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Six Questions with: Professor Clare Parnell

Six Questions with: Professor Clare Parnell

Clare Parnell is a Professor in Applied Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, and was a Visiting Fellow on the Topological Dynamics in the Physical and Biological Sciences programme in 2012.

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

As a very young child I found doing sums much simpler than reading. Mathematics was always more interesting than other subjects and, for me, always much easier. I liked the way things had a definite answer and that this answer could be reached logically.

As an applied mathematician the greatest pleasure I get from my research is from tackling and finally solving a difficult problem, often after running down several blind alleys. In particular, when you finally discover an answer and think about what it means physically, then the penny drops and everything makes sense. Its a wonderful feeling realising that your answer is right, because, in hindsight, that that is the only way it can work!

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

In 1988 I started a joint BSc in Chemistry & Mathematics at Cardiff University. I choose Cardiff because it had good climbing opportunities, but also had a flexible degree programme. The latter was useful since I realised at the end of my first year I was a much better mathematician than chemist. The former allowed me to spend almost every weekend either climbing on sea cliffs or walking in the Welsh high mountains.

I graduated in 1991 and headed to St Andrews in Scotland where I did a PhD in theoretical solar physics and climbed all the munroes (mountains over 3000ft in Scotland) in 3 years.

The next 12 years were spent as a postdoc either in St Andrews or at Stanford University. During this time I was lucky enough to be awarded three personal Fellowships which covered 10 of the 12 years I was a postdoc.

In 2003, I gained a lectureship at St Andrews. Since then I have been promoted twice and I am now a Professor in applied mathematics.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Gaining my PhD is one achievement I feel really proud of. I started and finished the munroes at about the same time as my PhD, so in my eyes these two successes always go hand in hand. Indeed, I always say I could never have done one without the other. My PhD brought me to Scotland and the munroes afforded me with the space and opportunity to escape from my office enabling me to think through the sticking points of the previous weeks research problems.

Since then I have supervised half a dozen or more PhD students and each time they succeed I feel proud to have helped/guided others to achieve their goals.

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

With great difficulty and to be honest I am not sure I really do.

I have two young children (born in 2003 & 2005). I would have had no chance in realising any of my goals since the children were born if it was not for all the help and support I get from my husband. Like me he works full-time, but thankfully he loves cooking, so he is in charge of the kitchen! I work many evenings during the week after the kids have gone to bed and often work on the weekends. My aim is to cut back on my weekend work and my children have started helping by taking me off on long cycle rides or walks one day each weekend.

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

Have confidence, believe in yourself and in your abilities. You can have it all, i.e. have a successful career, have a happy family and be fit and healthy, but it is hard work and you need to work on all aspects to keep your dream alive.

Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

Yes. The opportunity to escape from my many administrative and teaching duties, if only temporarily, has been wonderful. It has been very motivational, especially the interactions with a variety of researchers whom all have a different perspective on topology to me. Having the time and space to think about new projects has been very pleasing.

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