International Women in Mathematics Day

Ekaterina Fokina, Leila Taghizadeh, Sandra Müller, Lena Wallner, Katharina Schuh
Ekaterina Fokina, Leila Taghizadeh, Sandra Müller, Lena Wallner, Katharina Schuh und Alexia Fürnkranz-Prskawetz (from the left)
Exciting insights into mathematics and answers to the biggest misconceptions and misunderstandings of this science

Since 2019, May 12 has been International Women in Mathematics Day. This day commemorates the important role of female mathematicians in their field, many of whom are still little or not at all known to us today, although numerous women have done great things for mathematics. But why are they unknown to us’ Women were not allowed to study until modern times. Nevertheless, many women have rendered outstanding services to mathematics throughout history, such as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), Laura Bassi (1717-1778) and Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017). By the way, May 12 is not an arbitrarily chosen day. This day is the birthday of the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who in 2014 became the first woman ever to receive the Fields Medal. Every year on this day, women in mathematics and their research are made visible.

Female mathematicians at TU Wien

There are currently 124 female mathematicians working in the scientific field at TU Wien. On the occasion of the International Day of Women in Mathematics, we asked some of our colleagues what they find most exciting about mathematics and what they think is the biggest misconception in this field of research. The answers of our colleagues are as diverse as this field of research itself.

What do you find most exciting about mathematics’

Alexia: In my field of research, mathematical economics, I find it most exciting how mathematics can be applied in order to represent economic relationships in a mathematically consistent way on the one hand, and how mathematics helps us to understand developments in central economic policy developments on the basis of these models.

Ekaterina: If we talk about mathematics in general, I am fascinated by its universality. It is simply everywhere: in our everyday life, in technology, engineering, computer science, physics and other scientific disciplines. It has so many applications and makes our life easier, but also pure mathematics is so beautiful by itself. If we talk about my research field - mathematical logic - I admire its foundational nature. I like that it makes things precise and clear.

Katharina: I think it’s super exciting that mathematics is popping up everywhere, even if you don’t expect it. Especially with my mathematical background in stochastics and analysis, I encounter it again and again in everyday life or in nature. All processes and phenomena can be described by it or hopefully can be described by it at some point, because there are still many things that we do not yet know. Nevertheless, we can already use them to make very accurate predictions for many phenomena.

Leila: I enjoy the flexibility of mathematics, in the sense that mathematics is an endless science where you are not limited by a couple of pre-defined rules and methods. Although you should commit to the existing mathematical principles, you are free to be innovative to create and design new mathematical algorithms. In my view, another exciting aspect of mathematics is its various applications in real life; for instance, in engineering, healthcare, medicine, and life science

Lena: What I like most about mathematics is the feeling of having understood something completely. I find it fascinating that we can grasp such complex concepts and relationships just by reading, concentrated thought and talking to others. This can feel like arriving at the top of a mountain after an arduous climb. In addition, no equipment is required in most areas. Results do not have to be verified in a lab or in an elaborate study.

Sandra: The exciting thing about mathematics is that you never know exactly how long it will take you to solve a problem or whether you will find a solution at all. When I start working on a new problem, it can happen that I quickly (within a few hours or days) see how a problem could be solved. Sometimes, however, it can take months or years before the right idea comes up.

What do you think is the biggest misconception in mathematics’

Alexia: Mathematics is always seen as abstract, although mathematics is an integral part of our everyday lives and the benefits of mathematics for technology and natural sciences, but also for society and the economy, art and culture are obvious. Hands-on mathematics and not mathematics as a bogeyman is our motto, which we at TUForMath show in workshops for pupils and in evening lectures for the general public.

Ekaterina: I believe the biggest misconception is ABOUT mathematics: namely, that it is not for everyone. So often in my life I heard: ,,I am so bad in mathematics" or ,,I do not understand anything about mathematics". It is almost as if people were proud to be bad at it. However, I am sure that everyone can appreciate math, like everyone can find joy in reading or listening to music. Of course, not everyone will do math professionally but everyone can embrace its beauty, similar to enjoying a book or a favourite song.

Katharina: Unfortunately, mathematics is often underestimated and overestimated at the same time.
It is underestimated if it is only seen as an auxiliary science for other disciplines that are needed to calculate anything. In my everyday life as a mathematician, I actually very rarely calculate anything.
It is often overestimated when it is dismissed as difficult and incomprehensible. In fact, many problems that at first glance are difficult or impossible to solve can be simplified by using mathematical tricks.

Leila: Thinking about the wide range of applications of mathematics in various areas in real life clearly shows the necessity of learning mathematics in different levels for everyone. I think looking at mathematics as a science that only a specific and small part of people can learn, is a big misunderstanding about this science. Mathematics is for everyone; I think it is not only the talent that can help in this way, but a big part of learning process in mathematics is based on the continuous and hard work. This misunderstanding leads to the fact that a big number of students, in particular females, do not choose Mathematics as their field of study and later as their career.

Lena: I thought for a long time that you can only be really good at math if you’re a "classical genius". By that I mean that you understand connections very quickly, always have a question right away, are creative and come up with brilliant ideas out of thin air. These qualities are certainly helpful for successful mathematics, but in my opinion, they are by no means necessary. Equally useful are ambition, perseverance, accuracy, organization, and much more. Everyone can do mathematics in their own way, and none of them is better or worse than another.

Sandra: The biggest misconception about math is that it’s a science for nerds who brood lonely in their basement. A large part of mathematical research is done collaboratively in conversations and discussions, often in the office at the blackboard, but also in cafés or in summer on the lawn with a sheet of paper in hand. Research thrives on diversity and new ideas often arise in exchange with colleagues. In addition, even the most innovative cutting-edge research is of little use if it is not disseminated to experts and the public. In this sense, mathematics is a very social science.

Good to know

At TU Wien there is the fem*MA network , a network that was founded to support women* in mathematics and to engage more women* in this field of research. At the "Paths for Maths" event on May 24, the network celebrates women in mathematics.

When’ May 24, 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Where’ TU Wien Library, seminar room 5th floor


About our female mathematicians

Alexia Fürnkranz-Prskawetz has been Professor of Mathematical Economics since 2008 and is primarily concerned with modelling the impact of demographic processes (especially the ageing of the population) on economic processes.

Ekaterina Fokina studied mathematics at Novosibirsk State University. During her doctoral studies, she spent a year at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend (USA). After graduating, she came to Vienna in 2008 and first worked at the Kurt Gödel Research Center for Mathematical Logic at the University of Vienna, where she obtained the Venia Docendi for Mathematics in 2013 with the thesis "Complexity of equivalence relations". Since 2015, she has been working in the research field of Computational Logic at the Vienna University of Technology.

Katharina Schuh studied mathematics at the University of Bonn. At the end of 2022, she joined TU Wien as a postdoc, where she researches and works at the Institute for Analysis and Scientific Computing (ASC) in the working group "Analysis of nonlinear PDEs".

Leila Taghizadeh studied mathematics in Iran, where she initially worked as a university lecturer. In 2012, she moved to Austria to work at the Institute of Analysis and Scientific Computing at the Vienna University of Technology - first as a software developer, then as a project assistant. In 2022, she received an FWF-funded Elise Richter Fellowship for her project "Computational Uncertainty Quantification in Nanotechnology", which she started in May 2023 at the Institute of Analysis and Scientific Computing at TU Wien.

Lena Wallner holds her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mathematics from the University of Vienna and has been a PhD candidate at TU Wien in Set Theory in the field of Inner Model Theory since December 2023. She is also involved with fem*MA.

Sandra Müller studied at the University of Münster, where she completed her doctorate in 2016. Since 2021, she has been working at the Institute of Discrete Mathematics and Geometry as part of the FWF career programme Elise Richter, where she investigates "Woodin cardinal numbers" and other large cardinal numbers as well as axiomatic structures. In 2022, she was awarded the START Prize, Austria’s highest award for outstanding young scientists for her project "Determinacy and Woodin limits of Woodin cardinals".