The Value of Collaboration and Networking for Female Mathematicians

By Lina Sorg
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in SIAM News on July 17, 2019 (https://sinews.siam.org/Details-Page/the-value-of-collaboration-and-networking-for-female-mathematicians).

Despite great strides in recent years toward gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, women still report feelings of isolation in academic communities, especially at smaller colleges. Without the guaranteed presence of natural networks that their male counterparts typically enjoy, it is often up to female mathematicians to actively develop collaborations and form their own support groups. During a scientific session at the 9th International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM 2019), currently taking place in Valencia, Spain, Fengyan Li of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shared firsthand accounts of her personal collaborative efforts.

Throughout the course of her time in academia, Li has enjoyed extensive, lucrative partnerships with Yingda Cheng (Michigan State University) and Vrushali Bokil (Oregon State University). Li first met Cheng in graduate school during the fall of 2013; it was the beginning of Li’s final year and Cheng’s first year. Despite their different timelines, the two belonged to the same research group, shared the same advisor, and kept in touch casually over the years. Beginning in 2009, they embarked on their first collaborative project: a four-year endeavor that combined their individual areas of expertise and resulted in submission of a cumulative paper in 2013. “It was a natural collaboration because we had similar opinions and knew each other,” Li said. In March 2013, Li and Cheng co-organized a special session at a research symposium sponsored by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). It was here that they met Bokil, who was a speaker at the session.

At ICIAM 2019, Fengyang Li reinforced the importance of developing collaborations and support groups for female mathematicians.

In April 2014, Li and Cheng co-mentored and led a research team at an event entitled “WhAM!: A Research Collaboration Workshop for Women in Applied Mathematics: Numerical Partial Differential Equations and Scientific Computing,” which took place at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Mathematics and its Applications. WHaM—now known as Women in Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing (WINASc)—is a valuable research network for female mathematicians that is meant to increase the sense of community among members and create opportunities for them to explore new research areas and build strong relationships. The 2014 event was the network’s first collaborative workshop. The gathering brought teams together for a weeklong collaboration on projects that were expected to continue at participants’ home institutes.

Li took a moment to recommend that audience members consider joining WINASc. WINASc’s events and activities are widespread, and include special sessions at national or international conferences (such as ICIAM), Research Collaboration Conferences for Women, AWM research symposiums, and AWM workshops with rotating themes at SIAM annual meetings. Through sponsored events and communication on the listserv/webpage, members can access each other to discuss career paths or issues that are unique to women. The goal is to continue growing the network as membership increases. “We want to have a place to know who actually belongs to the community,” Li said.

In September 2014, Bokil reached out to Li and Cheng to ask if they wanted to join her in writing a proposal for the American Institute of Mathematics’ SQuaREs (Structured Quartet Research Ensembles) program. Though their proposal was rejected due to a high number of submissions, the experience established camaraderie and paved the way for future partnerships. The following summer, the three reunited at ICIAM 2015 in Beijing, China, where they took part in a minisymposium on women in applied math.

Shortly thereafter, Lie, Cheng, and Bokil submitted proposals to the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics’ (ICERM) [email protected] program, and the Mathematical Research Institute of Oberwolfach’s (MFO) “Research in Pairs” program. Both proposals received funding, which resulted in two collaborative trips in 2016: a week at ICERM in June, and two weeks at the MFO in August. While in Germany, the trio did some hiking in the Black Forest; this proved to be a bonding experience when they became temporarily lost.

Li, Cheng, and Bokil are currently part of an ongoing grant from the National Science Foundation that extends until July 2020. They also organized an ICERM topical workshop in June 2018, which attracted many students and female mathematicians. The crew has three published journal papers to date, with another currently under consideration. 

Another benefit to extended collaboration is the option of co-mentoring. “Honestly the most enjoyable experience is co-mentoring junior students and postdocs,” Li said. She maintains regular Skype meetings with her contacts to share advice and career development tips. Li also suggested that collaboration is easiest and most natural among people who are already familiar with one another. “It’s pretty good to work with somebody you already know or have a certain established relation with,” she said. “I work well if I know how people work.” 

Li added that it is also important for collaborators to do things together—take part in minisymposia, co-organize sessions, etc.—besides simply writing proposals and papers. Applying to some cooperative programs—such as the aforementioned “Research in Pairs” or [email protected]—are great ways to familiarize oneself with the collaborative process. Of course, having fun and establishing friendships is important as well. “We give each other a lot of support,” Li said of Cheng and Bokil. “We play a big role in each other’s lives.”

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