Marie-Francoise Roy

  • Born inFrance
  • Studied inFrance
  • Lives inFrance


Marie-Françoise Roy was a student at Ecole Normale Superieure de Jeunes Filles in Paris and received her habilitation in mathematics in 1981. She became Professor in Rennes in 1985, after being assistant then associate professor at University Paris Nord, and University of Niamey, Niger (1981-1983).

She served as president of the Commission of CNRS for mathematics from 1991 to1995, and was director of Institute de Recherches Mathématique de Rennes from 2001 to 2004. From 2007 to the end of 2013 Roy was scientific advisor for mathematics in subsaharian Africa at CIMPA/ICPAM.

Roy was President of the Societe Mathematique de France from 2004 to 2007 and coordinator of Mathematiques a Venir/The future of Mathematics in 2009. A member of the steering committee of the Newton Institute from 2009 to 2013, she serves on several editorial boards.

First President of Femmes et Mathématiques from 1987 to 1989, she has been convenor of European Women in Mathematics from 2009 to 2013. She founded Tarbiyya Tatali, a network of associations in Niger and France helping the self development of the people of Niger, in 1997:

She was awarded the Prix Irene Jolliot Curie in 2004 (recognition mention) and became Chevalier de la Legiond’Honneur in 2009.

Roy’s mathematical work and interest is focused on real algebraic geometry, and algorithms. She initiated the Mathematics Algorithms and Proofs international research group. Her major research contributions have been concentrated on the study of the real spectrum of a ring and on the complexity of algorithms in real algebraic geometry (quantifier elimination, deciding connectivity, degree bounds for Hilbert 17th problem).

Marie-Françoise married Michel Coste in 1971. They have two children Denis (boy) and Elise (girl) born in 1974 and 1976, and two grandsons Pierre and Alexandre (12 and 10 years old).

EWM: You have been EWM convenor from the beginning of 2010 until the 2013 general meeting in Bonn. What do you think have been your major achievements?

MF: I do not think of EWM achievements in this period as my personal achievements, even if it is clear that I put my personal touch and have to acknowledge I worked very hard. But EWM is a collective enterprise. The standing committee and the national coordinators play a key role in all our activities. I want to mention particularly the constant support of Lisbeth Fajstrup who was a wonderful deputy convenor and a dear friend, of Olga Lukina for the website and email list, of Sara Munday and Elena Resmerita for the newsletter and editing of reports. Frances Kirwan helped me a lot when I started, especially by remaining the main organiser of the general meeting in Barcelona, which enabled me to concentrate on the renewal of the website. Also, Camilla Hollanti is constantly avalaible for financial matters. I contacted Susanna Terracini before Barcelona and she agreed to join the standing committee and to get ready for becoming convenor after me. It was reassuring to know that EWM would be in good hands. These are the names that first come to mind but there are of course many more people involved.

In my opinion, EWM achievements in the period are the following:

We organized successfully our two general meetings in CRM Barcelona and HCM Bonn. It is not so easy to organize general purpose meetings, which are not scientifically focused, especially when it comes to funding. I particularly liked the meeting in Bonn, maybe because I was more involved. The relevant information is included in another part of this newsletter. I want to mention the superb support we got from the administrative staff in HCM Bonn.

We had two beautiful summer schools, one in Leiden and one in ICTP Trieste. What is wonderful in these summer schools is that young mathematicians do the main organisational work. I would like to give a special mention to Janne Kool and Chiara Simeonni for their efforts in this regard. Susanna Terracini had proposed a successful scheme for the school at ICTP: there was a call for mathematical topics and four were chosen out of about fifteen. Moreover, at ICTP, we had many participants from all over the world. Again details are to be found in the relevant newsletter.

We had a lot of activities at ECM Krakow: a satellite meeting with survey talks, a round table, the funding for the participation of more than 30 young women mathematicians from eastern countries, a visit to Google’s lab. It was so wonderful to work with Anna Grybos on that. At some point I was ready to give up since the invited lecturers seemed to be refusing one after the other but Anna convinced me to go on and a few days later we had a complete list of first class lecturers.

Last but not least, we adopted a new logo and modernized our website with the help of a professional.

EWM: Who are the EWM main partners?

MF: Our main partner is EMS. The relationship with them is excellent and has many facets: the joint EMS EWM scientific committee selecting the speakers at our events, our continuous cooperation with the women in mathematics committee of the EMS, our presence at ECM Krakow as organiser of a satellite event and as co-organisers of a round table, our support to their grant system at ECM Kralow, thanks to the money we obtained from Compositio and Google for young women mathematicians from the east, EMS support to our general meeting by nominating a woman as EMS lecturer when we have our general meeting.

Other natural partners would be other “women in mathematics” organisations outside Europe and we do have occasional contacts, but nothing much structured. The ICWM meeting in Seoul in 2014 might improve this situation.

EWM: You played a key role in the launching of the African Women in Mathematics Association, how is this connected with your responsibility at EWM?

MF: It was part of my intentions to help organize women in mathematics in Africa, a continent with which I have very special links, since my stay in Niger from 1981 to 1983 with my family; but the success was beyond my expectations. AWMA was launched at AIMS South Africa this summer after a preliminary meeting in Burkina Faso!

EWM played a key role in two ways. By inviting Marie-Françoise Ouedraogo to Barcelona, we were able to help her design a strategy for her future activities. Moreover the EWM statutes were instrumental in the write up of AWMA constitution. Of course, other institutions also helped, among them CIMPA, IMU , EMS CDC,ICTP, LMS, UEMOA etc.

EWM: Do you have any regrets?

MF: One regret is that I was not able to push further the project of an EWM foundation.

In order to have success in getting money from companies, we need people with a good list of contacts and who work very hard. We do not have that currently.

A more personal regret is that I did not attend the meeting in Hyderabad, because of lack of funding. I hope to go to Seoul next year.

EWM: What are the challenges you had to deal with?

MF: The first challenge is the lack of money. EWM is really very poor. A little less so now compared to when I arrived, and we did spend a lot in the period, particularly for the new website.

A second challenge is the fact there is nearly no secretarial support.

A third challenge is that the list of members did not exist and I had to work to reconstitute it from partial data. As EWM volunteer I offered Susanna to go on working on that.

A fourth challenge, very recent, is that the servers hosting our new website crashed (after a malevolent attack) and there is no recent backup. There will be plenty of work to reconstitute all the information.

EWM: In terms of mathematical research, did you benefit from your EWM activities?

MF: Strangely and unexpectedly, yes. One thing I always appreciated in EWM meetings is the general cultural benefits from attending excellent lectures which are not in my specialized area of expertise. But I also benefited in several personal research projects. A first example: when I visited Lisbeth in Aalborg with Olga, to work on EWM website, I gave a colloquium style talk on certificates of positivity and one of her colleagues appreciated it a lot and wrote to me after that, we have now a research project together, including a six months visit in Rennes of a postdoc! A second example: in Bonn I realized that Wei Min Wang, who is a specialist in PDE is using techniques from semi-algebraic geometry and we plan to discuss more.

EWM: At the beginning of 2010, when you started your responsibility as EWM convenor, you said that your main research project is the complexity of Hilbert’s 17th problem. Can you remind us of the problem and tell us if you made any progress?

MF: The problem is the following: if a polynomial is positive, how can one express it efficiently as a sum of squares of rational functions? The initial beautiful proof by Artin that there exists a sum of squares was not effective at all and how to construct the sums of squares is a big challenge.

I am very happy to report that we (myself and my coauthors Henri Lombardi and Daniel Perrucci) have made enormous progress on this project in the last three years, and are finishing a very long paper of 85 pages to be posted soon on arxiv, and submitted for publication.

The result we obtain is rather amazing, we prove that the degree of the sum of squares are bounded by a tower of exponentials of height five, while previously bounds on degrees were primitive recursive.

More information on my recent mathematical work can be found on my webpage.

EWM: And what about your family life in the period?

My husband, also a mathematician, always supported my activities, and EWM was no exception. My two children are grown up and my two grand children are kids (11 and 9). We see them for long periods over summer, and the very active preparation of the Bonn meeting did not prevent me from being a happy grandmother in August 2013!

EWM: Do you have any recommendations for the future of EWM?

The recommendations I had in mind were discussed by the standing committee before Bonn and were approved by the general assembly. I think it is not easy to organise our general meeting and it is important to make closer links with EMS, so I proposed that we hold our general meeting during ECM and have a full independent general meeting only once every four years. This was approved and I do not have any other specific recommendations.


From EWM Newsletter no. 16 (2010/1)

Marie-Françoise Roy has been elected EWM convenor in Novi Sad in 2009 and renewed  in Barcelona in 2011.

She har written a short text presenting herself and explaining what she wished to do as convenor in EWM Newsteller.

Dear EWM members,

I would like to start by saying how moved I was to be asked to be involved again with EWM activities, when Frances Kirwan wrote to me last summer, inviting me to consider becoming the next EWM convenor. I was among the founding members of EWM in 1986 in Paris, a few weeks after being in Berkeley where AWM organized a panel session I participated in as the French representative, at the invitation of Lenore Blum. The French association femmes & maths was also created in the same period, and I was its first president. Since then I have participated in several EWM general meetings: Paris, Marseille, Warsaw, Madrid, Loccum, Malta. The talk I gave in Loccum in the session on Hilbert problems was closely related to the paper I wrote in the volume Mathematics unlimited, 2001 and Beyond « Three problems in real algebraic geometry and their descendants ».

Mathematically speaking, I am a specialist in real algebraic geometry, and most recently, its algorithmic part. Algorithms in real algebraic geometry form a fascinating topic related to algebra, geometry, topology, logic, theoretical and practical commuter science, and a variety of applications. How can we decide efficiently whether two points belong to the same connected component of a set defined by a boolean combination of polynomial inequalities? This question is closely related to the «Piano mover’s problem» in robotics! Most of my papers are coauthored, and I enjoy collaborative work, as well as acting as advisor for research students.  I have been involved in writing two books: one, “Real algebraic geometry”, with Jacek Bochnak and my husband Michel Coste, and a more recent one “Algorithms in real algebraic geometry” with my friends Saugata Basu and Richard Pollack. I am part of a collaborative project « Sources of real algebraic geometry » with specialists of history,  and mathematics. My main current research project, joint with Henri Lombardi, is the complexity of Hilbert’s 17th problem: if a polynomial is positive, how can we express it efficiently as a sum of squares of rational functions? The initial beautiful proof by Artin was not effective at all and 85 years later we still do not know much about constructing sums of squares efficiently.

I have a deep involvement in sub-Saharan Africa: I lived in Niamey (Niger) with my husband and my two children from 1981 to 1983 and since then I have been committed to helping the development of this beautiful country and disseminating knowledge about its culture and history, particularly of women, in the area. I am a founding member of the French-Nigerian NGO Tarbiyya Tatali and a coauthor of a book «Lougou et Saraouniya » devoted to the village of Lougou, cradle of the region of Arewa in Niger and residence of the queen and priestess Saraouniya . So, for me, Africa and feminist activities are not separated. Africa and mathematics are not separated either. I was teaching mathematics at the university in Niamey and had several research students there. I organized a CIMPA/ICPAM school in Niamey, as well as a research school in ICTP, during which the RAGAAD/ANGAAD network was launched. I am currently CIMPA/ICPAM regional scientific person responsible for sub-Saharian Africa. This is the reason that I was unable to attend the last EWM meeting in Novi Sad: I had to go to Yaounde (Cameroun) to a ICPAM/CIMPA school!

I am very happy with all EWM’s current initiatives, particularly the joint EMS/EWM scientific committee and the close links with the EMS committee for women in mathematics. I know the EMS organization rather well, since I was SMF president from 2004 to 2007, a period when I was also SMF representative at various EMS meetings.

Besides the important project of an EWM foundation under the auspices of EMS, I would also like to encourage work on

– updating the statistics on the situation of women in various  European countries ; Eva Bayer had done a great job for the first  European conference about 20 years ago and there are also statistics  dating from 10 years ago on the EWM website … The diversity of the situation of women in mathematics in different European countries provides us a wonderful argument to fight the idea that the low proportion of women in mathematics is due to natural causes !

– making connections with women from other continents, particularly  in developing countries, and more particularly Africa; if the meeting we plan this year in Hyderabad works fine, it could be a start.

Improving the website is also a priority I mentioned when I was candidate for EWM convenor last summer: there is a lot of information already contained in the newsletters, and in the site in general, and it could be made much more visible. Things are moving fast there: we are lucky that Olga Lukina is very active at redesigning the EWM site and improvements will appear soon!

I shall represent EWM at the discussion «Women mathematicians around the world» at the two day meeting ICWM2010, immediately before ICM in Hyderabad. I am also a member of the organizing committee of the next general EWM meeting in 2011, to be hosted in CRM Barcelona from 5 to 9 September.

EWM is obviously a very lively and active organization and it is a pleasure to be part of its many initiatives and warm atmosphere.

With best wishes to everyone,

Marie-Françoise Roy

EWM Convenor

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