National Mathematical Congress 2022
Interview with Karen Aardal
• What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Karen Aardal. I am a professor of Optimization at Delft Institute of Applied Mathematics, TU Delft. I have been in Delft since 2008. Before that I held positions at among others CWI, TU Eindhoven, Georgia Tech, Utrecht university. Since September 2021 I also am a board member for the domain Science of NWO for one day per week. My research area is discrete optimization. I like working on both theory and more applied problems, and recently I started to work on incorporating machine learning aspects in integer optimization algorithms.
• Why do you do mathematics?
Curiosity, fun, and the fact that you can actually help in creating a better world. The daily contact with students and younger faculty members is a very important aspect to me. It helps me to constantly (re-)evaluate what I am doing and how I look at many things. My main inspiration came from three people: My high-school math teacher who knew me better than I knew myself, one of my first-year math teachers at university, who made mathematics very visual and exciting and always took time for me, and my PhD-supervisor who set the standards for me both as a researcher and as a human being. I have also learned a lot from, and become inspired by, the many people I have cooperated with.
• What is a typical work day like for you?
Too many bureaucratic tasks unfortunately. Many bureaucratic tasks certainly fill a function, but the fact that so many of them have to be carried out by a professor is unnecessary and certainly not ideal. Most of my research is done in the evening and weekends. This balance was certainly better earlier in my career. But again, making appointment with students helps somewhat to also make it possible to do research during more “normal” hours.
• What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?
Fascination and curiosity, and meeting so many interesting people! Balancing personal/family life and work life is non-trivial. Dealing with negative input about the possibility of doing a good job and being a parent (read mother) has been tough.
• Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career?
Believe in yourself. Set your standards when it comes to quality and integrity. Be authentic. Listen to others, and dare to get out of your comfort zone. If some things don’t work at the first attempt, don’t get discouraged. Either you “gain” or you learn from it! Be prepared that there are both ups and downs and realize that this is part of life, and that some of these periods may feel long. Get a good coach/mentor who understands your vision.