Maria J. Esteban

Photo of M. Estéban
Current Workplace
CNRS and University Paris-Dauphine
Current Role
Senior researcher in Applied Mathematics at CNRS
My Mathematics Success Story is...

When I was studying math in the seventies, in Bilbao, I would have never dreamt of what my career as a mathematician and a researcher would be years later. I was at a provincial university and had no clear vision about the future, other than thinking I would teach at Bilbao at some point in my future. But life is full of surprises, and, after I finished my undergraduate studies, some professors pushed me to go abroad and do my PhD at a good university. Paris was chosen because my professors had contacts there and because the French Government gave me a scholarship to study in Paris. I was very lucky because I landed in a very good math department in Paris VI University, one of the best for math in France, and I got an excellent advisor. That started to open my future, even if at that time, even in that wonderful environment, I still thought that after my PhD I would go back to Bilbao and teach there. But when I was finishing my PhD, my advisor encouraged me to apply to a junior researcher position at CNRS. I would have never thought of doing that by myself. And I got it! And I decided to stay in Paris for some years more… and I am still there after so many years. The Math department where I grew mathematically, still the same one in Paris VI University, was a wonderful place, because apart from the many excellent mathematicians belonging to it, it was (and is still) a very attractive place for foreign mathematicians. So, from the beginning of my career, I was lucky to meet excellent mathematicians coming from all over the world, and, was able to discuss with them and listen to their wonderful presentations. I did my PhD on nonlinear partial differential equations and the use of variational methods to study problems in mathematical physics. After so many years I still work in that broad area. Of course, I do, and I have done, very different things over the years, but the basic field is still the same. The idea that I would like to do mathematics to try to understand models coming from the other sciences or from the real world was there from the beginning of my career and this has never changed. For many years I was happy doing research in a very interesting area of mathematics and in a very rich environment, I was meeting many mathematicians and I started to travel a bit to attend conferences. But still at that time I never saw what was coming: years later I was still doing research, but at a very different rhythm and scale. At some point some bifurcation occurred. I started to get involved in associations dealing with the organization of the work of mathematicians, the so-called learned societies, which are so important in the world of Mathematics. They help to organize activities for the mathematical community, publish journals and books, and, direct their activity towards the reinforcement of mathematics in our societies. I started working for the SMAI, the French Society for Applied and Industrial Mathematics, and I became its president some years later. Through this work I started collaborating with foreign colleagues at a larger scale, first at the European scale, in the framework of the European Mathematics Society, and later at an international and global scale, through the International Council for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), of which I became president in 2015. My life is now very different from the one that I imagined no more than 15 years ago. Nowadays I manage to do research, because I like it very much, but not more than half of my time. The other half I spend on committees and boards and evaluation exercises, and not only in France, but in many countries, mostly in Europe. That makes me travel a lot. Some years I spend more than a third of my time abroad, travelling. This life is special, not always easy, but I like it. Sometimes it is tiring, sometimes I would like to have more time to read novels, or see movies, or spend time with friends. But globally I am happy with my life, and if I were not happy, I could change it, because most of the activities I do beyond just research are voluntary, nobody is forcing me to do them. So, all in all, I am a happy researcher in Mathematics, with lots of activities related to the mathematical world, but at the administrative or organizational level. Travelling is a big part of my life, and through travels I meet many interesting people all over the world, and some of them become friends, and it is a big pleasure to meet them on another trip some time later, even many years later in some cases. So, this job I do is also a source of friendship and interesting human relations, which is so important in one’s life, or at least in mine. I would like to finish this text addressing the question of gender, because being a woman mathematician, many people, and still more young female mathematicians, could wonder how I feel about it, and what being a woman in a world mainly masculine has meant over the years. First I would like to say that I was lucky to be born into a family where gender was not significant when thinking about studies or future careers. Being a woman did not seem to be an obstacle for anything in my family, and that has always helped me a lot. Then, during my studies or after them, I never felt that because I was a woman there were doors that were closed for me. I have certainly been fortunate. But maybe also the doors are not so clear when one is not expecting or fearing them. I feel equal to my colleagues, I may be a better or a worse mathematician than another colleague near me, but I do not see it as a consequence of my gender. I have no gender complex, and I feel at ease both with male and female colleagues. I firmly believe that my education has been fundamental in the way I live this issue. The limits that I can encounter in my career will be my own limitations to go beyond where I am. I do not think that there are other limits, and that belief removes the possible difficulties that other women seem to experience. I am never afraid to go further, to aspire to other things or positions or situations. I will try if I think that what I want is something that I can do, and do well. This is of course my personal experience, and everybody has a different one and encounters different situations and difficulties. But, luckily, being a woman has never been an obstacle for my projects.

Women in mathematics