11 Feb 2022

Operator Algebras Mentor Network: supporting early-career women researchers

Article by Anna Duwenig, Kari Eifler, Priyanga Ganesan, Lara Ismert, Sarah Plosker, Karen Strung

Introduction

The Operator Algebras Mentor Network is a worldwide community of operator algebraists, with the primary function of protecting and promoting the well-being of junior women researchers in the field. The Network consists of three tiers: senior mentors (tenured or soon-to-be tenured faculty), junior mentors (early tenure-track faculty or postdoctoral fellows), and mentees(women graduate students and recent PhDs), all in the field of operator algebras. Mentoring takes place in small groups that include member(s) from each tier and at least one woman mentor in each group. These groups encourage the discussion and exchange of ideas and foster a sense of community. The annual matching process takes into consideration both the mentors’ career expertise and the future goals of mentees.

Motivation

During the 2018 conference Young Mathematicians in C*-Algebras (YMC*A), it became apparent that several early-career women had lacked mentors to advocate on their behalf in a situation of abuse or harassment by a more senior mathematician. In some cases, little or no action was taken within their department or institution. Such a lack of support has already led multiple women in our mathematical community to leave positions early or, in order to avoid risking their career’s longevity, to endure distress until they could find another position. This led to the conception of the Network in the summer of 2019 with the primary goal of supporting junior women operator algebraists in situations of harassment. Since then, more proactive goals focused on retention were identified; see Activities & Resources below.

In 2017, operator algebras was found to have the second lowest percentage of women out of thirty mathematical research areas [1]. In response, the Network aims to forge connections within the community and increase the visibility of women operator algebraists.

History & Structure

The Network began with 14 of the women participants of the YMC*A 2019 as mentees. Mentors were invited by the women organizers of that conference. The Network created its first mentoring groups in February 2020 with 14 Mentees, 13 Junior Mentors, and 10 Senior Mentors, split into 12 groups. As of January 2021, our Network has expanded to 25 Mentees, 21 Junior Mentors, and 16 Senior Mentors. The Network now includes members with PhDs obtained between 1982 and 2025 (projected), located across 19 different countries spanning North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania.

Many other existing mentor networks for underrepresented groups in STEM operate on an institutional or national level. However, early-career researchers frequently move between institutions and even countries, so they often cannot fully benefit from such location-specific mentoring opportunities. In contrast, the subject-specific Operator Algebras Mentor Network operates worldwide, thus providing our members with better continuity and the possibility of career-long connections.

To promote the longevity of the Network and to ensure a variety of opinions, the Mentor Network’s Board of Directors consists of two members from each tier of the Network for a total of six members. The current Board members (and the authors of this article) are the following women: senior mentors Sarah Plosker and Karen Strung, junior mentors Anna Duwenig and Lara Ismert, and mentees Kari Eifler and Priyanga Ganesan. We would like to emphasize that several other women were instrumental at the early stages of setting up the Network: Francesca Arici, Kristin Courtney, Elizabeth Gillaspy, Judith Packer, Jacqui Ramagge.

Activities & Resources

Our goals are to promote the well-being of all members, support mentees, and for mentors to gain experience mentoring students. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • ensuring early-career members are aware of professional opportunities, e.g., scholarships or job openings,
  • creating global networking opportunities,
  • providing nonjudgmental, confidential, solicited advice on, e.g., work-life balance,
  • ensuring members feel safe and respected, and
  • giving mentees a trusted ally in the event of abuse/harassment.

Since 2020, two virtual Network-wide meetups have taken place to allow members to network with operator algebraists outside their groups. Each included mini-sessions divided by tier and by topic of discussion. In the future, we plan to host not only further such annual meetups, but also in-person events which will have an additional focus on developing mentoring skills.

Our  vision, mission, bylaws, and member list can be found on our website. Further resources include a ‘Speaker Ready List’ to advertise speakers in operator algebras from underrepresented groups, and a list of common interview questions. We encourage any interested reader working in the field to sign up on the website.

Personal Experiences

My mentor family has been an invaluable support for me during my first year of PhD. Besides listening to the challenges I have faced and offering their perspectives, they have helped me find solutions to how to avoid feeling isolated in these pandemic times and encouraged me to seek opportunities I was initially afraid to go for. In transitioning from student to researcher, I have found it helpful to talk to more senior people who are not involved in my research but with whom I have a connection.

Emilie Mai Elkiær, Mentee

The monthly meetings of my Mentor Group usually have a topic of discussion, e.g., “navigating collaborations” or “finding projects”. I find it reassuring to learn that others have faced challenges similar to mine and how they overcame them; therefore, I benefit from the experiences and ideas both of the mentees and of the Senior Mentor. The virtual meetings so far have been a place for me to recharge and have often given me much food for thought.

Anna Duwenig, Junior Mentor and Board member

I started as a junior mentor in the network, and since obtaining a permanent position, have become a senior mentor. Even as a senior mentor, I have greatly benefited from the expansion of my own personal network and have been introduced to several early career researchers that I may have otherwise not known. For example, one mentee from my previous group before the recent reshuffle, is now applying for a fellowship to come work with my group in Prague.

Karen Strung, Senior Mentor and Board member

[1] https://arxiv.org/abs/1509.07824

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