2 april 2020

Anano Basilaia

(Interview by Mireia Martínez i Sellarès)

Anano Basilaia is a Mathematics student from Georgia, currently doing her master’s in Mathematical Sciences at Utrecht University. Since Georgia is going to be hosting the 10th edition of the EGMO in 2021 and Anano has competed in mathematical olympiads herself, we thought it would be nice to have her on our series on female mathematicians. In this interview we talk about her experiences with mathematical olympiads, possible career paths, and whether the EGMO can really help motivate girls to become more involved in mathematical olympiads and mathematics in general.

Mireia: I would like to know your thoughts as a former competitor who is now still doing Mathematics: do you think that something like the EGMO can really motivate girls to go to the IMO? Do you have any personal anecdotes?

Anano:  I studied in a special school called “Komarovi”. We had a mathematical profile and literally all of us were constantly competing in the mathematical olympiads. Also, after each semester we had exams in mathematics and physics and if you didn’t score high enough, then you were out of the school.

M: Wow, that’s competitive!

A: Yes, it is! But as I am a competitive person by nature, it worked very well for me. In my class almost all of us were very active in mathematics olympiads, starting at a national level. The boys to girls ratio was not very good in my class as we were only 7 girls and around 20 boys. Most of us were always in the final rounds of the Georgian national olympiad. Still, it seemed as if the girls were not good enough to be in the Georgian national team at the IMO, because in fact for as long as I remember it was almost always all boys. My female classmates and I were always in the top 50 of the country, but still not in the top 6 –and it is only six people who go to the IMO. So that’s why my classmate Elene and I decided to ignore boys and start competing with each other, only among girls, because it was impossible to surpass the boys. They were really good! However, I think one of the reasons for this might have been the fact that they were only focused on mathematics, spending all of their time on it, while us girls were studying all the other subjects and our interests were a bit more broad. I think that when I was in high school, if there had been something like the EGMO it would have been really great, because there were times when I thought: “Why should I keep trying when it’s only boys who are getting in the international olympiad?” If there had been something that had made me feel like I was good enough also on an international level, then maybe I would also have spent more time on practicing and would have gotten better results.

After school we had Olympiad Training, sometimes also during the weekends, and we would practice for mathematical olympiads by doing exercises from previous years. It was always challenging. Sometimes, we had so-called “Visa” exercise, and until you solved it you couldn’t go home. This might sound strange but it was really good for the people who were really competitive! I think the Olympiad Training played a really big role in our love for mathematics, because we associated mathematics in high school with having a lot of fun. We used to have mathematical fights where two parallel classes were given some exercises, got locked up in different rooms, and had limited time to solve it as a group. Then one of us had to present the solution while the others were asking questions. We had many olympiad-like activities in the classroom and it was really awesome. I really think that if there had been something like an international girls’ olympiad, we would have tried even harder!

M: This is hopefully the role of the EGMO!

A: Yes, and actually my school is participating very actively now! My former mathematics teacher Dimitri Arabidze is the one coaching the Georgian team.

M: As you probably know Georgia is the country hosting the EGMO next year, so you think this will have an impact? Since you were telling me it is only boys in the national team…

A: I think it already has an impact! My school has a facebook page where they post some student profiles, of students who accomplished something, who won an olympiad, etc. I see they are posting more and more girl profiles now. There are a lot of girls who are much more active now than four or five years ago. I also saw that they shared a lot of photos from last year’s EGMO, where Georgia also participated. I saw the photos, I saw the girls, and I know that it really makes a huge difference!

M: I am so glad to hear that! In your own personal case, was your decision to continue studying mathematics influenced by your experience in mathematical olympiads?

A: Actually it was greatly influenced by the olympiads! It’s because I really enjoy the feeling that I get after solving an olympiad problem. At first it seems so tricky and you don’t understand but then it clicks and you finally get it… I’ll never forget the feeling that I had during the olympiads, and that’s why mathematics is something that I love. The olympiads made me fall in love with mathematics.

M: And afterwards, when you finished your bachelor’s, what motivated you to continue and to come to the Netherlands?

A: First, I kept loving mathematics during my bachelor’s. (Laughs.)

M: (Laughs.) Important!

A: Yes! And also, since I love mathematics so much, I wanted my career to be in this field, I also wanted something a bit more challenging. That’s why I chose to come to Utrecht University, I wanted to try myself on an international level. When I sent in my application, I was asked to take some mathematics tests. Then I had an interview, and I was still not sure that, on an international level, I was good enough… but then it turned out that I was! And I think that if there had been more international olympiads where I, as a girl, could participate in during high school, then I would not have doubted myself. However, during my bachelor’s I did participate in a student olympiad where I got the bronze medal. It was in Israel, at Ariel University. My university (Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University) really tried to make me feel as a part of the world community of mathematicians. I was also sent to attend Asian Science Camp in Pathum Thani, Thailand. There were students from different asian countries, it was really interesting! Asian Science Camp was not only about Mathematics, but Biology, Physics and Chemistry too. We were in groups of five people from these four sciences and we had to do a project together, it was really about collaboration with other sciences.

M: So now that you are about to finish your master’s, do you want to go and find a job in the industry sector?

A: I am still unsure about it. Now I am studying Probability and Statistics, and I really enjoy both sides of it: the theoretical side and also the applied part. If I could find a PhD position that has both (that is, it has the theoretical side but it also works with real-life problems) I think that would be perfect. But I am also considering finding an interesting job, so I am very unsure. I still have time to think about it!

M: You are probably aware that, at the beginning of the Mathematics Bachelor’s, the division is about 50-50 between boys and girls. Then at Master’s level there’s suddenly fewer women, and at PhD level even fewer women. This seems to be a big issue and I was wondering if you have any thoughts on it. What could be done to address this situation?

A: First of all, I don’t think it’s only in Mathematics, I think this happens in most science fields —actually almost everywhere except for the social sciences and the humanities. I do know what the case in my country is: in Georgia it is very common to get married between the age of 20 and 25, and then of course if you have a child then you are going to stop your professional life for at least one year, that’s just how it is. Then it’s very hard to go back where you left: what I see is that most of the women who do go back to their studies or jobs, they mostly either just finish the studies they’d started and go on to find a job, or just find a job directly. So they don’t pursue higher studies because when you have children it is quite hard. Also I don’t know if it is a problem-problem, because what I see is that a lot of women choose that happily, it’s not something that someone else is forcing them to do (at least it should not be!).

M: Are there people with whom you studied mathematics who have chosen this path?

A: Yes, yes, in my Bachelor’s there were a lot of girls who studied Mathematics and later decided to get married and have children at an early age and who are really happy with their choice. Some of them have children who are roughly two years old now and still they went on to do a Master. Some others just found a job which also involves Mathematics, so they sort of stayed in the field but did not want to study further. Because, to be fair, to do a PhD you really have to dedicate yourself fully to it for about four years, it has to be your life! And when you have another human you are responsible for, you cannot really do that, or at least it is very tough. If you are doing research in science, the thinking process never ends! Even as a PhD and also as a professor, you always have to keep your research in mind: after working hours, during working hours, weekends, holidays, it doesn’t matter.

M: So do you think that you are an outlier regarding what you are deciding to do with your career, not having married yet, not having kids yet? Do you feel any pressure to do so at some point?

A: I don’t feel any pressure from anyone, actually the friends who are happy with their families and their kids are also really proud and happy to see me succeed in my career and manage to do a lot of things at the same time. But yeah, I think it’s a Georgian thing probably… (Laughs.) Back home, about 80% of my friends who are my age have kids already, back in Georgia I have five godchildren from my friends! So of course I sometimes have the feeling that when my friends are talking to each other it’s mostly about kids stuff and I cannot get involved in that conversation yet. But at the same time for them it’s really interesting, it’s like a whole new different world that I bring in when I talk about my life. So I do feel like I am a bit different from people my age in Georgia, but at the same time I don’t feel bad because of it, I am happy about it anyway! I am only 23, I still can manage to do all these things.

M: Definitely!

A: Something else that I realised is that girls seem to study better at school than boys. I think that, on average, girls are doing better than boys, however boys have more outliers. If we are talking about a child genius, it’s most likely a boy, but on average girls are smarter. At least that’s what I was telling myself in high school. There were these 10 boys and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get better than them! I was trying but they were just very talented. Yet, on average my female classmates and I were doing better than the average boys.

M: Maybe that’s what makes a girl’s olympiad a nice event, because it allows girls to also be outliers, to have the experience of “Wow, I am excelling at something.”

A: Yeah, back then even without a girl olympiad, us girls were focussing on each other: when the rankings would come out we would totally ignore the boys that were before us and focus solely on how good us girls had done. If there had been something just for girls where we could actually reach Number 1, that would have been great.

One last thing I want to bring up is that right now it seems that girls have a bit of advantage in the job market. For instance, I noticed that a lot of application calls mention that girls are “more than welcome to apply” if it’s something related to programming or science or mathematics. One the one hand, it is very nice because of course it gives me an advantage when getting hired or being chosen for a specific program. But, at the same time, when I do get chosen it makes me wonder, “Did I get chosen because I am a girl? Or do I deserve this over the male applicants as well?” So this sort of positive discrimination is partly dealing with the problem of women in science, but it also in a way doesn’t give you as much confidence.

M: Yeah, I agree that it is a double edged sword indeed.

A: If the option is there, then I am going to use it! But I also want to be the best for the job…

M: Exactly! Because I am me, and not because I am a girl.

A: Yes! It is very tricky. These are measures to fight discrimination but they are a bit discriminating themselves.

M: I think that what happens is that right now we are on one of the extremes of the spectrum, and we have to push towards the other extreme with the hopes that we will land somewhere in the middle.

A: Yeah, hopefully in 10 or 15 years there will be enough women applying for positions in Mathematics anyway and then these measures will not be necessary anymore. I think that as a girl sometimes it is hard to believe that you can be amongst the best in Mathematics, but I am convinced that we can. We just need to keep working hard and believing in ourselves!