On 25 and 31 October, the AIMS Women in STEM (AIMSWIS) initiative had the pleasure of hosting two phenomenal women in mathematics Dr Magdaleen Marais and Prof. Lijun Zhang. Dr Marais is an extraordinary lecturer at the University of Pretoria, a research fellow at AIMS South Africa, and a member of the transregional collaborative research centre (SFB-TRR)195 “Symbolic Tools in Mathematics and their Application” in Germany, where she is based. Prof  Zhang is a mathematician at Shandong University of Science and Technology in China. Her research interests include dynamical systems, bifurcation and chaos, differential equations including ODEs, PDEs and IDEs and their applications.

Both Dr Marais and Prof. Zhang shared intimate details of their personal lives, academic journeys, and challenges; the lessons they have learnt along the way with AIMS women students, tutors, and researchers. Both women retrospectively emphasised the challenges that women often face as they progress on the path towards an academic career in mathematics. One of the challenges highlighted by Dr Marais is that women do not always fit in. Similarly, Prof. Zhang highlighted women’s most pressing challenge of striking the right balance between academic and family commitments.

In her discussion, Dr Marais gave students a brief overview of her time as a postdoctoral fellow at AIMS South Africa and how she managed to establish contacts with distinguished research fellows visiting AIMS from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. She also shared some tips on what makes a great mathematician, which she noted as knowledge of the subject [mathematics], talent, opportunities, and a lot of good luck because it is not easy out there. Most importantly, she advised the students on available career opportunities in both industry and academia.

“It is often a struggle to understand where you want to go in life, so you should use the opportunities you come across to gather as much information as you can about your field of study and career,” said Dr Marais.

Prof. Zhang kicked off her discussion by asking students to reflect on their goals for the next ten years, after which she gave an account of her journey over a 10-year period from 1999-2019. She emphasised that, on the one hand, she had to make a lot of sacrifices to attain her qualifications and, on the other hand, secure her son’s future-tasks which she noted were difficult at times. Furthermore, she advised the students to never give up on their dreams and to always work hard towards their dream careers.

“Grab every opportunity that comes your way and if you have a dream, do not think too much about the disadvantages, just do it,” said Prof. Zhang.

Just like Dr Marais, she indicated that one of her biggest challenges of moving abroad was the language barrier. Dr Marais had to learn German when she relocated to Germany. Similarly, Prof. Zhang had to learn English when she moved to the US as a visiting scholar and subsequently to South Africa as a postdoctoral fellow. Both speakers indicated that this helped them grow as professionals.

Dr Magdaleen Marais

Prof. Lijun Zhang