Flemish professor on how maths can change the world


According to Ingrid Daubechies, Flanders’ best-known mathematician, maths can save the planet, but not without help from developed countries

Prize money well spent

Last year, mathematicians worldwide were stunned – as were many non-mathematicians – when the US-based Breakthrough Prize Foundation announced that it would award five prizes of $3 million each to honour the world’s best mathematicians and support their future endeavours. The laureates will be presented with their trophies at a ceremony next month.

To the barrage of journalists seeking to document their impressions, the five prize-winners said they hoped to use part of the prize money to benefit the mathematical community. 

That was all the encouragement needed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), to get in touch and suggest a particular good cause to which the donation of a small part of their prize money could mean a great deal.

Houthalen-born mathematician Daubechies steps down from her office as president of the IMU at the end of this year. During the four years of her presidency, she’s devoted herself to helping gifted people from many countries in the developing world pursue their dream: to become a mathematician.

“We have to act now, otherwise we risk the extinction of ecosystems that are still present in many developing countries,” Daubechies said last month at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (pictured), a high-level conference where young maths researchers from all over the world can network with top scientists in their fields. 

Sponsor a PhD

By “ecosystems”, Daubechies means the higher education structures that many developing countries have inherited from a former coloniser that are now under severe pressure. “In countries like Cambodia, Ecuador or Sudan, even the brightest minds simply can’t afford to become professional mathematicians or maths teachers,” explains the star of Flemish mathematics. “Universities often have a few good professors of mathematics, but in most cases they don’t have the money to hire or train assistants. So when they retire, there’s no one to follow them.”

Everything starts with a good education

- Ingrid Daubechies

Nevertheless, doing a PhD in a developing country isn’t so expensive from our point of view. Daubechies says: “For €250 a month, you can pay for a student to do a PhD in his or her country. With the IMU, we actively support this kind of sponsorship. That’s also why I wrote those emails to the Breakthrough Prize winners.

“I’d read in the newspapers that they wanted to spend a part of their prize money on a good cause. Well, I gave them one. And I must say they responded enthusiastically. It was wonderful to announce that the Breakthrough Prize winners had agreed to donate $100,000 each to the IMU to be used for its support of graduate students in mathematics in developing countries.”

What’s needed to really get maths off the ground in the developing world? “We have to create a critical mass,” says Daubechies. “The granting of expensive scholarships for the gifted to come and study in our universities is great on an individual level, but it doesn’t create a surplus value in their home country. That’s the big difference of the €250 sponsorship programme.”

A good foundation

During her presidency of the IMU, Daubechies also expanded the Volunteer Lecturer Programme, which offers universities in the developing world lecturers for intensive three- or four-week courses in mathematics at the advanced undergraduate or Master’s level.

Girls have more self-confidence if they’re in girls-only schools, studies say

- Ingrid Daubechies

“We make a list of all possible lecturers, and we provide funds for all living and travel expenses. The host university doesn’t have to pay anything, but we do ask that they provide a local assistant and that the course becomes part of a regular degree programme.” These programmes have taken place in Africa, Central America, southeast Asia and the Middle East.

“Everything starts with a good education,” Daubechies says. This is proved, she believes, by the observation that countries where people attach a lot of value to simply going to school are much more resilient.

“In South Korea, for example, everyone agrees that proper schooling is one of the key drivers of their prosperity. During the first years after the Korean War, many people were living in tents, but they were all sending their children to quickly improvised schools.

“Also, the Koreans show respect for teachers. This was also the case in Flanders in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was at school. It’s a cultural thing. I don’t see it in the US, where I live now.”

Closer to home, what does Daubechies think of the ongoing issue of encouraging Flemish girls to study technical subjects such as maths and science, including one suggestion to segregate classes by gender? “Separation between boys and girls in technical directions; indeed, that’s a problem,” she says.

“When I went to school, at the Lyceum in Hasselt, it was still strictly separated. I found that quite artificial. But when my own children grew up, I considered sending my daughter to a girls’ school. Girls and boys develop at a different pace. Girls have more self-confidence if they’re in girls-only schools, studies say. Boys want to be the best in their class – and this is even more so in mixed schools.”

Photo (c) Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation / C Flemming

According to Ingrid Daubechies, Flanders’ best-known mathematician, maths can save the planet, but not without help from developed countries.

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