Enjoying the creativity of mathematics

Research mathematics is creative. One of those people with a particular affinity for imaginative puzzle-solving is Sarah Jane Selkirk. The South African came to Klagenfurt in 2020 as a doctoral student and is now a member of the doc.funds doctoral school “Modeling – Analysis – Optimization of discrete, continuous, and stochastic systems”.

Sarah Jane Selkirk works in the mathematical field of combinatorics. This field focuses on enumeration problems in mathematical structures such as trees, as we know them, for example, from the structure of folders and files on a computer. This structure is used, among other things, in algorithms or in organisation of data. “Combinatorics involves finding how many different combinations or possibilities can occur within a system with predefined constraints.“ As a researcher engaged in fundamental research, it is not always easy for Sarah Jane Selkirk to identify suitable practical examples. With a laugh, she adds: “When it comes to applying for funding, we really need these connections to the applications, which usually lie in computer science.” She is confident that she won’t be running out of work, after all: “When we answer a question in one paper, we often end up raising two new questions.”

The South African came to Klagenfurt in 2020 as a doctoral student and is a member of the doc.funds doctoral school “Modeling – Analysis – Optimization of discrete, continuous, and stochastic systems”. Before that, she completed her Master’s degree at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in a single year. Sarah Jane Selkirk received the bronze S2A3 Masters Medal from the Southern Africa Association for the Advancement of Science for her Master’s thesis, which is awarded to the best Master’s thesis in Science, Engineering, or Medicine.

In Klagenfurt, Selkirk benefits from the exchange with other mathematical disciplines within the doctoral school. What’s more, at the Department of Mathematics she has found a working environment that includes numerous women role models. This is something that is particularly important to her, because: “A false perception that many people have is that women cannot be as successful in mathematics as men. I am proud to say that Klagenfurt is a counterexample to this.” This issue was already important to her during her time in South Africa, when she served as a member of the organising committee for the “African Women in Mathematics Conference” in 2019. Many talented young mathematicians, especially women, may prefer to choose careers in the humanities or arts because they do not like the idea of sitting alone at a desk and doing boring calculations all day, according to Sarah Selkirk, who disagrees with this perception: “Many people do not realise how creative mathematics can be. Some of my work consists of drawing and trying to establish connections between the sketches, or lattice paths as they are called in my work. Collaboration with other mathematicians is also an important component of research. At school, but often also at university, not enough emphasis is placed on the creativity of this subject. Even though the initial steps into mathematics can often be really tough and challenging, the effort is all the more rewarding later on.” To support students, especially during their early semesters, Sarah Selkirk founded the Stellenbosch University Mathematics Society, which runs weekly mathematics seminars for undergraduate students.

She says that life in Austria is “very different, on many levels”. Sarah Selkirk enjoys the fact that Klagenfurt is closely connected to the rest of Europe and that this creates many new opportunities for cooperation with international partners. “Nothing is too far away, even the funding opportunities for basic research are within reach,” she tells us. Sarah Selkirk would like to remain in the academic world.  She attaches great importance to the freedom of research in particular. She is currently working diligently on her doctoral dissertation, where the quality of her work is paramount to her: “Good work needs time. I am happy to take as much time as needed to produce a good doctoral thesis, and therefore plan to finish by July 2023.”

A few words with … Sarah Jane Selkirk

What would you be doing now, if you hadn’t become a scientist?

Engineering or a career in something medically adjacent like Occupational Therapy or Physiotherapy.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

Not entirely, but they put in effort to try and understand and be supportive.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the office in the morning?

Wash my hands! Then usually check emails and do any immediately manageable tasks.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

Since coming to Klagenfurt and being so far away from my family, I don’t think about mathematics while I take holiday to visit them. I think it is also healthier to give your brain a mathematical holiday too.

What makes you furious?

People who have power or resources not using these for good.

And what calms you down?

Usually if something is bothering me I like to discuss it with someone else, as the saying goes: “A problem shared is a problem halved.” This is true for mathematics problems too!

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

I don’t think it is possible to choose one, every scientist makes a valuable contribution. But I deeply respect Emmy Noether who made significant mathematical contributions and was a pioneer for women in mathematics, despite facing very difficult circumstances.

What are you looking forward to?

I am looking forward to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.