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Lilia Kivodonova

“Mathematics, to me is . . . Old, established, polished, and distilled math (read: what we teach to undergrads), I would say is beauty. New math that we are trying to create is anywhere between excitement and frustration, depending on how research is going..”
Lilia's Biography

I was born in a small town in what was then the Estonian Soviet Republic. I liked mathematics and physics in school, so I decided to apply to the department of Applied Mathematics and Control Theory at the Leningrad State University, Russia. I was somewhat interested in programming and that helped me decide between the applied and pure math departments. By the time I graduated, the Soviet Union was in ruins and nobody needed mathematicians. The times were difficult, and for a few years I simply tried to survive. By a mere chance, I learned that anyone can apply for grad studies in the U.S.. This was so far from how the Russian system operated. I realized that if I wanted to apply that year, I had two months to learn enough English to pass TOEFL and GRE. And so I did. Rensselaer Polytechnic took a chance on me and I went to America (quite stereotypically) with one suitcase and lots of hope. I decided to work on numerical methods for a solution of partial differential equations, got my PhD, and then moved to New York City for a postdoc at the Courant Institute.

Since 2006, I am a professor at the University of Waterloo. I still work in the areas of numerical analysis and scientific computing. I have a husband whom I met in grad school and two daughters who are now six and nine years old. My way to where I am now was far from straight. Looking back, I think that random events played quite a role in it. With the wisdom of hindsight, I tell to students who feel lost or unsure about what to do that not all your plans will be fulfilled, but things tend to work out this way or another if you keep pushing.

Flexible schedule and a relative freedom to do what I want, i.e. what projects to work on, who to work with, etc. You do not have this if you work in industry.

I do some gardening, birding, yoga, and learning French. I run 25-30 km a week, do not watch TV and do not read newspapers.

When I was a kid, my ambitions did not extend beyond getting a PhD. This is likely because I was not sure what happens after one gets a PhD.

I do not think I have had mentors in the usual sense, but I was lucky to meet some extra-ordinary people, people to look up to.

A career in academia is much easier than people make it sound, so go ahead and do it. If you don’t believe me, here is my reasoning when I was in grad school trying to figure out what to do next. Take the top fifty math departments in the USA (what they call Group I), assume 30 faculty members per department on average. This gives fifteen hundred people. That is an awful lot of people who like math. They cannot all be geniuses or even what is called talented mathematicians. So, there should be a place for you somewhere out there. If this does not convince you, add Group II to get five thousand mathematicians, continue to Groups III-V. In retrospect, this reasoning reeks of lack of mentorship and self-confidence and proves that those are, strictly speaking, not absolutely necessary.

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