This month EPWS gives the floor to Prof. Irene Sciriha Aquilina. She is professor of Mathematics at the University of Malta and currently chair of this faculty’s Research Ethics Committee.
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.)?
I have always enjoyed discovering how concepts are connected and recognizing emerging patterns. I adopted this method in my studies, which I pursued with interest and curiosity for the unknown. As a result, my attitude to my interests became interdisciplinary. As a student, I used to love literary criticism. However the amazing deductive and predictive skills shown by the first scientists in the discovery of elements, crystals, subatomic particles, thermodynamics, electromagnetic waves, early generators of electricity and lever machines captured my imagination more. I chose to study science at a time when teachers of the subject were so scarce that I sat for certain O level exams through self-study.
From a very young age, as I leafed my limited family library, I realized that, to understand physical and chemical processes, versatility in mathematical skills was essential. To me mathematics was challenging and fun. Solving mathematical puzzles with my class mates was a passion that fulfilled my need for creativity and social interaction. My parents showed me they were proud of my interests. They invested in the Wonderland of Knowledge encyclopaedia, received and paid for in monthly instalments. There I remember reading about the physicists Marie Curie and her husband and the mathematicians Ada Lovelace, Sofia Kovalevskaya and Emmy Noether. I suppose that it was my admiration for their achievements that inspired me to choose paths that were then not so conventional for women in Malta.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
My research in mathematics is of the creative kind. It started with spectral graph theory which may be described as analytic geometry driven through abstract algebra and combinatorics. As I create new concepts and use them in an innovative way to discover new ideas or verify known results, I often feel like threading on very fragile ground and with trepidation I continuously search for some slight error that may cause all the theory based on my previous assertions to collapse like a house of cards. However, I persevere since the excitement and joy of creation experienced in the process is addictive.
It was at a workshop held in Edinburgh in 2001 that a renowned theoretical chemist Patrick W. Fowler, since then elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), invited me to join his team. He realized that my early research work fitted his investigations at the time like a glove. My involvement with the University of Sheffield (UK) team, where Prof. Fowler leads his research group, enabled me to see the theories I have been creating clarify poorly understood physical occurrences in a fascinating way. Through my mathematics, we devised new models, prototypes and technologies. Together, we discovered underlying molecular structures in certain fullerenes and the electrical behavior of nano-molecules in circuits. Wires are connected to two atoms in a molecule across a small bias voltage. Carbon molecules were expected to be largely conductors because of their many delocalized electrons. It was surprising that the occurrence of omni-insulators was as likely as that of omni-conductors, where conduction or insulation, respectively, occurred for any pair of atom terminals. This proved to be convenient since connection of wires to a single atom is difficult. In nanotechnology, these molecules are being used in industry in the race to create increasingly smaller components. This is contributing to the exciting feeling that it will be possible to build any electronic device in little to no space.
Other areas where my original results were applied were in computer science, social networks and statistical measures of central tendency. A remarkable side product is the new mathematics that the quest for the rationalizing of statistical, experimental and simulated evidence generates. A great deal of my work was driven by the desire to express my results and that of others in a clear manner. As the mathematical language evolved, new problems emerged. Through my work, mathematics is feeding related sciences and in turn the latter are proving to be a fitting breeding ground for new mathematics.
EPWS: 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?
In my view, each of my original results contributes to a global success. I’ll just mention one of the concepts that I created, one which I did not develop from the work of others. My underlying research topic is on the substructures that make a singular graph. A graph consists of vertices connected by edges. It is singular if its adjacency matrix is not invertible. This happens when one column of the matrix can be expressed as a sum of others. My major creation is the NUT graph, a singular graph with each column of the adjacency matrix being a combination of ALL the other columns. A larger construction packed with nut graphs is the NUCIFEROUS graph which was the subject of a flurry of computer searches by mathematicians, computer scientists and chemists.
The nut graph turns out to represent extremal chemical, computer and social systems. It has natural connections with chemical theory in areas related to the electronic structure. And electron flow through molecules.
As a teacher and supervisor, I challenge the students to go beyond the textbook. What gives me great satisfaction is the spark in the eyes of students as they understand a challenging notion.
A great satisfaction in my research on singular graphs was when in 2011, I found an expression for the eigenvalues of a vertex deleted subgraph that opened the door wide for research in diverse areas. It led to a novel proof of the famous Cauchy’s interlacing theorem, it identified two extremal classes of graphs (the uniform core graphs and the nuciferous graphs) and above all it inspired my chemist collaborators to search for basic theories on molecular conductivity.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
Mostly in Malta. I have done joint research with researchers working at universities in England Ireland and Scotland, France, America, Serbia and Croatia, Portugal, Brazil, Italy, Zahko in Kurdish Iraq and Israel.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
I have a plan to explore lacunae that surprisingly showed up in a recent study on networks that share the same number of walks along their edges. This promises to be of interest to programmers in designing web crawling search engines. Another idea I wish to explore is on a graph representation of machine learning. I am also writing a book with a previous PhD student of mine on an aspect of my research. I have recently been appointed on a committee to promote post graduate interdisciplinary connected fields of study at my university. I am also involved in reaching out at my university so as to attract women to mathematics and science. Within my faculty, I am the chair of the ethics committee that ensures that students and academics undergoing research abide by Maltese and European law. I am also involved in voluntary work in my village. As you can see I shall keep myself quite busy.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
The challenges were significant. As an undergraduate, I was the only woman reading mathematics and physics. For many years I was the only woman academic in the faculty of science. The difficult challenge is to prove that a woman can achieve as much as any man. Legislation is gradually being enacted to annihilate the gap between the opportunities women and men have. However the stark reality is that society still expects women to take more responsibilities than men for the upkeep of their family. Statistics still show that the number of women in high positions remains stubbornly low.
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?
The situation is improving but at a very slow rate. Work as a campaigner is hard. Just as you think you have won, a change in personnel may take you back to a worse position than you had started with. We need to influence people in decision making. Unless laws are enacted and a budget is allocated to promote women excellence, it is all nice talk and no progress.
For over twenty five years I have been involved in national and international committees to promote women in STEM and now even in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). As president/convener of the European Women in Mathematics and Malta representative on the Helsinki group attached to the European Commission, I was instrumental for a number of measures to increase the chances for women to lead. For instance, calls for applications to fill vacancies even with the European Commission used to stipulate that applicants had to be below 35 years of age. Through my insistence and that of others, who understood that this worked indirectly against women responsible for a young family, it was recognized that this was discriminatory and directives were issued to prohibit such practices.
Women work in a different way to men. They respond to a situation in ways specific to their way of thinking. This means that they do a task, traditionally done by men, in innovative ways. There are people, even nowadays, who assume that women can never rise to the occasion. People are more careful nowadays not to say this overtly. But we notice it is often implied. Lately I have been pleasantly surprised by comments said by men in authority acknowledging that the rule of men has led to a gloomy outlook on the global economic and environmental situation. Women need to be given a chance.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
As former president of European Women in Mathematics and representative for Malta on the Helsinki Group of the European Commission, I enjoyed networking with women scientists. At my university, as chair of the Gender Issues Committee, I mentored women scientists in my country to make progress in their career. I have even co-authored a number of original papers with women mathematicians.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I had decided that I wanted to do what I enjoy and I enjoyed challenges. I found my fulfilment in science and mathematics. So I would still choose to be a scientist. However, I would be bolder in taking certain decisions. Puritan constraints that used to be imposed on women by legislation and the norms of society are nowadays viewed with incredulity. I’m often surprised at myself that I used to tolerate certain attitudes towards women.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
If you see beauty in mathematics, science or technology, take up the challenge to overcome the initial hurdles. Ignore discriminatory legislation. That will change eventually. When the theories one invents fit to devise new technology, predict new behavior or develop virtual machines, one senses that one’s contribution is worthwhile. It is said that every failure is a step to success. Scientific research is prone to be hard work interspersed with success . It is an exciting experience of joy in an ever changing occupation that never becomes routine work.