Woman Scientist of the Month: Elisa Lorenzo Garcia (08/2019)

Every month EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Elisa Lorenzo Garcia. She is a brilliant young Spanish mathematician now working in France. She was recently awarded the first edition of the prize of the Young Woman Scientist of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences”

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EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?

When I was a little girl I was very good at school, especially at Sciences. I used to see myself in a Laboratory doing chemical experiments. But when I was 11 I started to take part in math contests. My school teacher, “Don Emiliano”, encouraged me to participate. I was good. At 16 I was classified for representing Spain at the IMO (International Mathematical Olympiad). I took part in the IMOs of 2004 and 2005. My high school teacher, Azucena, also encouraged me a lot. During my last participation I got a bronze medal. I was very happy and proud of myself. At that moment I was thinking about studying some engineering: this is what good people at Sciences do (or used to do) in Spain. But luckily, and thanks to my Math Olympiads participations, I realized that what I really liked was Math. And even more, that I wanted to become a doctor (I think this was the influence of Indiana Jones movie’s, when he is called Dr. Jones, I always wanted one day to be called Dr. Lorenzo!!), doing research all day long and of course, the topic was clear: Number Theory. Problems in Number Theory are the most beautiful and difficult ones in the Olympiads! My parents are both scientists: my mother is a medical doctor and my father was a professor in engineering at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. I guess this also had a big influence on me.

What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

Gauss said that Mathematic is the Queen of Sciences, and Hardy finished the sentences by saying that Number Theory is the treasure of the Queen.

I love Number Theory: it starts with divisibility properties and the complicated, and still not well understood, theory of prime numbers and finishes with Galois groups passing through elliptic curves and modular forms among others.

Hardy also used to say that part of the beauty of Number Theory was that there was no application in it. Unfortunately for Hardy, and fortunately for us, Number Theory has nowadays lots of applications: in particular to cryptography.

My research is in the interface of Number Theory, Algebraic Geometry and Arithmetic Geometry, and I always keep an eye on the cryptography applications. More precisely and for some years, I have been very interested in moduli spaces of abelian varieties and their reduction and arithmetic properties.

What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

A great moment of personal satisfaction is when I won a gold medal in the Spanish Math Olympiad and I got classified to the IMO in 2004. It was a great moment and I felt my efforts recognised. What also made the moment very special is that I shared this gold medal with two other wonderful women. Six people are classified every year in Spain to the IMO, and girls are not usually represented in the team. That year was very unique having the team with 3 girls in it. Of course, winning a bronze medal in the IMO of 2005 was also a moment of great personal satisfaction.

As a teacher now, and more particularly, as an Olympiad trainer, I’m very proud of lots of my students, specially of those ones that got to win a silver medal in the IMO for Spain and open the way to many others to do it!

As a researcher, a good moment that pushed a lot my self-esteem, after the hard time during my Ph.D., was when I got an Associate Professor position in Leiden after only 10 months of postdoc. I’m really grateful to Leiden University and all the members of the Math Institute that always believed in me and supported my research.

And of course, as a teacher, as a researcher and as a scientist and in all the duties that it includes, I’m very proud of the prize Julio Peláez for Young Female Scientists I was recently awarded!

In which country/countries have you been doing research?

I did my undergraduate studies in Mathematics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain) and in Physics at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Spain). I followed a master and I got my Ph.D. in mathematics at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (Spain).

After that, I got a postdoc position in Leiden (The Netherlands). After 10 months I was moved up to Associate Professor. But 14 months later I moved (for personal reasons) to the Université de Rennes 1 (France) as maîtresse de conférences (an associate professor permanent position) and I am here since September 2016.

During my time as a Ph.D. student and as a postdoc I realized some 2-3 months stays at: Universiteit Groningen (The Netherlands), Universita de Roma Tor Vergata (Italy) and San Diego University (USA).

And because of collaborations, conferences, and because I really love travelling, I’ve visited more than 45 countries all around the world!!!

EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

During the first semester I’m teaching a lot. Not as compared with the American system but yes for European standards. So, no many travels planned.

This is going to be good for my students since I’m starting co-advising three PhD students this year. I’m very excited about it!

I’m also planning to apply for different projects and I want to write down all the ideas I got during my last 9 months non-stop travelling for visiting different collaborators (I had a half-delegation from the CNRS, so no teaching duties during the second semester).

So a quiet time in Rennes is going to be very good and productive for me.

Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

Yes, I did. My PhD. time was a very hard time. I did not find the support I needed. There are lots of studies talking about the mental problems graduate students suffer, e.g.: https://elephantinthelab.org/mental-health-crisis-doctoral-researchers/

Something that helped me a lot was taking part in the WIN-E (Women in Numbers Europe) conference in 2013 when I was finishing my Ph.D. Working in a nice environment and with people that just try to help and collaborate was very good and refreshing. I would like to take the occasion to thanks Irene Bouw and Kristin Lauter who were the leaders of the group in which I took part and who have supported me a lot during the last years.

Right now I cannot say that I meet barriers (besides some sexist comments from time to time), but less teaching and less bureaucracy would definitely help to my research.

Even more, now that I have less barriers and a more stable position, I like to help, as much as I can, people meeting different barriers: I am the president of the Commission for Women and Math of the Spanish Math Society and since last year I have participated in different CIMPA (International Centre of Pure and Applied Mathematics) schools and other schools in undeveloped countries.

What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

In Mathematics we do not have gender equality (we do not have it in our Society and Math is not going to be different). Even more, in pure Math, and particularly in France (but I would say that also in many other countries), the percentage of female professors is the lowest one in all sciences (~15%). In Spain it is slightly better, but women there are usually not in the highest positions. In The Netherlands, it was even worse, if I remember correctly, there were only 3 female Math professors in the whole country.

With these proportions, and even assuming everybody being feminist, at least you would feel in minority and wondering all the time if you belong to that community or not. Remove the assumption now and see what you get …

I have been the president of the Commission of Women and Math of the Spanish Math Society since 2017. I believe we can change things and make the Math community more inclusive. We tried with different approaches and activities. I’m optimistic. But I’m also realistic, and this is a problem that it is not going to be fast solved.

It is just a starting point, but talking about it helps. Making people aware about the situation helps. There are people (especially men) that never even thought there was an issue. Explain it, and make them realise that there are some inequalities and tha things may be improved.

Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

Yes, I did, and it was one of the best experiences I ever had!!

As I mentioned before, I took part in the conference WIN-E (Women in Numbers Europe) in 2013. Then in its second edition in 2016 and now I am one of the organisers for the third edition in 2019.

These WIN conferences are not only special for having only female participants, but also for being collaborative ones. This enables junior women in mathematics to create a strong collaboration network, to connect with important research directions and to meet research mentors.

If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

Yes, definitely. I like Science, I like Math, I wouldn’t have done any other thing.

Maybe, just maybe, I would have left Spain earlier, and I would have done my PhD abroad. More international experience is always good.

Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

Do not let anyone discourage you to keep in Science just for being a woman! And do not let them to impose you the masculine way of doing Science! There are many ways of doing Science, and diversity is good and necessary for it!

We need you, Science needs you!