Breaking the stigma in mathematics; a personal journey

Despite facing discouragement and obstacles, Mária Ždímalová pursued their passion for mathematics, obtaining a PhD in Algebraic Graph Theory and becoming an Associate Professor. She has successfully collaborated with various institutions and established projects connecting mathematics with architecture and art. Through her experiences, she emphasizes the importance of following one’s dreams and break- ing through societal stigmas.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

My mathematical journey started at elementa- ry school where mathematics was my favourite subject. At high school I participated in a local mathematical competition, and consequently I was given the opportunity to attend the nation- al round in “SVOC in Mathematics’’ for all the Slovakian students at the national level. I liked it a lot. I continued my studies in mathematics and physics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Comenius University in Bratislava. I got my master’s degree in 2004.

Then I studied teaching and education in Mathe- matics and Physics. After that I still felt I should continue my studies, despite having already had my first daughter. I joined the Slovak Uni- versity of Technology in Bratislava, Slovakia, to conduct my PhD research in the Department of Mathematics and Descriptive Geometry, Facul- ty of Civil Engineering. In 2010 I was awarded a PhD in Algebraic Graph Theory.When I finished my PhD, I was a young woman, with two kids and a big passion in my heart. Some people were telling me not to have big dreams, to be happy with my basic education. But something inside me was telling me to continue and do what I like. I worked at the university as a researcher and assistant professor. In 2019 I became Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics. In my career I have heard many discouraging comments, but I have received a lot of support as well. I have decided to break the stigma and walk on my path. I just do what I like and try to believe in my dreams.One of my favourite topics is “Mathematics in Architecture, Art, Design”. Joint work with Italian colleagues produced the project “Arch Math” https://www.facebook. com/ARCHMATHEMATICS. In this project we are searching for connections between mathe- matics and architecture, art and design.

We have the cooperation of students in archi- tecture and civil engineering. When we were creating this webpage, many people told me: “It has no sense, there is no money for such a project, it is a waste of time, nobody will be interested”. Today we have followers from 27 countries and even some students from India contacted us requesting some reports. Almost every year we meet with people from the “math- art” community at a conference and present new ideas. The beauty of this conference is that it connects people from different disci- plines: mathematicians, physicists, designers

architects, landscape architects. This diversity brings many special different views on a variety of topics. So, please, if you have in your heart an idea, just try it. Do not allow stigma stopping you from trying. Great things happen when you follow your passion. I have established collab- orations in and outside Europe. In the field of applied mathematics, we work in partnership with the Medical Faculty in Bratislava, Comeni- us University in Bratislava and the Slovak Acad- emy of Science.

Once the Indian Institute of Technology reached out to me and asked me if I could guide stu- dents from their institution. This is how I met Anuprava Chatterjee, a young, enthusiastic stu- dent. He was cooperating with me and the Fac- ulty of Medicine in Bratislava.

This cooperation brought some nice outcomes which are already published. Anuprava is a very special, highly motivated student, open to new challenges. His passion for work is contagious. Another example of not giving up is related to my one-month research and educational visit in Mexico. I tried to get there many times, but it was very difficult to get funding to cover the travel cost. Once I was promised to get there, I told my professor and guider in Mexico that I am coming. But suddenly things fell through. I was devastated. I was sure that it was all over, and I gave up. After two years a new possibility appeared, I was recommended to apply for a national mobility grant.

I was lucky, I got support and a grant for trav- eling. The research and educational visit there was an amazing experience and I was even lucky to participate in the “First conference of Latino-American women in maths”. I met a lot of women mathematicians from Caribe, Bra- zil, Ecuador, Mexico and other places. On my mathematical journey I had to overcome many difficulties, my mathematical path is not linear. I faced a lot of “breaking points” in my scientif- ic, educational and personal life. The lesson I learnt is to break the stigma and never give up.

Dr Mária Ždímalová

Associate Professor, doc. Mgr, PhD, Department of Mathematics and Descriptive Geometry, Faculty in Civil Engineering, Slovak University of Bratislava, Slovakia

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