Helen Wilson

Current Workplace
University College London
Current Role
Head of Department of Mathematics
My Mathematics Success Story is...

I’m a Professor of Applied Mathematics and the head of UCL’s Mathematics Department. The route I took to get here is not at all surprising – a degree and a PhD in mathematics, a postdoc in the US, then worked my way up through the academic ranks of Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and finally Professor. The only thing that makes me a bit different is that I’m a woman, and that puts me in a small minority.

My husband and I first started dating during my PhD. It was a tough decision to move to the US without him, and the two years we spent in separate time zones as a result were a real challenge. But we made it through, and I think we are stronger as a result. We were both on the academic track, and our first permanent jobs were geographically separate (Leeds/London). We made a joint decision that we would each apply for jobs in the other’s location whenever they appeared: and that is why I moved to UCL. We’ve lived together ever since, and now have two children.               

There is so much about this job that I love. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Unusually, I don’t get the most satisfaction from the courses with the most challenging mathematics. I get a real kick from the ‘penny-drop’ moment when a concept suddenly falls into place for the person you’re talking to, and in my experience those moments come thick and fast at the beginning of an undergraduate degree, but are a bit harder to come by later on. And I really enjoy the showmanship aspect of giving a lecture to a large class.

When I have time, getting into the nitty-gritty of the behaviour of some solution to an equation system is lots of fun. Increasingly, though, I find that there isn’t enough time to really get into the depths of detail I’d like with research, and instead I have ‘big concept’ conversations with other members of my group and they do the detailed follow-up and, of course, sometimes come back to tell me my big concept was wrong.

Now I’m Head of Department, the majority of my time is taken up with management. I am responsible for a department of about 60 staff and, indirectly, for all of our students. It’s an odd thing, because I got this role through my mathematical abilities but the skills I need to do it are very different. I’m enjoying the problem-solving aspect and the variety of challenge is quite exciting, but it’s very different from the life I’m used to.

My biggest challenge is finding a balance between my two key roles – Head of Department, and mother – each of which could happily eat up all of my waking hours if I let it. My husband is immensely supportive, and I truly could not do what I am doing without his commitment. And the life of an academic – at least one who’s not Head of Department! – is very well suited to flexing around childcare.

What do I aspire to for the future? As the first female Head of UCL Mathematics, I want to see us become a beacon for diversity in its many guises. And for myself – at the end of my stint as Head I’d like to return to a normal academic life of research and teaching.