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Regular version of the site

'I’m Glad I Listened to My Heart'

A career in science and technology might sound appealing to the average Russian, but a recent survey showed that most Russians believe men are better suited for this line of work than women. The young women interviewed for this story, a mathematician and a programmer, are of a different opinion.

Arina Arkhipova, a senior in the undergraduate Mathematics programme, was accepted into a master’s programme at the University of Geneva

‘Are you going to ask if one should cry or laugh at the idea of a female mathematician?’ Arina Arkhipova asks ironically at the beginning of our conversation. Actually, this is what she herself asked the first dean of the HSE Faculty of Mathematics, Sergei Lando, at the HSE open house when she was applying for her undergrad. ‘The students who overheard our conversation teased me about it afterwards,’ Arina says. ‘I know that schoolteachers are sometimes reluctant to accept girls into their math classes or they set some sort of quota. But this wasn’t something I experienced in school or at the university.’

For Arina, entering into the Mathematics Faculty was ‘a conscious and weighted’ decision. ‘I spontaneously chose mathematics after the eighth grade. I had a large number of classes to choose from in school – from mathematics to philosophy. I talked with a lot of different people, but I like the mathematicians best. I liked the atmosphere, the people, and the overall rapport among them,’ Arina recalls.

Arina’s friends and family were worried about her – a girl? In mathematics? ‘Do what you love and do it well!’ she tells such sceptics. ‘In my opinion, this is true for all majors and all people irrespective of gender.’ 

Survey results*

‘Would you be happy if your daughter chose a science-related career?’ Probably – 24%, probably not – 24%, I’d be happy with any decision – 41%, difficult to say – 11%. 

‘Would you be happy if your son chose a science-related career?’ Probably – 28%, probably not – 20%, I’d be happy with any decision – 42%, difficult to say – 10%.

Graduates from Arina’s high school who went on to study at HSE told Arina about the university’s Mathematics Faculty when she was in the 10th grade, and two years later Sergei Lando and Alexey Gorodentsev visited Arina’s school. ‘Alexey was a graduate of my high school, and I always saw him as a legend that I needed to equal up to. One might say that he convinced me once and for all that I needed to go here, which is why I didn’t apply anywhere but the Mathematics Faculty, and I’ve never regretted my decision,’ Arina adds.

It is no secret that a lot of people who major in maths change their mind and go for a more applied field. But this was not an option for Arina. ‘I stopped thinking that I might go into economics when I was in the eighth grade, and I asked my loved ones never to use the world “economics” around me again.’ And now, HSE is above all a mathematics faculty for Arina. ‘When I say the word “university,” I see an image of 7 Vavilova Street. Whenever I have to go to Myasnitskaya Street to run an errand or something, I feel much less comfortable,’ she notes.

Arina was never afraid that someone or something would hold her back in her studies or profession. ‘I was mostly scared that I myself wouldn’t be able to do something in the field of mathematics. When you read your textbook, listen to your professors, solve problems on paper, it feels great. It adds to your skillset and boosts your confidence. But when you’re one on one with a problem and no one knows how to solve it or how to approach it, this is what scares me,’ Arina says.

But what are these mysterious slips of paper that you hear about in the Mathematics Faculty every now and then? ‘My wonderful supervisor Nikolai Konstantinov is believed to be the founder of this system, even though he himself references Alexander Kronrod and Moscow School #7,’ Arina explains. ‘The idea behind it is that a person receives the fundamental skills required for a specific topic by working through problem sets on a piece of paper that are subsequently given part orally for someone to check. The main value in this is that you discuss the material one on one with an instructor, and this is more productive and much more interesting than simply sitting and listening to a lecture,’ she adds.

Arina has now become the person who checks students’ work at a school – first for seventh- and eighth-graders, and then for the ninth grade. ‘Before, I was afraid of taking on such a responsibility. It’s scary when you don’t explain something fully or you overlook something. These teachers’ mistakes definitely return, and the student suffers from this. But now I marvel at how strong our students are. They have mastered material that I didn’t even know about in the ninth grade,’ Arina says.

Mathematics is a science that doesn’t allow people to turn their noses up too high

It is easy to go overboard when working with elementary school children – if you give them too much work, they might lose an interest in maths altogether. On the other hand, high school graduates with a strong mathematics background might face a different problem – too much confidence. Their previous knowledge helps them easily get through their freshman year at the university, and they forget how to master new material. ‘You have to strike a balance to help kids understand what they can expect at the university, while on the other hand making sure that they aren’t under the illusion that they will get to graduation on their past knowledge alone,’ Arina notes.

In addition to teaching at a school, Arina is also a junior researcher in the HSE Laboratory of Algebraic Geometry and Its Applications, and in the fall she is journeying to Switzerland to begin her master’s programme at the University of Geneva. ‘I’ve achieved everything I have thanks to the HSE Faculty of Mathematics, in particular my academic supervisor Alexander Esterov​, who is an absolutely wonderful person and scholar without whom I wouldn’t have even dreamed of taking the steps I’ve taken or making some of the decisions I’ve made,’ Arina adds.

Does beauty have a place in mathematics? Of course it does. But just like with artistic tastes, it is difficult to explain why you prefer one mathematical style to another. ‘Mathematicians’ idea of beauty is very different,’ Arina comments. ‘I personally value simplicity, elegance, and naturalness above all else. In my opinion, beauty cannot be found in, say, “brutal” proofs that use a ton of technicalities and cumbersome formulas and calculations. It’s a totally different thing, however, to have rather abstract proofs that are founded on a single elegant idea – proofs that utilize that special mathematical “magic” and can be retold in a different language, so to speak, which results in certain nontrivial conclusions. I also think it’s beautiful when you can paint a picture of something in your head – everything that has a natural geometric interpretation. But I know people who don’t understand anything from a picture and prefer looking at some nasty formula to get what they need to know.’

While at a summer school in Lyon, Arina met renowned mathematician John Conway. ‘He’s a unique individual who has accomplished fantastic things in an array of mathematical fields. I was most impressed by his ability to ask the right questions. When he was 14 years old, for example, he was simply admiring the scenery when he came up with the famous problem called Thrackle conjecture using surprisingly simple terms like “paths” and “streams.” It still hasn’t been proven, and there’s an entire website devoted to it,’ Arina notes.

The ability to define a problem and ask the right questions is what largely determines one’s success in mathematics. But for mathematicians, success does not come from a thirst for glory or from pride. ‘Mathematics is the type of science that doesn’t allow people to turn their noses up too high,’ Arina believes. ‘Mathematics always supplies you with a task you cannot complete. And it seems like there are more of these types of problems than atoms in the universe.’

Polina Kirichenko, a sophomore in the HSE School of Applied Mathematics and Information Science and a recipient of the Google Anita Borg Scholarship

When Polina first became interested in programming, most of her family was not too happy about it. They would have liked to see her become a doctor; after all, nearly all of her relatives are doctors. Even Polina’s grandmother, a teacher of mathematics who instilled in Polina a love for solving difficult problems, sometimes says that she wishes she had showed her granddaughter bugs instead of math problems. Maybe then Polina would have developed an interest in biology instead.

‘They believe that it’s difficult for a girl to make her way in the world of programming, and it sometimes hurts my feelings to hear this,’ Polina says. ‘But I’m really glad I listened to my heard and did what Iwanted, and not what other wanted for me. I really like what I do, and I’m not too bad at it.’ 

Survey results*

‘Would you be happy if your daughter chose to become a programmer?’ Probably – 28%, probably not – 20%, I’d be happy with any decision – 42%, difficult to say – 10%. 

‘Would you be happy if your son chose to become a programmer?’ Probably – 40%, probably not – 10%, I’d be happy with any decision – 41%, difficult to say – 9%.

Polina’s incredible programming skills are shown by her success at various competitions. In her senior year of high school, she won Yandex’s First Programming Conference with her paper ‘The E-English Programming Language,’ and in her freshman year of college, Polina received the Google Anita Borg Scholarship. Along with 30 other scholarship recipients from countries all around the world, Polina attended a weeklong workshop at the company’s office in London. In the fall of 2015, Polina also took part in the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computer conference. Each year, the conference brings together women from all over the world who work in the field of IT.

One of my close friends said that I’m a supporter of the gender divide since it benefits me. It wasn’t a nice thing to say – I’ve never thought about it in this way

Participating in these kinds of foreign projects meant specifically for women forced Polina to think about gender discrimination in the world of programming, but from a completely unexpected perspective. ‘After a conference in Houston, a lot of people told me about gender discrimination and why this divide is necessary,’ Polina says. ‘One of my close friends said that I’m a supporter the gender divide since it benefits me. It wasn’t a nice thing to say – I’ve never thought about it in this way.’

Last year, Polina was nominated for the Silver Nestling award. In a letter of recommendation for Polina, the Dean of the Faculty of Computer Science, Ivan Arzhantsev, wrote that he saw in Polina a ‘rare combination of drive, dedication, a wonderful knowledge of programming, and outstanding mathematical abilities, and this is exactly what is needed to succeed in the field of computer science.’

Every six months, students of the Computer Science Faculty work on projects that are in some way connected to computer science. ‘You pick the topic yourself, and an instructor/mentor will oversee the project. But there’s a ton of room for creativity, ranging from the goals you set all the way to solving specific programming tasks. This is completely different from simply listening to lectures or going to seminars and solving problems,’ Polina comments.

Last year Polina participated in a bioinformatics project that used machine-learning methods. In particular, Polina forecast T-cell epitopes and taught a model (programme) how to identify the subsequence of receptors in proteins. Polina says that the most interesting thing for her is the fact that you not only have to know the appropriate mathematical algorithms, but you also have to take into account chemical and biological aspects as well. This means that you are constantly expanding your knowledge. ‘If you decide to study bioinformatics seriously, you’ll have to study molecular biology as well. It would be hard to work on the really interesting projects without it. Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways to teach yourself nowadays – articles, books, online courses, etc.’ Polina adds.

Polina’s new project focuses on web development; it is an online service for Imaginarium, a game that requires you to come up with associations for different images. But the main focus of her research is still machine learning. The machine-learning laboratory at Google’s London office is what inspired her the most.

There is a lot of time left before Polina finishes her undergraduate degree, but she has already started thinking about what comes next. ‘Everyone who studies computer science faces a dilemma at some point – industry or academia,’ Polina says. ‘I’d like to find a place where these two areas can be combined. It’s great that this is possible in computer science. For now though, I’m just trying out different roles,’ she concludes.

*This data comes from a survey carried out by the HSE ISSEK on Russians aged 16 and older. The survey was representative and is part of the November 2014 Monitoring of Innovative Behaviour of the Population. The data on gender stereotypes was published in the Indicators of Education: 2015 digest.