National Mathematical Congress 2022
Interview with Nataša Jonoska
• What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Nataša Jonoska and I am a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Florida in Tampa FL, USA. I am also a senior member at the Southeast Center of Mathematics and Biology housed at Georgia Tech university in Atlanta GA. My research interest is in discrete and topological models of biomolecular processes, and I have been collaborating with experimental labs in Columbia University, NYU and Georgia Tech for many years.
• Why do you do mathematics?
Math came naturally to me, since high school when I attended a specialized mathematics grade school. I found math problems as puzzles, fun to solve them. After interactions with molecular and structural biologists, I realized there are lots of math puzzles in these fields as well, but as mathematicians, we are just not looking there for problems. Many problems arising form other fields can be developed in new mathematics, some useful to the other fields, but mostly fun to math.
• What is a typical work day like for you?
Oh, I wish I am back in early career days when the main thing I had to think about was my research and teaching, when I was able to spend several hours on a problem. Once I started having students and funding, things slowly moved more towards administration. Nowadays, I teach two days of the week, I manage several projects, and I am in constant mode of writing and administering grants and reports. I have daily meetings with students, postdocs and experimental labs. Most of the time we talk about their updates on projects and where to go next, but me personally, I have very little time to spend on deep thinking on a problem.
• What keeps you in research? Have you had to overcome any barriers or problems?
Curiosity, cool new things to learn and understand, that is what keeps me in the field. Of course, there were several obstacles to overcome, professionally, I started my interest in biomolecular science right before I got tenure, and it was difficult to convince pure mathematicians that my work may be of value, then I had to learn molecular biology, and spent a sabbatical in a chemistry lab where I did my own experimental work before I started significant collaboration with experimentalists. I had to balance my family life with the professional one. I was lucky that my husband is also a mathematician, although in a completely separate field, his understanding of the academic life made my inclusion in it easier.
• Do you have any advice for others who are starting a mathematical career?
Keep an open mind, listen to what others have to say and seek interesting conversations with people. Often there are talks in math that are “far from ones field”. Sure, but one never knows where the next idea will come from. Sometimes it is just a side comment in a talk that will click. And always try to have a good set of collaborators with whom you are comfortable to work with.