Associate Professor Vera Roshchina is an academic in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. Originally from Russia, Vera joined the School in 2018. In her interview, Vera discusses her path to academia, the varied approaches to teaching and research she's experienced in different countries, what she loves about UNSW, and more.
You won the 2021 Christopher Heyde Medal, an early career award, for your research in the area of non-smooth optimization. The Australian Academy of Science praised your leading work in this field, stating that you are an “exceptional mathematician”.
What interests you about this particular area of maths and why did you initially choose to put your energies into it?
I got interested in optimisation theory as an undergraduate student – there are many problems in this field that are both practical and mathematically challenging, moreover, they often have a geometric flavour that I particularly enjoy. The route to working out new optimisation methods and analysing their performance naturally lies through understanding the geometric structure of the mathematical objects used in our models.
What first sparked your interest in mathematics?
I was interested in other things as a child, including biology, physics, technical drawing and art, but I was particularly fortunate to have had excellent maths teachers at school. I got high quality uninterrupted maths instruction throughout my school years. Both of my schoolteachers, Anna Shapovalova and Maria Melenevskaya, are still working at the same schools that I attended! I found maths both very enjoyable and potentially useful for a successful future career.
While undertaking your undergraduate degree back home in Russia, at Saint-Petersburg State University, what were your initial plans for your career? Did you envision an academic career which would afford you opportunities to live and work in several different countries?
I certainly didn’t expect that my life would turn out the way it has. My original plan was to work in software development back in Russia, and in fact a lot of my school and university friends followed this path very successfully. While I enjoyed maths, for a long time it hadn’t crossed my mind to consider an academic career for myself.
I had already started working in software development during my undergraduate studies, but when the time came to choose my thesis project, I thought I’d go with something fun rather than useful. At the time I was taking a course taught by Professor Vladimir Demyanov, an exceptionally charismatic and funny lecturer. He talked about some incredibly interesting research topics in nonsmooth optimisation and shared hilarious stories about his adventures as a travelling academic (one of them involved an argument with the Australian Border Force that caviar was ‘fish eggs’ for ‘research,’ and that two litres of vodka counts as only 800 grams of alcohol). I couldn’t think of a better choice of an academic advisor.
Even though working on my undergraduate project was just as fun as expected, I gradually learned that my advisor was a highly respected mathematician, famous as much for his brilliant work in nonsmooth optimisation as for his kindness and support of other colleagues and young mathematicians. When I was still an undergraduate student, he helped organise a conference trip to Europe for me – funding was extremely scarce back then, but he managed to get some partial support in Russia and his German colleague covered the rest of my trip from his research funds!
While I enjoyed my research project immensely, I didn’t see myself becoming an academic, however at the insistence of Prof. Demyanov I applied for a PhD position in Hong Kong. When the offer was made, I thought I could certainly interrupt my software career for a few years to live in one of the most fascinating places on Earth, doing my favourite thing, and getting paid for it! As you know, I never went back, but sadly I also never had a chance to repay my wonderful advisor in any way, as Prof. Demyanov died in 2014.
You did your undergrad in Russia, PhD in Hong Kong, and have held postdoctoral and academic positions in Portugal and Australia. What do you identify as the main differences between the approaches to maths teaching and research in these countries?
It is hard to answer this question about research because every mathematician is unique. I have collaborators with whom I think so much alike that we understand each other from half a sentence, having studied and done mathematics in entirely different cultures, and there’s brilliant people whose thinking is so complementary to mine that I find the way they do maths nothing short of magical. It is very useful that pretty much every active mathematician speaks English these days, so it doesn’t take long to get going with research, no matter where we come from.
Teaching is quite different – in Australia we are highly efficient educators, we continuously revise and modernise our content, we make full use of technology and education science. It takes time to understand the system and to appreciate the complexity of what we do here. European education is more slow-paced and traditional – students spend much time in class working through less optimised but highly detailed content, and the focus is much more on theory and rigour rather than on practical skills.
Where are you from in Russia, and what do you most miss about it?
I am from St-Petersburg, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I am also from a unique generation of Russians who grew up in a democratic country – the USSR disappeared when I was in primary school and Vladimir Putin got in power in 2000, when I started university. When I left for Hong Kong in 2005, Russia was still a vibrant place with a rich intellectual and creative life, although the freedoms were disappearing fast. That place is now gone, and while I miss my friends and relatives, I don’t have any nostalgia for the country itself.
Do you have any academic role models?
I admire the people who have an inner drive for excellence, no matter what their formal achievements are. I believe that this attitude is the only way to both create spectacular work, and to have a genuinely fulfilling career and life. I met so many dedicated colleagues throughout my career that listing them all would be impossible to do; many of them here, at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW.
You’ve been at UNSW for more than four years. What has been the highlight of your time here so far?
UNSW has an ambitious agenda in thought leadership, and it is inspiring to be part of this community. The university organises public lectures by academics and public figures, and we are very strongly engaged with the Australian intellectual life. It is common to see our outgoing Dean Prof. Emma Johnston speaking on the TV, and my fellow maths colleagues are often in the news, making research discoveries and sharing their expert advice.
What line of work do you think you’d be in if you weren’t a mathematician?
I’d probably go into Computer Science or Engineering, something highly mathematical!
What’s the best advice that you’ve received in the course of your career?
If only there was that one magical piece of advice that we could all follow to achieve happiness and success! Apart from a trickle of expertise and insights that my colleagues have been generously sharing with me, the most valuable advice is perhaps when a good friend corrects me knowing that I am not going to be happy about that. Whenever I am enraged by my friend’s comments, this is usually when I realise that they may be on to something!
Do you have any advice for the emerging generation of young mathematicians?
It is hard to give advice to young people, as their reality is different to mine, and they are facing very different challenges. I think we should listen to young people more, not the other way around.