Professor Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova (KTA) is an associate professor in applied maths at the University of Exeter, where she conducts interdisciplinary research in biomathematics. She uses mathematical models in order to help the understanding of living systems. Krasimira is also an active STEM Ambassador for women in science, regularly visiting schools and giving lectures on women in science to inspire the next generation of female scientists. Here, she talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about her career path. Come hear Krasimira from her Soapbox on the streets of Bristol, on June 14th, where she will be talking about: “Through the Looking-glass: a Glimpse into the Mathematics of Living Systems”. Follow her on twitter: @KrasiTsaneva
SS: Hi Krasimira, many thanks for coming to talk to Soapbox about you successful career as a mathematician. Can you tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today?
KTA: I earned my undergraduate and MSc degrees in mathematics at the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria from 1991 until 1996. After my first degree I worked in Bulgaria (my home country) as a school teacher for 1 year and then in industry. Ever since I remember, I wanted to become a scientist. However it was not possible to do a PhD immediately after I finished University in Bulgaria due to various reasons (personal as well as external involving the changes in the political and economical life in Bulgaria during the 1990s). Five years later, I got the opportunity to do a PhD in New Zealand. It was not an easy decision to make as I was about to turn 30 and had a child (my daughter was 7 then). In addition, I have never been to any western country, nor even taken a plane. And here I was going to the other side of the world to do my PhD in mathematics! I was very lucky to have the support of my family and their unreserved faith in me. This helped me immensely! Despite the difficulties, looking back now I am extremely glad I did it.
And so it was, that in September 2001 I started my PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. After completing my PhD in October 2004 I spent 18 months as a post-doctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Biological Modelling, National Institutes of Health, USA and another 15 months as a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Biology at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France. I joined the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol in August 2007 as a lecturer and was promoted to a Reader in Applied Mathematics in 2012. I moved to the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter in July 2013 where I am currently an Associate Professor.
SS: You have certainly travelled far from home and taken some risks to follow your passion for science. Can you tell us what, or who, inspired you to pursue a career in science with such zest?
KTA: I have wanted to do science, for as long as I can remember. My mother and father of course have been a great inspiration and very supportive of my interests in mathematics and physics. My maths and physics teachers in school have been great too! During my secondary school years I attended maths and physics Olympiads every year. I regularly participated in summer schools (mostly 2 weeks long, but there was 1 month long national summer school in physics, which I attended when I was 15) for gifted and talented in maths and physics where University academics would give us lectures and seminars. I really loved all of these activities!
SS: You evidently got the ‘maths bug’ from a young age! What do you think the most fascinating aspect of your research today is?
KTA: The most fascinating aspect of my research is the art of mathematical modelling. I develop and analyse mathematical models in order to help the understanding of living system. Every living system is incredibly complex and fascinating! Mathematical insights into the workings of these systems ultimately would give the possibility to predict and control their behaviour. Such level of understanding defines our ability to tackle some of the big challenges faced by our society today, such as health and aging.
SS: You have done a lot for promoting science to school children, male and female. But what is the nature of science world they are destined for? If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
KTA: I think I have been extremely lucky to have wonderful mentors over the years – my PhD supervisor, my postdoc mentor, my senior colleagues at Bristol and Exeter. Generally it would be better if more support were provided to younger academics, especially when they are just starting, more role models and advice.
SS: And what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
KTA: You must love science, be ambitious and persuasive.
SS: You’re a busy, high-flying scientist – what attracted you to take part in Soapbox Science?
KTA: I am passionate about applications of mathematics. Making sense of maths out side of the abstract world of theorems and proofs, and using it in a tangible way is challenging but extremely rewarding! It is the beauty of mathematics, which I would like to try and convey to the public. I have never done this in such a setting and know it will be very challenging, but I love challenges. In addition, my observations based on school visits in the UK is that pupils are not aware at all about how powerful, fascinating and exciting applications of mathematics could be. Therefore I use every opportunity to explain and demonstrate to people that one could find maths useful everywhere, even in fields such as psychology and psychiatry.
SS: We cant wait to let you loose on the crowds at Soapbox Science Bristol on June 14th! Many thanks for giving us a taster of what we can expect!