Frances Kirwan

  • Born inGreat Britain
  • Studied inGreat Britain
  • Lives inGreat Britain


Frances gave us permission to reproduce her letter published in the EWM newsletter in 2008, when she became EWM convenor.

Below the letter we have added an excerpt of an interview with Frances in 2016 that is part of the catalogue and exhibition “Women of Mathematics Throughout Europe, a Gallery of Portraits”.


Dear EWM members,

The editors of the EWM newsletter have asked me to write a letter introducing myself to everyone, as I am the new EWM convenor. I would like to start by saying how pleased I was to be asked to be involved with EWM, as I think it is an excellent institution.

My first serious contact with EWM happened when I helped to organise an EWM workshop on moduli spaces in Oxford in 1998, and it was such a refreshing change to be in an audience of mathematicians with women in the majority. Unfortunately I missed the EWM meeting this September, so my most recent experience of being surrounded by women mathematicians was in Princeton in May, when I took part in the Women in Mathematics programme set up by Karen Uhlenbeck, which the Institute for Advanced Study hosts each year. This year the theme was algebraic geometry, where (together with symplectic geometry) my main research interests lie, and it was very enjoyable and stimulating to be there.


So what is my mathematical background? Well, I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, and then a graduate student working with Michael Atiyah in Oxford in the early 1980s. That was a very exciting time … there was a group of very lively students including Simon Donaldson (my future husband, Michael, was another), and many visitors such as Raoul Bott (who, very sadly, has recently died), Dan Quillen and Cliff Taubes, who all came for long visits. Next I spent a couple of years as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, which was equally exciting, before returning to Oxford where I have been ever since. I was President of the London Mathematical Society from 2003 to 2005 (not, I am pleased to say, the LMS’s first woman president … I followed in the illustrious footsteps of Mary Cartwright, who was LMS President in the 1960s), and for those two years it felt as if I was spending as much time in London as in Oxford, though in fact it averaged at most one day a week.


My research interests are in moduli spaces in algebraic geometry, in geometric invariant theory (GIT), which was developed by David Mumford in the 1960s in order to construct and study moduli spaces, and also in the link between GIT and moment maps in symplectic geometry. At Harvard I was lucky to be able to talk to David Mumford (who at that time was moving away from algebraic geometry towards computer vision, but was still happy to help a postdoc like me) and on the symplectic geometry side to Shlomo Sternberg and Victor Guillemin (at MIT). While I was at Harvard, I was also lucky to receive invitations to visit from two leading women geometers: Karen Uhlenbeck (then in Chicago) and Dusa McDuff (at Stony Brook) … those visits made big impressions on me. After my first daughter was born in 1988 I did much less travelling, though I did take her to Berkeley for a sabbatical visit when she was about six months old. My children are now aged 19, 17 and 15, so they can more or less look after themselves these days.

I spent two later sabbaticals in Australia, which is where my husband grew up.

I found the time difference between Australia and Canada, where my collaborator Lisa Jeffrey is based, very efficient for collaboration by email: I would work on something during the day, email any progress or questions to Lisa in the evening (my time) which was morning for her, and then she would work during her daytime and her response would be waiting for me when I got up the next morning!

The EWM’s next get-together will be a half-day meeting on Sunday 12 July 2008, immediately before the European Congress in Amsterdam, organised jointly with the EMS Women in Mathematics Committee. The next general meeting will be in 2009, and Dusanka Perisic (EWM treasurer) has very kindly offered to host it at her University of Novi Sad; it will take place over the four days 25-28 August 2009. So I’ll look forward to meeting as many EWM members as possible in Amsterdam in 2008 and/or Novi Sad in 2009.

With best wishes to everyone,

Frances Kirwan

EWM Convenor


Photo Copyright: Noel Tovia Matoff,

This is an EXCERPT of the interview from the catalogue “Women of Mathematics Throughout Europe, a Gallery of Portraits”, published in Verlag am Fluss 2016,, and featured among thirteen portraits in the corresponding exhibition See also the EWM newsarticle.

We would like to thank Sylvie Paycha, Sara Azzali, Alexandra Antoniouk, Magdalena Georgescu, and Noel Tovia Matoff for allowing us to use the interview excerpts. Moreover, we acknowledge the work of Veronica Corona and Joana Grah for editing the interview excerpts.


How and when did you choose to do mathematics?

When I was at school, I always enjoyed maths. My earliest mathematical memory is my father explaining to me the theorem that the three angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees. The idea that something could be proved to be always true was very appealing to me. (…)

As an undergraduate I also enjoyed voluntary work with small children and thought I’d like to become a primary school teacher. I applied to Durham University to start a teachers’ training course. The interviewers discouraged me and instead encouraged me to train as a secondary school maths teacher, so I decided to apply for a PhD and then perhaps train as a secondary school maths teacher afterwards. From that point on I never thought seriously again about being anything other than a mathematician. (…)

In retrospect, are you happy to have chosen mathematics or do you have some regrets? For you, what are the joys of mathematics? What are the hardships?

Yes, I am very happy to have chosen mathematics; in fact, when I was asked to write a short general article about mathematics a number of years ago, I called it ‘Mathematics: the right choice’.

One of the joys for me is teaching; I really enjoy undergraduate teaching and particularly small group teaching. I find it very enjoyable working with youngsters. The research too is great fun and I very much enjoy working with graduate students and postdocs, but I do find it a bit difficult to justify to myself getting paid for the research I do, whereas teaching undergraduates to think logically and understand mathematics seems much more worthwhile. (…)

What would you recommend to a young woman in your country wanting to start a career in mathematics?


An important piece of advice would be to get used to saying no to things and not feeling guilty about doing so. On the whole I suspect that women tend to feel guiltier about saying no than men do, though obviously that tendency varies greatly within the genders.