THwomen40: Profiles

How do you look back on your time at Trinity Hall?

An aspect that had a particular impact on me was the very international MCR community, where I made friends with a wonderful variety of people. I found this exposure to many different cultures fascinating and intellectually very enriching. As for the mathematics, I was quite overwhelmed at first. I had been accepted at a number of mathematics programmes around the world and I chose the Cambridge Part III course because of its reputation for being very exacting – ‘tough’ – and it was. The College was great; as soon as I went to them, Dr Chris Padfield (Graduate Tutor at the time) and Professor Tom Körner immediately set up as much one-on-one tuition as I wanted. I consequently met several very kind mathematicians, most of them older graduate students themselves, who did a very good job of explaining the vast collection of new concepts and methods. That was a good lesson to ask for help, as it made an enormous difference.

Why did you choose to study Mathematics?

I’ve always enjoyed mathematics and while it can be difficult to articulate, I think the attraction is the element of pure problem solving where you can lose yourself in an other-worldliness of abstract thinking (almost metaphorical in its expression of limits and ideals), while at the same time there is a very practical satisfaction of working with clear – albeit complex – sets of rules and systems. Mathematics can also be very collegial and solving problems is often a lot of fun done in company. I still have some very close friends made poring over weekly assignments together.

How did your time at Trinity Hall impact on your career?

Over time I have realized the true value of being able to cite a Cambridge qualification in the workplace, as it does give real credibility. In terms my own career direction, I think probably the international MCR community that I mentioned had an impact on my choosing to work in international affairs. I had made very good friends with a Bulgarian linguist at Trinity Hall, for example, and then my first adventure after Cambridge was to head off as a volunteer with UNHCR in Romania – not something that I had at all in mind when I first came to Cambridge. I still find it stimulating to meet and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Do you have any advice for other women looking to work in your field?

Be ‘ambitious but realistic’, as someone recently said to me. To that I would add, be open-minded about possible directions. It is good to have dreams and to imagine the impossible (mathematics is a perfect instance of this way of thinking!) but to save a lot of career heart-ache and to ward against discouragement it helps to have a clear understanding of what the likely hurdles and pitfalls might be. I add open-mindedness because I think it is a shame, and ultimately limiting, to fix too much on a single goal without knowing what else is out there. Hearing some wise words from someone who has been through it all years earlier is invaluable.

Who are your female role models?

There are a lot of women whose recent work in the broader public service I find inspiring. One example is New Zealand Prime Minister and recent candidate for UN Secretary-General, Helen Cark. She is interesting because she has overcome (or chosen to ignore) expectations about what was possible and appropriate for her as a career woman of her era and she doesn’t get discouraged.

Less high-profile, I also respect the women in New Zealand who are currently arguing for wages and salaries in their industries – elderly care, midwifery and nursing – to be brought up to levels equal with those in sectors traditionally dominated by men, such as many trades; it is not straightforward to challenge entrenched norms and values.

I also admire the small group of women at my local university here in Wellington who have set up the entire science communications programme from scratch; these sorts of projects require a lot of persistence, which I find impressive.

Most of all though, as role models I admire the many women who have done a lot to help others, and often well away from public recognition; my early teachers and university lecturers are in this category. So too is my mother. Amid all the workplace and career successes of other people, I deeply admire her unshakable ethical standards, deep kindness and tolerance. In the end, that is a real role model.

What does gender equality mean to you?

Not having options limited to you on account of gender. There is a lot of lip-service around regarding gender equality but even in countries that consider themselves liberal the reality is that many problems persist.

What is your greatest career or academic achievement to date?

Recently I designed an analytical model for New Zealand’s election by United Nations member states to the UN Security Council, and it has also been taken up by other foreign governments in their own campaigns. This work gives me pleasure because a mathematical background is unusual in my workplace but this has been an occasion where it has been applicable to the very opaque world of geo-politics around the struggle for international peace and security.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

On the whole I look back on my time as a student as full of many fond memories. What I wish I had managed, however, is not to fret and agonise so much, and to have been a lot more confident. The decisions you make then can have a big impact later but at the same time there are many paths to leading a fulfilling career.

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