Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sylvia Serfaty - Mathematician

"It's really beautiful to observe, as you progress in your mathematical maturity, how everything is somehow connected. There are so many things that are related, and you keep building connections in your intellectual landscape." 
One of the things that fascinates me most about science and math is the line that can be drawn through history connecting researchers, each building on the work of those who came before. And then how their own work builds on what they have learned and what others are learning. It's all very exciting to me, even though I know it's a lot of hard, often lonely, work.

I recently read an interview with Sylvia Serfaty, and while I can't say I understand what she's working on, I find it immensely interesting to just listen to her talk about the process of mathematical research. And how she came to realize that this was her passion.

When she was in high school, her math teacher was giving out challenging problems for the students to solve. Sylvia took hers home and wrestled with it for a while and eventually came up with a solution. As it turns out, it was a different, more abstract solution than the one her teacher was expecting. How exhilarating it must have been to realize she had a natural aptitude for solving problems and that this might be her calling in life!

But she makes it clear she was not math prodigy. She really dislikes that stereotype of math researchers as savants, and instead makes it clear that she and others like her put in long hours of hard work, much like practicing for musicians honing their craft. Actually, this is something I see quite often in my research of women in STEM -- they emphasize the time and effort required to reach their goals.

Sylvia's work included taking on the problem of using math to analyze superconductors -- to determine the relationship between the magnetic field of the superconductor and the vortices that appear. This took her decades to solve. She first took on this problem in 1998 as a post-doc, and continued to work on it off and on over the next 18 years. In that time, she earned the European Mathematical Society prize in 2004, and then in 2012, she shared the Poincaré Prize with Nalini Anantharaman, another remarkable female mathematician, making them the only two women awarded that honor. So far.

She is also an outspoken proponent of increasing outreach to bring more women and minorities into STEM fields, because everyone sees the world a little bit differently and that changes how they approach problems and come up with different answers. "That’s why you need people with different points of view, to think of different perspectives and find different roads."

You can read a fantastic interview with her from earlier this month.

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