Susanne Pumpluen is an associate professor in pure mathematics at the University of Nottingham. After doing her diploma in mathematics at the University of Muenster in Germany, she did her Doctor of Philosophy at the FernUniversity in Hagen and then her Habilitation at the University of Regensburg, where she stayed on as a Privatdozentin. Susanne secured a permanent position as a lecturer in the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Nottingham in the UK and has now been there for over ten years.
“…Maths can be very creative. Pure maths is like inventing new patterns out of old ones, weaving them together, using certain rules and restrictions imposed on you by the theory involved…”
Maths – the easy way out?
My father was a full professor in mathematics and when I was little he sometimes took me to his lectures with him. I remember sitting in the front row in the huge lecture theatre, doodling, trying to copy his formulas and finding all of this quite exciting.
I was not that good in maths at school. To study maths was not my first choice. I wanted to study languages, but I realised I not only would have to be good at languages if I wanted to get a job I found interesting (I did not feel like becoming a teacher at that point), but also to know about what to translate, I would have had to study languages and economics, say, or law. To study maths instead seemed the easier way out, and this is how I ended up being a mathematician. I took the easy way out.
I did my diploma in mathematics at the University of Muenster, Germany, but the first semester was a disaster. I failed my linear algebra exam because I was really bad at calculations, especially under pressure (I still am…) and I took forever to do the weekly problem sheets. But then I got better and better and I got used to the much faster pace. I then immediately wanted to do a Ph.D. as I loved the idea of finding new results and doing research, and this is how my academic career started.
I did my Ph.D. at the FernUniversität and then my Habilitation at the University of Regensburg, where I then stayed on as a Privatdozentin (an academic title, usually conferred in German-speaking countries, to someone who holds certain formal qualifications that denote an ability to teach).
I was the third woman to receive the Habilitation in mathematics since the university was founded. Habilitation is a bit like a second Ph.D. only without a supervisor. At that time, it was still the preferred method of qualification to apply for permanent positions as associate or full professor in Germany.
I then spent nearly two years at New Mexico State University in the US, first as a college instructor and then later I came back as a visiting assistant professor. Subsequently, I got a permanent position as a lecturer in the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Nottingham in the UK in 2004. (I also spent one year in Italy on a research grant.)
During the semester teaching plays a big role. I have my weekly lectures to prepare. Sometimes I mark coursework and hold tutorials. I also supervise dissertation projects. During my office hours I see my students and help them with problems. I meet Ph.D. students regularly throughout the year, and we talk about what they tried, how they get on, and I might give them some ideas or check their arguments. Note: I am writing arguments, because they hardly ever have to do computational mathematics.
Then I have administrative duties. I am for instance our School’s Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. This means I have to organise, as well as chair meetings and initiatives, where we try to make our school a better workplace for all.
I am also on the Women in Maths Committee of the London Mathematical Society. We are trying to address problems women in mathematics might face and help fix the leaking pipeline. We meet three times a year, so this is not so much a daily activity than an ongoing one, but I find it very important.
The other part of my job, my favourite bit, consists of doing research, finding new results and then writing them up into articles which then (hopefully!) will get published in internationally peer-reviewed journals. I also give talks about the results I find at seminars or conferences, both locally and overseas, last year for instance in Denver in the US. I also try to get funding for my research, so that I have money for Ph.D. students or postdocs.
Making the distinction between pure and applied maths
I think the main difference between pure and applied maths is that it seems easier to talk about some areas in applied mathematics. When you can tell someone that you are able to simulate some real-life situation, like traffic flow or cancer growth, people will go: “Oh, yes, I see, that makes sense. This could be useful,” and accept it (without needing any idea about the maths behind it).
When you do pure mathematics, it is much harder to sell or explain. I could say I am doing mathematics, but I have no idea what it could be used for apart from that it looks really beautiful and answers a question a colleague asked, or puts two theories in context, or solves an open problem. So, it does sound very vague. Most people think of maths as in the maths they did in school. “Algebra? This is what we did when I was young!” Well, it is so much more than that.
Finding real-life applications
I am lucky as some years ago I found a way to apply the exotic little branch of pure maths in which I work to some real-life applications – that makes it easier to explain what I am doing, and therefore to sell it.
I am currently working with some mathematical objects which were discovered 50 years ago by a French mathematician called Petit, but then forgotten. His elegant theoretical paper never got cited and pretty much no one knew about his results. It turns out the objects he found are behind some recent code constructions I sometimes work with, which can be used in wireless digital data transmission like with mobile phones, as they are fast to decode.
They were rediscovered by some Indian engineers some years ago, but they came from a different angle and did not see the mathematical theory behind it initially. No one saw that it coming … and this often happens in pure maths: the applications of the results only become clear many years later, when the people who found them might have long passed away.
Pure maths – inventing new patterns out of old ones
Maths can be very creative. Pure maths is like inventing new patterns out of old ones, weaving them together, using certain rules and restrictions imposed on you by the theory involved. It is like a foreign language you have to learn first, so it is hard to explain to someone without the same vocabulary. This actually can be a big problem. People like Professor Marcus du Sautoy are absolutely brilliant at explaining pure maths to the general public – we need more of them!
The way maths is perceived by someone can depend a lot on the teacher they have or had in school. There are lots of connections between art or music and maths and one has to advertise these more. They do not necessarily appear in the standard school curriculum, unless one has an enthusiastic maths teacher who can point them out.
Experiencing different cultures
Apart from attending international conferences and meetings, my academic career gave me the chance to live and work abroad in the US, Canada, Italy and now the UK. For instance, I spent over two years at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a year at the University of Trento on a grant of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
For a long time, the chance to live abroad was, for me, one of the best things about a job in academia! To be paid to travel! I now have close friends and collaborators all over the world. My partner is a fellow academic who I met at a workshop in Northern Italy.
I had my twins while I was writing my thesis for Habilitation. My parents lived seven hours away, and the boys’ father as well (although he stayed with us as much as possible).
It helped me that I had great flexibility with my work day and that I was allowed to work from home when we still lived in Germany. So, when they were still very small and I did not have lectures or seminars, I was usually working in the bedroom with earplugs, doors shut, and the babysitter was in the other rooms with them. There was no decent childcare available where I lived for children under three years.
Advice for girls and women who are interested in careers in maths but don’t know where to start
My advice is: just go ahead. Try doing maths and / or Further Maths at secondary school and see how you like it. Do not believe you need to be brilliant in order to succeed. I most certainly was not at the top of my class at that age. And just do your thing.
There are many careers open to someone who studies mathematics. Apart from maths, you’ll learn transferable skills, like problem solving, perseverance, abstract thinking and logical reasoning, and these are appreciated in a lot of jobs. Employers know that. Go to talk to people who studied maths if you can and find out what they do or look them up online.
Fixing the leaking pipeline of women in academia
I am running a Facebook page profiling female mathematicians. Most of the profiles are of women in academia because I have a hard time finding women outside of academia to profile. Not because there are none, but because of my missing connections. I want to make them more visible, because it is important to have role models you can recognise yourself in.
The first time I saw a female mathematician I was 27 and had just started my Ph.D. She came and gave a talk in our algebra seminar. She smiled throughout the talk. I thought it was marvellous. It had a big effect on me and on the way, I give my lectures and presentations nowadays.
I also administer a closed Facebook group for mathematicians (both male and female) who are interested in exchanging information and good practice and want to help fix the leaking pipeline of women in academia. This is a problem many countries still struggle with, and it is good to have instant access to new studies and a pool of people one can approach, across different countries and societies.
Professor Marcus du Sautoy image credit: The Royal Society [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons