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Six Questions with: Professor Alessandra Giovagnoli

Six Questions with: Professor Alessandra Giovagnoli

Alessandra Giovagnoli is Professor of the Alma Mater of the University of Bologna and was a Visiting Fellow on the Design and Analysis of Experiments programme in 2011.

When did you become first interested in mathematics and what keeps your interest fresh?

I was very good at maths when I was at school, so it was a natural subject to choose for my university degree. In those days girls would take maths only if they intended to go into school teaching, which was regarded as "a job compatible with raising a family". We are talking 50 years ago! Whilst at university, I began to realise that an academic career was not to be ruled out, but I still was not sure that I really wanted to do it, as mathematical research seemed very abstract to me. So I went to Imperial College, London, to do an MSc in statistics, and mathematical statistics is what I have been interested in since. I like to look for elegant, general solutions to problems that originate from real life. My research interests are fuelled by contacts and interactions with other statisticians in my field. Co-authored papers are the general rule in my field and I'm proud that mine are 50% with women and 50% with men.

Could you tell us a little about your career path so far and what your current research involves?

Since I graduated, I have held academic positions in my country (Italy) and paid frequent visits to academic institutions in the UK. I have recently retired, but hold the honorary title of Professor of the Alma Mater of the University of Bologna, which means that I carry on doing research and supervising research projects. I work in Design of Experiments, a discipline originated in the UK by Sir Ronald Fisher. In particular I'm interested in so-called optimal designs and the topical issue of adaptive designs, namely those experiments that sequentially use previously gathered information for choosing at each step the randomized allocation of treatments to the next units and whether to stop.

I also work in the loosely related field of stochastic orderings, namely comparison of random quantities from various points of view: location, dispersion, concentration, association.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Some of the joint papers with my "historic" co-author are innovative, in that they bring together the two fields of experiments and stochastic orders [1], [2], [3]. I'm also proud that I set up a group of "Women in Science" in my university in 1981. And I'm proud of the help that I have given to hundreds of students when writing their theses or dissertations and teaching them the rudiments of mathematical research.

How do you achieve a balance between your work and homelife?

This should be really question N.1, as well as the related question: how to overcome stereotypes such that women are asked this question but not men! My partner and I have always shared the household duties (but he is a better cook!) and the upbringing of our child. With a childcare system like the French one, I would perhaps have opted for a bigger family. The most difficult time was when my child was twelve years old and I was promoted to a university chair 400 miles away. At first I refused, then I accepted which involved an 8 or 9 hour train journey each way every week, often overnight, for four years, and the emotional strain of being away from my loved ones.

What advice would you offer to young women who are just starting their careers in the mathematical sciences?

Male scientists sometimes tend to behave like a prima donna. My advice is not to fall into the trap of thinking that success comes from thinking like a man. I especially believe that women must establish their right to finding their own way to mathematics and science in general, which are among the great pleasures of (Wo)Mankind.

Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

Yes, this has been excellent, in particular since this summer all the best names in statistics working in the field of experiments have been passing through the Institute at some point. This, and the surrounding beauty of Cambridge, and the time to myself, have given me a renewed wish to continue contributing to the subject with my research.

[1] A. Giovagnoli, H.P. Wynn (1985). "G-majorization with applications to matrix orderings" Linear Algebra Appl., 67, 111-135.
[2] A. Giovagnoli, F. Pukelsheim, H.P. Wynn (1987), "Group invariant orderings and experimental designs" J. Statist. Planning Inference, 17(2), 159-171.
[3] A. Giovagnoli, H.P. Wynn (1995). "Multivariate dispersion orderings" Statist. Prob. Letters 22, 325-332.

University of Cambridge Research Councils UK
    Clay Mathematics Institute London Mathematical Society NM Rothschild and Sons