How to build an inclusive research group: an interview with Camilla Hollanti

Interview by Sema Coskun and Olga Kuznetsova

  • Born inFinland
  • Studied inFinland
  • Lives inFinland


Camilla Hollanti is head of the research group “Algebra, Number Theory and Applications” at Aalto University, which has a very striking gender balance. 

When did you decide to be a mathematician and why?

I’m not sure if I ever really decided, life just happened to go that way. My dad got me interested in math and astronomy very early on, though he did not have upper secondary school education himself. I also had awesome math teachers in secondary and upper secondary school. I suppose at least partially it was out of laziness/convenience, in that I knew that I would get directly into a math program based on my matriculation exam grades, while for physics I would have had to go to an entrance exam, which collided with my working hours at my uncle’s farm. So, I chose to go to math. During upper secondary school, I was also considering psychology, philosophy, and languages, so the choice wasn’t immediately obvious. I have always been lucky (or cursed?) to be interested in practically everything.

How would you explain your research to a non-specialist?

Abstract algebra studies certain basic structures in sets of elements, for instance the set of integers we all know very well is an additive group and a ring. Such notions are more generally very important in understanding various mathematical objects, laws of physics, algorithms, etc. On the other hand, number theory studies integers and prime numbers. My background on the mathematical side belongs to the border of these two: algebraic number theory. It has turned out that algebraic number theory provides useful tools for constructing lattices (a lattice is a generalization of a square integer grid Z^2 in the 2-dimensional real space R2) that are suitable for wireless communications. For instance, minimizing the decoding error probability in communications over a fading wireless channel boils down to finding a certain type of division algebra with a minimal discriminant. Or, adding security to the picture, lattice coset coding is useful in confusing an eavesdropper who tries to intercept a sent message.

Another thread of my research relates to coding theory and combinatorics, which we apply for constructing good codes for storing information on clouds and other distributed systems, such that if some of the storage servers go down, the data can still be efficiently recovered from the remaining servers. Additionally, the lost server can be easily replaced by a new one with only little communication between the servers. To this, we can add the requirement that the user needs to be able to retrieve a file privately, i.e., the servers should not learn which file the user was interested in (such information can be easily exploited for commercial or even worse purposes). This leads to the concept of private information retrieval, which is currently one of our main research topics.

Gender balance is one of the strengths of your research group. Is it something that you have specifically aimed for or did it happen naturally?

I would say it happened naturally. A female mentor attracts female students and postdocs.

Do you adhere to any policies or practices during recruitment and team management that ensure good gender balance?

In open calls, I really try to pay attention to the gender balance and encourage women and other minorities to apply. This, however, can be rather difficult as, for instance, a typical postdoc call attracts around 100 applications, out of which less than 10 (and sometimes none) are from female applicants.

As for team management, I believe we have a very open and respectful atmosphere, and if there ever is any controversy or difficult situation, I try to interfere and clarify things with the people involved immediately. Luckily, this has not happened often in the first place and  so far it was never related to any gender issues.

In your opinion, how does gender balance affect the atmosphere and the research outcomes of the group?

I think that diversity in a group is very important, and there is also research to support this view. Heterogeneous groups tend to be more successful than homogeneous ones.

You have recently become the Vice-Head of the Department of Mathematics and Systems Analysis at Aalto. (Congratulations!) In your opinion, what are the advantages and challenges of being a female in a senior leadership role in academia? What unique perspectives can females bring to the table that would otherwise be left unnoticed?

Thank you! I am lucky to work at a department that, according to my experience, has a very nice atmosphere and mutual respect among people.

I am lucky to work at a department that, according to my experience, has a very nice atmosphere and mutual respect among people.

I haven’t faced any gender related difficulties myself at Aalto, but before being in a leadership position and before my Aalto times, it happened quite often that I say or propose something, which is completely ignored, and few minutes later another person in the room presents my idea as his own, without realizing what he is doing. This can be challenging, but I hope things are improving all the time. It is also important to realize that most of the unfairness and injustice we face as women  is due to ignorance and not maliciousness. It doesn’t change the fact that it is bad, but it helps to understand it and to do something about it. We can only help  by trying to increase awareness, and by speaking out whenever we notice something is not right. This is an infinitely slow process, and I think it is exactly for this reason  that it is so very important that there are also women in leading roles, providing different points of view, sharing personal experience, raising awareness, acting as role models, etc. This is not to say that men cannot do this as well, nor that women are not guilty as well with the (let’s call it) “history- and statistics-based prejudice”. In the end, we get back to the fact that diversity is irreplaceable.

More generally, some obvious advantages are to be able to act as a role model for other women, and to be able to affect important matters. I’m sure women in many places still face difficulties even in leading roles, by being unheard, ignored or underestimated. There is also research on how it easily tends to happen that, say, in a committee, an opinion/idea presented by a woman is ignored or observed as not good, whereas the same idea coming from a male is much better received. This I can also verify from quite a bit of personal experience.

How do you support the group members with respect to mentorship, sponsorship, networking and finding collaborators?

I want to work as closely as possible with all my students and postdocs, while guaranteeing they become independent researchers. Of course, when  the group is rather big, it is challenging to do this to the extent that I would like. Luckily then there is also increased peer-support, and postdocs are a great help in advising students. The whole group is more or less constantly applying for funding, but a majority of the funding comes from my external projects and from the department. As for networking and collaboration, my group members are encouraged to participate in summer schools and conferences and to go for longer research visits, and  the group benefits also from my own networks. Furthermore, we have been very lucky for the past four years to have Prof. Marcus Greferath visiting our group, putting his extensive algebra and coding theory experience, together with his research networks, at our disposal.

You are working in a country known for high living standards and women’s rights; however, female representation in STEM is rather poor. Why do you think this is the case?

This is a hard question. I think  it is due partially to natural differences between genders, but also largely due to how  parents and society treat boys and girls from very early on in life. We speak differently to female and male babies, we push gender images on kids by using certain adjectives in conjunction to certain gender, we teach math so that it favors one gender, etc. This is of course a generalization, but I believe these rather simple things are a big issue. I recently read some research according to which girls trust their math abilities until a certain age (I’ve forgotten by now which age), after which things drastically change for some reason, unrelated to any true capability. I remember a talk related to math and gender saying that teachers often tend to think well-performing boys as intelligent and talented, while well-performing girls are perceived hard-working and diligent. Similarly, not so well-performing boys are reckless and “just boys” or perhaps lazy, while girls are then just simply unintelligent. After that talk, I have found myself guilty of the same when judging, e.g., postdoc applications. Then it has been very good to be aware of this, to avoid obviously unwanted consequences.

What are your passions aside from mathematics?

I really enjoy nature and like to go hiking whenever possible. I’m also enthusiastic about ashtanga yoga and meditation, and really really, really wish to go to space one day! Yet another long-term passion is Donald Duck (KÄÄK!). And, of course, I am passionate about my family, which consists of a wonderful husband and two adorable Maine Coon cats.

Regarding less positive passions, I am rather passionate about slowing down climate change and about human rights, and wish I could, and especially would, do more to improve things where I can.


Laia Amaros Carafi (Postdoctoral Researcher)

About half of the members in Camilla’s group are women, and the fact that I had to check our group webpage in order to know this, reflects a bit what I think working in this group as a woman is, in the sense that since I work here, I haven’t felt any discrimination whatsoever, not even realized about the lack of it. That, I think, is the situation that all work places should aim to: a work environment were the problems regarding gender inequality no longer exist, were being a woman is just one more feature, such as being tall or left-handed, which is no longer present as a form of discrimination. When I compare my situation (regarding gender equality) to other female colleagues from different working places (inside or outside academia), I realize how lucky I am of working in this a group.

Negin Karimi (Visiting PhD Student)

I would like to thank Camilla Hollanti for accepting and supporting me as a visiting Ph.D. student in her group: Algebra, Number Theory, and Applications (ANTA) research group.

During the period I have been in Hollanti’s group I have had the opportunity to get  many new ideas in my studies. I have had the opportunity to participate in several contributed sessions with my supervisor (Marcus Greferath) and other members of ANTA. I believe this responsibility and teamwork spirit is really useful and encouraging to develop the research. In this group, seminars on Algebra, Number Theory, Coding Theory, and Information Theory and their various applications to Communications Engineering are regularly held. I think that the idea for these talks is inspiring and very enlightening.

Participating in these talks create strong motivation and several new ideas for me. I am sure this group will have great achievements in the future. It is an extraordinary experience being as a Ph.D. student in a great group that believes in teamwork and relationships so that my research was properly directed. Camilla’s amazing attention to every detail made the research group and, in general, the department, so productive, and so much attractive.

Finally, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Camilla Hollanti and Marcus Greferath for this opportunity they have given to me. It is a pleasure to be a part of the group as a visiting Ph.D. student. Without any doubt attending ANTA has had a key role in developing my research. Hollanti’s support and dedication to her group have earned her much deserved admiration.

Pihla Karanko (Master Student)

I did my Bachelor’s thesis in Camilla’s group on an application of algebraic lattices in wireless communication. I remember feeling  a bit shy to ask whether I could do my Bachelor’s thesis in the ANTA group, since I had time to take only two courses that would be relevant for the thesis. However, Camilla did not blink an eye and heartily welcomed me in the group and found me a nice advisor.

Later I got interested in cryptography and a year ago I found a company where I could do my Master’s Thesis on protocol verification. Camilla suggested that I ask Chris to be my advisor and I’m very happy that she did. Chris’ group has been very welcoming and I’ve learned a lot on the topic. Also, we don’t only do maths: we’ve had barbeque together with the group and we often go bouldering together.

Overall, I like the flat hierarchy of the group, everybody from bachelor’s students to professors chat casually in the coffee room and you can hug your professor if you meet after a long time. In addition, you don’t have to be afraid of  asking stupid questions but the people in the group will always be happy to discuss the mathematical problems or random ideas you have.