Recycling manifolds: Kirsi Peltonen

I am proud to present another fellow mathematician, now working as a Senior Lecturer at Aalto University and as Docent at University of Helsinki, Kirsi Peltonen. Kirsi will also be the speaker at the seminar Women in Mathematics in Finland on November 9th at 4 p.m. in Exactum CK112 (info to come soon).

Please, tell me briefly about yourself…

I am currently working at Aalto University Science School Mathematics department as a Senior Lecturer. I am also docent in Mathematics at Helsinki University. I do research in geometric analysis in pure mathematics. At Aalto I am responsible on activities related to differential geometry and applications. This is a broad field with exciting connections not only to research inside mathematics but also physics, computer science, engineering and arts. At the moment I live in Järvenpää together with my husband and two cats. Our 3 children have already moved away from home and started their own careers and live together with their spouses.

When did you start getting interested about mathematics?

It is hard to pinpoint any particular time or event for a start of getting interested in mathematics. I found natural sciences in general the most interesting subjects at school. I also enjoyed all sorts of handcrafts at the same time. The passion for mathematics is difficult to explain, but it has been a crucial part of all my activities as far as I remember.

In simple words, what is your research about?

In the heart of my research are mapping problems between abstract shapes with certain geometric constraints. The principles of this process could be compared to recycling textiles. You take for example men’s shirt and would like to change it to women’s skirt. If the material, size and other properties are appropriate, you cut and sew to perform the needed changes according to your plan. In my research I take different types of manifolds instead of shirts and skirts which I suppose they could be transformed to each other and try to prove it by making use of the properties they have. I use techniques like cutting and sewing for abstract entities. Sometimes the outcome is a beautiful example but more often the constructions fail. This does not mean failure, but like often happens in sewing, you get something completely different as planned but still something useful. You also learn why certain things do not work and this is important as well.

Up to now, what do you regard as your most satisfying professional achievement?

I think it is the fact that I have been able to find the joy of doing mathematics over and over again. I am privileged to have so many talented collaborators and colleagues that have inspired and encouraged me over the years.

What was your hardest professional period and how did you overcome it?

Without no doubt it was almost 10 years ago when I found myself in the middle of hostile bureaucrat acts and almost lost my health. Thanks to my family, Finnish healthcare and great colleagues in Finland and abroad, I am now completely recovered. I am also happy that this process did not make me a bit bitter or cynical but made me more aware of unconscious bias and the fact that your true friends are those who also tolerate your success.

Did you face any obstacles – direct or indirect – in your work because of your being a woman?

This is a tough question as being a mathematician is equally hard to everybody working in the field. Good collaboration is an essential ingredient of this profession and   I think this has been most challenging to me, especially when I was younger.

Your ideal day outside work…

Crisp sunny day in the forests together with my husband to pick up some mushrooms.

What is your piece of advice to young mathematicians?

Be active, go to seminars, listen broadly what other people are doing and share your problems and ideas with others. Do not take it personally if you do not get the grant you applied. It is not all about you, but most often about politics and circumstances. Just make the next application and continue working persistently.

What would you tell to girls who are thinking to study or work in mathematics?

Just go ahead! Math is fun and always useful ! And when you get the grant you applied be happy and continue working persistently no matter other people might say.

(Picture: Eeva Lehtinen)

Girls can code: Linda Liukas and Hello Ruby

Last week a live streaming of a TEDx CERN event titled “Breaking the Rules” was held in Physicum. Among the speakers stood out a Finnish contributor, well-known Linda Liukas. Linda is a programmer, a startupper and a champion of women in computer science. In 2010 she co-founded Rails Girls, an ongoing project to involve women with little to no experience in programming.

Listen to her talk at Slush 2014:

In 2012 she was named Digital Champion of Finland for her efforts of promoting digital culture:

In 2014, Linda successfully (over)funded a project through Kickstarter: Hello Ruby. It’s a nicely illustrated book, a “coding fairytale” (for kids aged 4-8), available in several languages. I bought my copy in Finnish last week!

Are you curious to take part in the Rails Girls bootcamps? There are plenty in Finland this fall.

(Featured image is from

Laura Venieri, from Italy to Finland for love of mathematics

I interviewed Laura Venieri, an Italian postgrad student working at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Geometric Measure Theory research group, with Prof. Pertti Mattila.

When did you move to Finland and what brought you here?

“I came for my Erasmus study period in 2012, motivated by the curiosity to see some country different from Italy and to study in some courses I noticed. It was my first time in Finland. I felt really at home and decided to stay: Prof. Pertti Mattila had an open position for a doctoral student and after my master graduation I moved to Helsinki permanently.”

Were doctoral studies part of your master plan? What are your future perspectives?

“I have started thinking about doctoral studies during my master. Now I am half-way in my studies. I would like to continue working in academia, but the job instability and the mobility scare me. Anyway I am open to possibilities also outside the academia.”

Do you plan to stay in Finland?

“I am integrated here now, I have a boyfriend, friends… I like to travel but moving abroad for longer periods does not sound nice. My boyfriend is still studying here in Finland.”

Can you explain in simple words what you work on?

(she laughs) “Well, I study the Hausdorff dimension of some sets, called Kakeya sets, in Heisenberg groups and other metric spaces. These sets in Euclidean spaces are defined as sets of zero Lebesgue measure containing a segment of length 1 in every direction. In the plane, it has been proved that such sets have Hausdorff dimension 2, that is quite surprising since they have measure zero. One standing conjecture is: is this true in R^n, that is, do Kakeya sets in R^n have Hausdorff dimension n? This conjecture is connected to many problems in other areas of mathematics, such as harmonic analysis. I do not work on this particular conjecture, but I use Kakeya sets in my own research project, generalizing and studying them in other spaces.”

An example of Kakeya Needle Set.
An example of Kakeya Needle Set.

What do you love about mathematics?

“I like its logical structure and I love that many times logic leads you to less intuitive conclusions, like the Kakeya sets I have talked about.

I have always liked mathematics. When I was in high school I liked it as a challenge, a game. During university years I started seeing something deeper in it.”

Professionally speaking, what are you bringing from Italy to Finland? And viceversa, what would you export from Finland to Italy?

“Mathematics studies at University of Bologna are very theoretical, I was trained not to be scared by highly theoretical contents. On the other hand, I appreciated all the exercise classes here in Helsinki, they are useful and needed in Bologna. I also like the more relaxed university environment: in Italy everything is very formal.”

Did you have to face obstacles as a woman in mathematics? And in general?

“No, as a woman no. In general I found the passage from master to postgraduate studies hard. All of sudden I was not sure if a problem had a solution and how to find it. Luckily my supervisor has helped me get through this.”

What would you tell to girls who are thinking to study or work in mathematics?

“If you like it, just try to follow this path. Don’t be discouraged: hard times are very usual in mathematics.”