23 Jun | Lincoln News | Women in Science

University of Lincoln Spotlight: Algebraist Anitha Thillaisundaram

In the spotlight: Anitha Thillaisundaram, Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Lincoln, gives an insight to the inspiration to enter the field of mathematics...

Anitha is a rare female algebraist! She was inspired and encouraged at school by her maths teacher, Cecily Peters, to join the school's maths team at the age of 15, and entered advanced maths competitions. But her long-term motivation to succeed in mathematics came from her father.

In her final year of school, Anitha was interested in becoming an actuary (a person who compiles and analyses statistics) - she was not aware of the option to become a mathematician. "I was told that you need a high level of mathematics to become an actuary and that it was a very prestigious career. It was only at university that I realised that I could stay on in academia. I found pure mathematics, particularly group theory (the study of symmetries), much more appealing than statistics!"

Throughout her studies, Anitha received a number of awards and scholarships including the Overseas Research Scholarship by the University of Cambridge, the Special Malaysian Award by the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and the Leslie Wilson Scholarship by Magdalene College, all of which went towards financing her PhD. She remained at Cambridge University throughout her higher education, until she completed her PhD in 2011 'Topics in p-Deficiency and p-Groups'. Although there were fewer and fewer females progressing with her through her mathematics education, she was not deterred. "We kept losing females as we progressed higher up in the education system. I never saw this as a problem, though, it was just the way things were. Some fields are just more unbalanced than others, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the minority is disadvantaged." Anitha has benefited from having two PhD supervisors, one of whom was female. Both are still a very encouraging and supportive presence in her career.

While she admits working in such a male-dominated field has its challenges, she says that every working environment has its challenges. What is important, is having supportive colleagues and friends at work, whether male or female. "I’ve had so many supportive male colleagues and former lecturers, that the small numbers of female key figures in my career was never an issue." Certainly she thinks STEM outreach to girls is vital, but it is also "good to have girls realise that their role models do not necessarily have to be only female".

Anitha’s current research is focussed on branch groups, which involve symmetries of graphical trees, and more generally on profinite groups, which are infinite groups of symmetries made up of finite pieces. She has also worked on group of symmetries which have cardinality a prime power and she is interested in the related Burnside problem, which is still open.

After completing her PhD, Anitha carried out a one-year postdoc at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India, and then spent a further three and a half years in Germany as a postdoc - two of which she was a Humboldt Research Fellow in Duesseldorf, before obtaining a lectureship at Lincoln in 2016.