“During my final year at University, I discovered that although I did like physics, I enjoyed the rigor and elegance of mathematics more.”

Professor Sara Lombardo is a researcher and Associate Dean in the School of Science at Loughborough University. Lombardo uses algebra, geometry and analysis, to investigate a special class of non-linear partial differential equations, called integrable equations, and the mathematical structures which make these systems remarkable and at the same time universal models for applications. Among others, she mathematically describes the interactions between non-linear waves, such as beams of light in non-linear optics and water waves. “You could describe extreme waves phenomena in the ocean, for example,” Lombardo said. “Predicting those waves would be very important for the safety of those out at sea on cargo ships or oil platforms.”

Lombardo’s research straddles many areas of mathematics, and similarly, during her childhood in Italy, Lombardo maintained several interests. “I was always fascinated by science, physics in particular, but I also found philosophy intriguing, and literature, particularly Russian literature, enjoyable. I studied German - I think I could have been an interpreter if I were not a mathematician! My parents, have always been supportive, but also constructively challenging in many ways. My aunt, who sadly passed away far too early, inspired me to look further when I was a child.”

Choosing to follow her passion for science, Lombardo studied for a master’s degree in Physics at the University Rome La Sapienza in Italy, and graduated with a thesis in mathematical physics. “During my final years, I discovered that although I did like physics, I enjoyed the rigor and elegance that mathematics brings to the discipline more. It happened over a couple of months. The fact that you can make a statement and prove it or disprove it in mathematics was more attractive, because in physics there is always a level of crafting the argument.”

“The fact that I could see an example of how to progress in my career has been very important”

Lombardo then moved to the UK from Italy and studied for a PhD in Mathematics at Leeds University, where the differences between the two countries became apparent. “In Italy, you would find the scientists working on integrable systems in physics department, whereas when I moved to the UK I learnt that instead, this is classed as mathematics. The distinction between pure and applied mathematics was also another surprise. I find it artificial and outdated; I prefer to look at mathematics as a whole, and this is reflected in my research.”

Perhaps the most notable difference of all to Lombardo was the gender divide. “Obviously mathematics and physics are very male dominated subjects but I didn't realize that gender was really a barrier until I moved to the UK. So, in Italy, there was, I would say, probably an equal gender split amongst physics students, maybe a slight skew but not a massive difference. But when I started my PhD in the UK, I really felt a little bit out of place, and the only woman in the room. Having played football as a child, I had grown up already doing something which was not the norm and possibly that built up my resilience, but the fact that I didn't belong entirely in the environment was certainly a challenge. There are of course many barriers in Italy too, but it has to do more with power than ability.”

Supporting Lombardo along her journey, were several inspirational figures. “As a PhD student I looked, in particular, to two women who are mathematicians, Marta Mazzocco and Beatrice Pelloni. When I had to write a grant, for example, I could ask for some feedback from them and they have been brilliant. Simply the fact that I could see an example of how to progress in my career has been very important. Nowadays, they are still my point of reference career wise.”

“Mathematics underlies many, if not all the activities we do in our daily lives”

Following positions in Manchester, Rome, Amsterdam and Newcastle, Lombardo joined her current institution, Loughborough University, in 2017. In all her endeavours, Lombardo has been a great role model and advocate for mathematics in society. “I'm very proud of the work that I do and have done on the subject, particularly about a class of infinite dimensional Lie algebras, called automorphic Lie algebras, which younger scholars now study. Mathematics underlies many, if not all the activities we do in our daily lives, and I really try to help the junior researchers that I work with to not see boundaries between different areas of maths and instead blur this distinction, like I have tried to do.”

“As part of my sabbatical, I worked with an artist, Gloria Ronchi, who creates amazing lights installations and structures,” Lombardo continued. “Gloria and I went into primary schools in the North East and delivered a series of workshops where the children made some art objects based on science. I think that interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary activities are important in bringing science closer to society. Science, and mathematics in particular, can be such a creative subject!”

Lombardo has also worked with this age group to help contrast gender stereotypes, and is currently Chair of the Advisory Board of NUSTEM (an organisation which encourages a more diverse group of people to consider STEM careers). “In the UK, there is a very early divide between genders. There is a lot of research showing that at primary school girls and boys are already suggested to do different things – I know some schools have books for boys and girls, which is crazy. It is not something which I experienced in my education, so I really want to counterbalance that and allow girls to go and do what they like irrespective of the stereotype. I would like to see every primary school teacher being well aware of unconscious bias.”

“You do not need to ask permission to be a great scientist”

Diversity in all its aspects, at all levels, is important to Lombardo, and her involvement in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives was sparked by an event she attended ten years ago. “I attended a workshop organized by the London Mathematical Society, where there was Professor Paul Walton presenting his experience with the Athena SWAN Charter. Suddenly, many things which I had endured or experienced fell into place; having to prove myself twice, micro aggressions, micro invalidations, even sexual harassment. I saw all of the obstacles that as a woman, I had endured and made work environment very tiring. I said, I will do something to prevent this happening to the younger generations and that's where my engagement came from. I hope that younger women within my field now, will feel less lonely in their journey.”

As a member of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications Research Committee, London Mathematical Society Women and Diversity in Mathematics Committee, and EPSRC Mathematical Sciences Strategic Advisory Team, Lombardo is very active in challenging and changing the environment for women and other minority groups. “Together with my colleagues at EPSRC, I’m really trying to make our funding more inclusive by recognizing the challenges that women and other minorities face, and value the regional diversity of research. Things are changing, but at a very slow pace. At the moment I am looking at mechanisms we could put in place which would actually accelerate the culture change without necessarily waiting for the culture to change.”

“I really would like to come to a point where you see people doing mathematics irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or otherwise,” Lombardo concluded. “I want people to be empowered to do what they like because, paraphrasing the IMA President Nira Chamberlain, you do not need to ask permission to be a great scientist.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

Hear more about previous Suffrage Science Awardees on the Suffrage Science Podcast. You can subscribe on Podbean, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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