Alice in Math-land

Alicia Dickenstein had never imagined that mathematics could be a career option until, after a skills assessment, a psychologist explained to her that she undoubtedly had untapped mathematic potential. She decided to make up for lost time, jumping headfirst into the wonderful world of figures and geometric shapes.

Today, she is the first Argentine to be elected Vice President of the International Mathematical Union, a tremendous international distinction that brings pride to an entire nation. Not only is Alicia the first Argentine mathematician to rise to this level, she did so as a woman, which makes her success even more exceptional!

Alicia is a Professor of Mathematics in the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, where she has also served as the first female head of the Mathematics Department. In addition, she is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and lectures at universities across the globe. Despite all her success as an adult, when Alicia was a child, she always kept extremely quiet in order to hide her extraordinary gift, most likely out of embarrassment or modesty. Now it appears that her talent has truly gained worldwide recognition.

People who are afraid of mathematics don’t realize to what extent we use it in our everyday lives. Mathematics is an open branch of science that is much more accessible than you may think: it is innate to all human beings, and so, very democratic, something that we can all do at different levels. Contrary to the preconceived ideas and misconceptions, not only is mathematics a scientific field rooted in collaboration and social interaction, it celebrates creativity. One of the origins of the problem stems from the way we educate – math is often depicted as a mechanical and spiritless language that some find discouraging.

A woman who is not afraid of failure

At the beginning of her career, Dr Alicia Dickenstein was viewed as a “mathematics orphan”; the group of people working in her area disappeared for several reasons. During these trying years, Alicia managed to overcome these uncertainties with perseverance and determination, as well as the invaluable help of her fellow mathematicians and the unflagging support of her family, which played a decisive factor in her professional success.

I got married young and had my two children before even stopping to think whether it would interfere with my career (although with the knowledge that there was a day care centre at my workplace). My daughter was born right in the middle of my thesis and my son one year after I had finished! Those years of work combined with child-rearing and the situation of being alone in my subject in the by then quite isolated Argentina, were the most difficult and complicated to manage in my entire career.

In the end, Alicia’s confidence, academic excellence and drive to reach her full potentialpropelled her to the vice presidency of the International Mathematical Union. She will serve on the executive committee of the globally recognised body from 2015 to 2018. 

I was elected on the basis of my work and my involvement with the community. In many countries, the decision whether to pursue an academic career is closely intertwined with social and societal problems – issues out of the researchers’ control.

In Alicia’s eyes, having equal working conditions is not the only prerequisite to a successful scientific career. Of course, having an on-site daycare centre can be key to a woman’s career development. But Alicia points out that her success in life “can be attributed to perseverance, selecting the right partners and making the right friends” in her chosen discipline. There is not one single element that helped her advance more than all the others; it was a process that took a number of years, with plenty of hurdles to overcome along the way.

A passion for life

Dr Dickenstein says that a variety of factors lead people to devote themselves to maths, but there is one trait that they all have in common: the ability to quickly grasp concepts in a universal language.

“A half-hearted approach to mathematics never works. If you don’t make that extra effort to excel, you don’t make progress. You have to be very disciplined to achieve your goals,” she explained in a joint interview with Adrián Paenza, an Argentine recently named the best mathematics journalist in the world.

“Mathematics isn’t ‘touch and go’, it’s a passion for life that goes hand in hand with hard work. It’s omnipresent and universal. Even when I’m reading the newspaper or listening to something, my instinct is to ask why and how, to find contradictions … Even at night, when I’m fast asleep, my brain never stops working. What’s wonderful is that mathematics is absolutely everywhere,” she says with a wide smile and the mischievous look of a young girl who knows a secret.

Alicia in her own words

Hobbies: I sing. I even met my husband singing in a choir. Together, we sang in several other groups and took singing lessons for years. But when I started traveling for my work, I had to give it up.

Favourite film and book: There are too many to pick just one. I love to read and watch films.

Sweet or savoury? Sweet!!!

A woman that you admire: Marie Sklodowska-Curie

Places that you like to visit often: There are two: Stockholm, Sweden, and Berkeley, USA. Those are the two cities where I spend the most time for work, outside of Buenos Aires.

For Women in Science

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