interested in maths to begin with?
MARIELLE: I was always mathematics/physics-inclined in high school. I actually aspired to be an astrophysicist in my first year and was enamoured by the idea of studying the cosmos. I fell out of it because of the long lab hours and reports, and the fact that the ideas in physics didn’t sit right with me. None of it seemed rigorous, everything was hand-wavy and there is always some percentage of error in experiments. I know this is just physicists’ attempt of explaining the complexities of the universe but I wanted absolute perfection.
That’s when I realised that I was more drawn to mathematics rather than the physical concepts associated with mathematics. I loved how everything fell in place, that rewarding feeling after a long computation, the logic and elegance of proofs, the story that these theorems create. I get easily invested in things. So having that Eureka moment after spending hours fumbling around is dramatic and addictively exciting to me. I just thoroughly enjoyed the content I learned in my degree. There are also many wonderful, interesting and respectful people in mathematics, so that helped.
YEN-RONG: Did you wish you knew this was a possible career before you dived into it?
MARIELLE: Yes, absolutely. I wished high-school-me knew that being a mathematician was an actual job. Mathematics in high school is nothing like what we actually do in mathematical research. It probably would have accelerated my dive into it and I would never look back.
YEN-RONG: What’s the most exciting thing that you’ve come across in your studies?
MARIELLE: Wow, that’s hard to pinpoint and to explain. Non-math-wise, I found out that bees, like humans, have personal, unique handedness. In terms of math, this isn’t a very specific result but I was amazed by how the story of Higgs bundles permeates throughout all areas of mathematics and can be realized through algebraic geometry, differential geometry, combinatorics and mathematical physics. It’s a wonderful mystery as to how there are so many different viewpoints on it.
YEN-RONG: What are three things about your field of research that people would not otherwise know about?
MARIELLE: First of all, there is a huge knowledge/skill gap between student and “being able to actually conduct research” in pure mathematics. This gap may range from 1-5 years depending on what’s involved. A normal day in the life of a pure mathematician is mostly spent reading textbooks, scouring the electronic journals, trying to understand proofs, sometimes computing formulas, giving presentations and communicating/collaborating with others. There is definitely a lot of learning involved, but like a normal job, there is also some procrastination, administration and bureaucracy. There are no labs, fieldwork or error-analysis but it can take many hours or years just to try and understand a theorem, its significance, and its proof.
Secondly, there are two different kinds of pure mathematicians – problem solvers and theory developers. Theory developers, such as Hilbert and Grothendieck, ask the big questions, have an idea of what should be attacked next, and draw links between different areas of mathematics. If the progress of mathematical ideas was like digging through a tunnel, theory developers are the bulldozers that forge a path for discoveries. Problem solvers, such as Paul Erdos, are those that just attack problems. They don’t attack the big question directly but the culmination of their work is key to solving big questions. I have yet to figure out who I am.
Finally, mathematics can be broken up into six big areas: analysis (aka calculus), algebra, geometry, topology, number theory, combinatorics/graph theory. Sub-fields are then obtained by taking the intersection of any of these. For example, algebraic geometry, differential geometry, geometric analysis, algebraic number theory, etc. There is a great divide between analysts and algebraists but really, they both need each other in their respective fields.
YEN-RONG: Which misconceptions about your field do you really want to combat?
MARIELLE: The greatest misconception is that mathematics is all about numbers, formulae and computations. Yes, that is a component of mathematics, but there is so much more to it. It’s the quantity and quality of understanding the theory and how one communicates ideas in proofs. It’s about having the creativity and ingenuity to see connections between ideas that are not immediately apparent. Mathematics is very different to the physical sciences.
For instance, if I want to answer “are bees left or right-handed”, I can just go out, maybe learn some theory about bees and design an experiment to test that. With mathematics, you might have some intuition for an answer but putting it in rigorous mathematical terms is tough and it comes down to the subtle nuances of the theory. It’s more of an art form than a science to me.
Another stereotype that I do want to combat is how mathematicians are antisocial, quiet and eccentric. There is a range of colourful characters you meet in mathematics. We do have quiet, antisocial types but some are out-going, gregarious and just, plain cool. We, as students, are actually encouraged to talk to a lot of people so that we can learn our field better.
This is a pet-peeve of mine: not all mathematicians are people who like brain-teasers and logic puzzles. I know some who are not even good at mental arithmetic. Yes, there are those who are math Olympiads and participate in problem-solving tournaments but I’m in the camp of people who never like puzzles.
YEN-RONG: What are your thoughts on how society as a whole sees the hard sciences as opposed to the social (or as some people call them, “softer” sciences), and the arts?
MARIELLE: I think due to great scientific shows, icons and media outlets like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan and “I f**king love science”, the barrier between science and the public has waned. There is still a long way to go (especially in politics) but I think people are way more scientific-literate than before. I’m not sure about the softer sciences though. I feel like I know nothing about them. Yes, I’ve seen glimpses of them in TV shows but they are probably misrepresentations. I’m afraid I can’t comment much on that.
However, there is still a huge barrier between pure mathematics and the public. With physics and even, theoretical physics, it’s easier to explain their research to laypeople via visualisations. Pure mathematics, however, do not appear very often in media or popular science. I am waiting for a “Neil Degrasse Tyson” figure to emerge from mathematics.
YEN-RONG: Have you personally experienced any kind of discrimination in the lab or at conferences that you’ve been to? If so, please elaborate. If not, do you have any colleagues that have experienced this?
MARIELLE: Oh boy, I need to be careful in how I answer this because I don’t want to offend anyone. No, I haven’t experienced any kind of discrimination but I do think there is a difference between being a woman in mathematics than being a man. When I’m trying to solve a problem or ask a question, I’m always doubting my ability and judging my self-worth while my all-male colleagues are quite comfortable and confident in their attitude. At first, I thought this was just me but I have spoken with other female grad students and one female lecturer who have shared the same “Imposter syndrome”. I’m not saying that males don’t experience this but I think women might be more affected by it.
I know another female lecturer in British Columbia, Canada, who felt that male mathematicians can publish more than female mathematicians due to parenting responsibilities and maternity leaves. For this reason, universities are more inclined to grant male mathematicians longer academic positions.
With that being said, there are a lot of “Women in Mathematics” events nowadays and some universities are adopting the policy of accepting more female grad applicants. We recently have had our first female Fields medallist. One particular experience I recall was when I told a female lecturer about my imposter syndrome worries and she turns to me and says, “You can do it. If I can, then you can too.” Women in mathematics stick together. I don’t know what it is but there is some silent acknowledgement among female mathematicians that being a woman in mathematics is different to being a man.
Despite all of this encouragement geared towards women though, the field is still very male-dominant and I think it will be a long, long while until we have true gender equality in mathematics.
YEN-RONG: Do you think your race/ethnicity alters the way people interact with you in a professional sense? E.g. at conferences, etc?
MARIELLE: I was born in Singapore and moved to Australia when I was 11 years. Not at all, I don’t think my race affects my interactions. I have lost a huge part of my Singaporean accent though but even so, mathematics is an international effort.
YEN-RONG: What kind of strategies would you like to see implemented in science oriented workplaces to combat gender discrimination?
MARIELLE: I like the idea of having gender based quotas in workplaces. The only problem with this is that I want to be employed not because of my gender but because of my capabilities and skills. So there is some form of gender discrimination in that sense. Holding a gender equality awareness event is great and I think, an honest and open discussion about it does wonders.
YEN-RONG: What is a recent scientific discovery or advancement that you’re most excited about?
MARIELLE: It’s not related to my field but I thought the discovery of gravitational waves in February 2016 was pretty exciting because it deepens our understanding of dark matter, black holes and the deaths of stars. These were objects that attracted me to astronomy and well, a career in science in the first place.
YEN-RONG: What do you think you’d like to do after you graduate? What would be your dream job?
MARIELLE: I’ve got a plan, somewhat. I’m aiming to apply for a grad school in the US next year, complete a 5-year PhD, maybe spend 1-2 years as a Postdoc and then, we’ll see what happens next. I’m really hoping to get into a good grad school but top universities are extremely competitive.
The dream is to become a respectable researcher at a top university (eg. MIT, Stanford, UC Berkely, Chicago). I love teaching so I hope to have a lecturing position as well. If all else fails, I’m falling back on my original dream, which was to be a maths teacher. I probably would not have time for this but I would love to try and tell people about pure mathematics through some media outlet; thus bridging the gap between the public and this esoteric field.
Yen-Rong is a Brisbane based writer. She is the founder and editor in chief of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian Artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn. You can read more of her work here.