A harmonious balance between music and mathematics

Music and mathematics equally inspire the work of Dr Olivia Caramello, 2014 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow and PhD in mathematics and researcher at the University of Paris 7. Winner of the 2010 AILA prize for the best Ph.D. thesis in mathematical logic and of the first prize in the Edith Leigh Piano Competition of Trinity College, Cambridge, her passion for these seemingly disparate disciplines throws perhaps some light on her research project on unifying ‘bridges’ in mathematics. She tells us more on DiscovHER.

How did you decide to become a mathematician?

I decided to become a mathematician around the age of 13, or more precisely, when I first came into contact with the notion of proof . I understood from the beginning that mathematics was a discipline of both freedom and rigour, which allowed me to express my creativity while sharing at the same time my intuitions and results with others on a foot of total objectivity. In my case there weren’t any inspiring teachers pointing me in a particular direction (quite the opposite in fact!), but I’ve always been able to share my love of mathematics with my father, who studied it at the university and successfully applied it in his work.

Do you have any other passions apart from mathematics?

I play the piano at a semi-professional level, having obtained my piano diploma (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in Music) in Italy in 2004, at the same time as my Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. Indeed, my understanding of music has benefited tremendously from my training as a mathematician and vice versa: the experience of thinking about the interpretation of a piece and of performing in public has had a profound effect on my way of communicating mathematics.

Why do you think there is this disparity between men and women in science?

It’s hard to say. It could be partly due to certain social stereotypes left over from the time when women were not seen as potential scientists. But there’s also a significant psychological factor: women are generally more inclined to question and doubt themselves. In order to be really successful as a scientific, you have to be very resilient and have great confidence in your own abilities. I have known female graduate students who clearly had greater scientific abilities than most of their male colleagues but who (unlike them) were too plagued by doubt as to their own talents and thus ended up, (despite my encouragements) m , abandoning their academic career.

We hear a lot of talk about the need to encourage young people earlier in life to go for a career in science. Why do you think it’s important and what would you say to them?

It’s very important when you’re a teenager to find the right role models you can identify with. I still remember keenly looking for anecdotes on the lives of distinguished female mathematicians of the past while in high school. I’d like to tell young people about the great sense of satisfaction I’ve gained from my research career: the beauty and harmony that one finds in mathematics, the freedom and creativity that one manages to exercise, the opportunity to express one’s own personality and develop one’s own “style” of mathematical research, while staying faithful to the principles of rigour and verifiability that characterize science.

For Women in Science

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