Barbara Nelli

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Photo Copyright: Noel Tovia Matoff,

This is an EXCERPT of the interview from the catalogue "Women of Mathematics Throughout Europe, a Gallery of Portraits”, published in Verlag am Fluss 2016, infoverlag-am-fluss [dot] de, and featured among thirteen portraits in the corresponding exhibition See also the EWM newsarticle.

We would like to thank Sylvie Paycha, Sara Azzali, Alexandra Antoniouk, Magdalena Georgescu, and Noel Tovia Matoff for allowing us to use the interview excerpts. Moreover, we acknowledge the work of Veronica Corona and Joana Grah for editing the interview excerpts.


Did you come across obstacles in pursuing your career as a mathematician?

I started my PhD in Pisa and, in agreement with my PhD adviser there, applied for an Erasmus grant to study in Paris. There I worked under the supervision of Harold Rosenberg, at the University of Paris VII. After that I applied for jobs in France, but at that time being Italian made it harder to find a job in France, more so considering that my PhD adviser was American and not French. When I came back to Italy, I easily found a job as a “Ricercatore” in L’Aquila in 1997 – where I am still working now – on the grounds of the quality of my CV. Then I was confronted with the problem of getting a promotion. The fact that I wrote my PhD in France and not in Italy has influenced my career, both positively and negatively. Positively, because I work on a rather unusual topic in Italy, which gives me some independence, which I value very much. Negatively, because this very fact might have been one of the reasons why it took a long time for me to get an assistant professorship. I passed the “Idoneità” (a competitive exam which enables you to apply for such a position) in 2003 and was actually promoted in 2005. I am still not a full professor although I was selected for “Abilitazione” (habilitation) in 2013.
This is a selective procedure, unrelated to a position. Actually, due to the lack of full professor positions in Italy, particularly in geometry, among the fifty odd people who were selected for the “Abilitazione” at the same time as I was, only five were appointed professors and two of them are women. The statistics show that fewer women than expected apply to get the “Abilitazione”, in spite of their merits, which speaks to the fact that women censure themselves, a widespread phenomenon among women due to cultural reasons.

In retrospect, are you happy to have chosen mathematics or do you have some regrets? For you, what are the joys of mathematics? What are the hardships?

I have no regrets, none at all. Mathematics gave me the opportunity to discover the university world, which was completely new to me. Mathematics is very creative; as a mathematician, you are very independent and can organise yourself as you wish. You are free to think about what you like, to choose a problem and the way to solve it. I see mathematics as a creative job, rather than a useful job. Mathematics is made of layers, the upper layer cannot exist without the lower one. But when you reach the top layer, you do not see what the bottom layer looks like.
Mathematics is a very difficult subject, not easy at all! The difficulty comes from having to find a reasonable problem and an appropriate way of solving it. When you have found a way to approach the problem, you usually still have a long way to go before actually solving it. It is often much longer than you might have anticipated! I went through times of discouragement; a few years after my PhD, I was then already working at l’Aquila, I felt I had reached a dead end, I did not know what to aim for in terms of my research and how to go on. I thought of quitting and working for a private company and actually enquired at an insurance company. The little I saw of their way of functioning put me off and convinced me that my place was at university. I then found a new impulse to work on new directions of research.
Working with other people I enjoy a lot, because sharing an idea is the best part of having an idea. I share with someone who in turn shares with me. Working with young people is also very nice; as a senior mathematician, you have many things to tell them and in the best of cases, you get unexpected feedback from them; you give them something and get a lot back from them.
For a long time, I did not see myself as a woman working in mathematics, but simply as a mathematician. Only relatively recently did I realise, at a conference in Bonn, that there were only men in the room. It is difficult to tell whether I never experienced any discrimination in being a woman, or whether I just did not see it as a discrimination. I do not think I experienced any discrimination as a woman in mathematics, although there are hardly any women working in my area of research. However, interestingly, in Italy there is a higher proportion of women in mathematics than there is on average in Europe, even if not at the top positions. I believe that this is due to the fact that to be a professor at university, especially in mathematics (viewed as very abstract and not useful, no money involved) is not a highly valued job in Italy. So, it is easily left to women.