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Six Questions with: Dr Sarah Hart


Six Questions with: Dr Sarah Hart

Sarah Hart is Reader in Mathematics at Birkbeck College, University of London and participated in the Symmetric Functions and Macdonald Polynomials programme in 2001.

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

As a little girl I loved patterns of numbers and shapes. I remember working out that 6 times 50 is 300, and feeling really excited when I realised that was related to the fact that 6 times 5 is 30. I used to make intricate tessellating patterns with some little tiles I'd been given. Of course you don't realise you are doing mathematics at that point.

What keeps me interested is that joyful moment of discovery, when you realise how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, or think of a really neat way of expressing things.

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

I got my first degree from Oxford in 1996, then went to Manchester to do my MSc and subsequently PhD, which was in group theory, specifically Coxeter Groups. I was lucky enough to get a two year EPSRC research fellowship, for which I stayed in Manchester, following it with a one year temporary lectureship before moving to my first permanent post, a lectureship at Birkbeck College, which is part of the University of London.

I started in September 2004 and am still there. It is unusual in that is specialises in part-time evening courses for students who wish to get university degrees while working, or with family commitments. This means all my teaching occurs on two evenings a week. I have a two or three irons in the fire, research-wise. I am still working on Coxeter groups, and have a longstanding and very fruitful research collaboration with my former PhD supervisor Peter Rowley. But I have also published work on sumfree sets in groups, commuting involution graphs and other group-theoretic problems.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I am proud of my research record - I feel that I've done some good work over the years, and have been able to publish in well-regarded journals. I much prefer working in collaboration with others because it's energising to bounce ideas off each other, but it was still a thrill when I had my first sole-author paper published.

I am proud of the work I've done at Birkbeck - when I arrived here there was no single honours BSc Mathematics programme, and just two pure mathematicians on the staff. It took a few years of work, but we now have a BSc Mathematics, whose first intake graduates this year, we have five pure mathematics lecturers, and a new MSc Mathematics is starting in 2012, with me as the Programme Director. I was promoted to Reader in 2010, which was most gratifying.

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

It can be tough - I have two young daughters and there are stressful days when you've been up all night with a teething baby and still have to be coherent in lectures. I have an almost cast-iron rule that I don't work on the weekends. (Although occasionally a research problem is so fun that I play around with it after the girls are in bed, but I don't count that as work!) I keep a rough eye on the hours I work, but when I'm working I focus exclusively on that, and when I'm at home I focus exclusively on my family.

My husband is very supportive, and mucks in with childcare and housework (he does most of the cooking, for example). We both work full time so we have to be quite organised. The biggest challenge is conferences; I haven't found a good answer for that yet. I've only spend a couple of nights away from home since my eldest (now 5) was born; my younger girl is still only a year old, but there is a 10 day conference in 2013 that I am determined to go to, which gives me a year to come up with a childcare solution!

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

Act confident even if you don't feel it. Try to work with lots of different people - typically an application to a readership or professorship needs to be supported with five references. Think carefully about how much administrative responsibility you agree to take on. You do need to be slightly strategic, obviously do your fair share, but remember to leave enough time for research.

Finally I'd emphasise that it's absolutely possible to be an academic and have children. Since 2007 I've had two children, with six and nine month maternity leaves respectively, and still managed to publish twelve papers, get two promotions and spearhead new programmes at Birkbeck. I'm not remarkable, I'm not about to win the Fields medal, but neither are most of the men out there! I still feel I have a valuable contribution to make and so do you!

Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

Absolutely. It was a few years ago, when I was just starting postdoctoral work. I attended a conference and then stayed for a few weeks afterwards to do some research. It was an energising environment, and I had some very useful discussions with other mathematicians.

I think it was the first time I had given a talk outside my own university, and that experience really boosted my confidence. The concentrated time I spent on my research also led to two new papers, if I remember rightly, so it was most productive. It was a wonderful opportunity.

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