The non-linear algebra group at the MPI MiS in Leipzig, a place for excellence through diversity.
A report on the non-linear algebra group at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig. Written by Francesca Arici.
Like in many other research institutes around the globe, at the entrance of the Max Planck for Mathematics in the sciences one finds a pin-board with names and pictures of scientists currently present at the institute. While underrepresentation of minorities doesn’t seem to be an issue at the institute, the non-linear algebra research group, lead by Prof. Bernd Sturmfels, really stands out, with an almost 50% ratio of female/male researchers. Prof. Sturmfels himself believes in excellence through diversity and puts that belief into action. I have decided to find out more about what it is that makes this research group unique.
Bernd Sturmfels, the director of the research group is well-known as an outspoken advocate for diversity in the mathematical sciences. He has served nationally and internationally on committees that promote diversity: from 2014 until 2016 he was on the Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences (JCW), representing the American Mathematical Society (AMS) on this committee. Quite remarkably, he was the first male mathematician in that particular role, in over 30 years of existence of the committee. More recently, Sturmfels served on the program committee for the 2018 World Meeting for Women in Mathematics in Rio De Janeiro.
“The high level of research accomplishments in my group correlates strongly with the inclusive atmosphere, which supports scholars from many different backgrounds contributing their perspectives.“
His research group on Non-linear algebra, a term that Sturmfels himself has coined to highlight the ubiquity of polynomials in every branch of mathematics, is not only a welcoming place for mathematicians from minorities, but it is also a place for excellent mathematics and outstanding research achievements. According to Sturmfels, this is no coincidence: “The high level of research accomplishments in my group correlates strongly with the inclusive atmosphere, which supports scholars from many different backgrounds contributing their perspectives.”
I had the opportunity to talk to Kaie Kubjas, a tenure-track associate professor at the University of Aalto, who was a postdoc in Sturmfels’ group during his sabbatical in Bonn in 2013. She recalls how being in a diverse and interdisciplinary influenced her approach to mathematical research:
“For several years, I had wanted to work on more applied problems and I was even considering leaving academia to do that. I decided to apply to work with Bernd Sturmfels because his research combines algebraic geometry and discrete mathematics with applications.”
Looking back at her time in Bonn, Kaie praises how being in a welcoming and diverse environment has had a positive impact on her career:
“As a postdoc with Bernd Sturmfels five years ago, I became much more comfortable with admitting that I don’t know anything. Before that, I was really scared that people would judge me for not knowing anything. Since the group has people from different backgrounds, I feel it’s more accepted to not know something and ask stupid questions as long as one is willing to work hard to learn. I’ve become more courageous in asking questions”
Kaie also reckons that being in a group where minorities are not underrepresented can have a positive influence on the career of mathematicians from minorities, who may otherwise feel discouraged.
“I have met other people who find academia intimidating. Finding other people who feel the same and talking about it can be very helpful. I feel that sometimes women tend to think and work differently from men and since men have been dominating mathematics, this might cause the feeling of not being as good as others. Seeing other women who are smart and successful in their own ways has been very encouraging for me.”
“Seeing other women who are smart and successful in their own ways has been very encouraging for me.“
Sturmfels is of the same opinion, and numbers do show that young female mathematicians find in his group a safe space from which to launch successful careers:
“Several former female students of mine are now prominent in the community: Rekha Thomas, Diane Maclagan, Laura Matusevich, Josephine Yu, Angelica Cueto, Anne Shiu, Caroline Uhler, Melody Chan, and Ngoc Tran hold faculty positions at major research universities, and they serve as role models for the current students.”
It was precisely one of these female role model that played a role in Raffaella Mulas’s choice of pursuing a career in mathematics. Now a student at MPI MiS in the group of Jürgen Jost, Raffaella wrote her master thesis in 2017 in Bonn under the supervision of Prof. Ngoc Tran, a former student of Sturmfels. “Ngoc encouraged me to pursue a PhD in mathematics, and Leipzig was an obvious choice.”
She then took the opportunity of visiting the Max Planck Institute during a conference. Her first encounter with the group was rather unconventional and took place during a hike in the hills South-East of Leipzig. “The group immediately struck me as a very welcoming environment, where one can build meaningful relationships and at the same time do excellent mathematics”. Her first positive impression was confirmed over time: “Many colleagues from Bernd’s group have now become friends, we do lots of things together, not only mathematics: we have a creative writing group and I even found a dancing partner!”.
Within the group one can feel a profound sense of community, fostered by the fact that activities involving group members are not limited to working hours and to the institute. Kaie Kubjas, recalls the time when she was a postdoc “In Bonn, we did many things together with other group members. I don’t think any other group that I have been a member of has organized so many hikes (or any hikes at all). I really like the hikes!”
The advantage of working in such a friendly and welcoming environment is that, when it comes to hardcore research, ideas are being exchanged more easily.
The research group is indeed highly interdisciplinary and collaborations and mathematical discussions are stimulated by the several communal activities organised at the institute. These include graduate lectures, the weekly Non-linear Algebra seminar, various conferences, and the famous coffee+cake meetings, where the group gathers over coffee and cake and one of the members presents their current research, hoping to get some input and comments by their fellow researchers.
Amanda Cameron, originally from New Zealand, has joined the non-linear algebra group in October after completing her doctorate at Queen Mary University in London.
“I must admit I am not used to having so many people around. In other institutes, I have seen more clustering, and people tend to work on their own. Here the atmosphere is different. Lots of research collaborations and lots going on: seminars, lectures, improvised talks. The breadth of research topics investigated in the group is astonishing: you can hear about combinatorics on one day, and about real algebraic geometry on another.”
Lots of workshops are organised in the group. Amanda, whose expertise lies in matroid theory, a branch of combinatorics, tells me about the one day workshop she recently organised with her colleague Xue Liu. “Within our group, we are the experts in this topic, so Bernd encouraged us to organise something. We came up with the idea of having a Combinatorics day and it was a very successful workshop. It was a unique opportunity of getting input from other researchers at the institute and finding common ground for discussion.”
Sturmfels has built a worldwide research community around the topics of non-linear algebra, and his support for current former group members shows on his website, where there is a section called “Postdocs going places”.
“I am equally engaged with young mathematicians from underrepresented groups, notably from the Latino community. My former student Jose Rodriguez is a very prolific researcher in numerical algebraic geometry. He just completed Provost’s Career Enhancement Postdoc at the University of Chicago, and is moving in the coming fall to the University of Wisconsin at Madison.”
Everyone in the group is of the opinion that one of Sturmfels’ strengths is the ability of spotting potential for research collaboration. Walking around the institute’s corridors one sees postdocs chatting with master students at the blackboard or sitting in front of a computer screen. This is especially important for those at the start of their careers.
Mahsa Sayyary Namin, a PhD student at the MPI Leipzig, witnessed the birth of the group. “When I started my PhD the non-linear algebra group had just been established. Now everything is flourishing, the institute is lively and there many activities are regularly organised.” Nidhi Kaihnsa is of the same opinion: “This is a great place to be, especially at the PhD stage. The group offers endless possibilities to learn and grow”.
The same opinion is shared by Anna Seigal, a PhD student of Sturmfels at UC Berkeley, who visited the MPI MiS for the fourth time in June this year. After writing her master’s thesis in Cambridge in 2014, focusing on number theory, Anna moved overseas for her PhD. “I really liked mathematics, and I wanted to learn more, so I applied for a PhD in Berkeley. I was curious to learn more about applications of algebra and geometry to other sciences, so that is how I came across Bernd’s name. ”
“The first time I visited Berkeley, Bernd sent me an email with a list of people I should talk to. Among those, there were very inspiring female researchers, and this played a big role in my decision to continue studying mathematics and to do it there. The gender imbalance in mathematics has been a huge thing for me. Young mathematicians need role models, and meeting all these inspiring people was very encouraging.” According to Anna, there is no easy fix to the gender and minority problem in mathematics, but environments like that of the non-linear algebra group can set an example: “Everyone feels valued here, and I am sure that this is what makes a difference. It’s no surprise to see how much minorities can achieve if they feel valued in the mathematical community.”
“It’s no surprise to see how much minorities can achieve if they feel valued in the mathematical community.“
Talking about her experience being one of Sturmfels students, Anna recognises that supervisors have a crucial role in the career of a young mathematician: when an advisor is distant and unengaged, students inevitably become less motivated and may start feeling worthless. “This has never been an issue with Bernd, he has always been very supportive and present, and he has given me the freedom to pursue my interests and follow my passions. He likes enthusiasm, and he will help you and work with you to see it through to its full potential. When I started my PhD I really wanted to look at biological data analysis, and he helped me do it”.
Clearly, support is not only essential for those at the start of their career, it is also crucial for those who are at a more advanced stage. My tour of the institute ends with a coffee with Sara Kalisnik, who is a promising researcher in the field of applied algebraic topology, about to embark on a tenure-track position at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She tells me she actually deferred the start of her position for one year in order to be able to spend some time in Leipzig.
“Despite the nuisances of moving, I decided to come to the Max Planck Institute during this academic year. I was eager to work with Bernd, and it was a very nice and valuable experience.”
I asked her how it felt to be in such a diverse group:
“I was quite lucky as a female mathematician. First of all the field of applied topology does not really suffer from a severe gender imbalance. At Brown University there was awareness of gender issues and there were efforts to change that. Discussion with faculty, hiring committee, Melody Chan (student of Sturmfels), coordinating the mentoring network for female undergraduates. However, many mathematicians are still unaware of the challenges we female mathematicians face on an everyday basis and I know this can be very discouraging. In this group, I never felt intimidated and sexist comments are not present. This is a very special place.”
“Many mathematicians are still unaware of the challenges we female mathematicians face on an everyday basis and I know this can be very discouraging“
In order for something to change, we certainly need to increase awareness of the issues that female mathematicians face during their career, but at the same time, we also need positive examples and success stories from which to learn. The non-linear algebra group certainly counts to those. Sara agrees: “It’s our responsibility to be supportive.”
“What was also nice is that I was able to see how he works: not only how much he cares about being inclusive, but also how he actually supervises PhD students and postdocs. He is very much involved in the process, he knows what his students are up to and keeps track of how they are doing. This avoids them getting stuck for months on a problem and getting demotivated. We co-authored a paper with one of his PhD students, and the final stage of finishing that paper taught me a lot – for example, we had a session where we read our paper out loud. Something like that would not have occurred to me but it was great in terms of spotting typos and finding mistakes. He really invests lots of time in his work as a supervisor and in the mentoring process and I find this admirable. I learnt a lot that I can take with me to my next job. This whole experience has motivated me to also try to be this involved when I supervise my students in the future.”
The group homepage on the website of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences.