Alumna Viveka Erlandsson Wins the Anne Bennett Prize From the London Mathematical Society

September 2, 2021

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Viveka Erlandsson (Photo Courtesy of Erlandsson)

By Lida Tunesi

Viveka Erlandsson (Ph.D. ’13, Mathematics) was awarded the Anne Bennett Prize by the London Mathematical Society “for her outstanding achievements in geometry and topology and her inspirational active role in promoting women mathematicians.”

“In a short period of time Viveka Erlandsson has put together an impressive list of accomplishments,” said Professor Ara Basmajian (GC/Hunter, Mathematics) who was Erlandsson’s adviser at the Graduate Center and is now the executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Mathematics. “With co-authors she has set up a general framework to solve curve counting problems, proving spectacular results.”

Erlandsson is now a lecturer at the University of Bristol, a position equivalent to an assistant professorship in the U.S., with tenure. She studies questions about surfaces.

“Think of the surface of a ball, or the outer layer of a donut, or more generally, a donut with many donut holes,” Erlandsson said. “A specific problem I have been studying the past few years is the following. Given a surface and a way to measure lengths, imagine you have a rubber band of length L that you wrap around the surface. How many ways can you do this and get different results?”

People have been coming up with answers to this classical problem and variations on it since the 1960s, Erlandsson said. Her work specifically focuses on generalizing the results of a mathematician named Maryam Mirzakhani — the first and so far only woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal — by asking what happens if you let the rubber band cross itself once, or up to 100 times, or if you change the way you measure length. At the moment, Erlandsson is co-writing a book on these questions, to be published by Springer.

The award citation celebrates Erlandsson’s efforts to encourage women in mathematics. She has conducted outreach activities in schools, mentored female students, organized events and colloquia for women in math, and worked with the European Women in Mathematics Association.

“Women are still very underrepresented in mathematics, and there is a real pipeline problem where the higher up you look, the fewer women there are,” Erlandsson said. Because of this, role models are extremely important. “The more women we meet in our career, the more normal it becomes and easier it gets to imagine mathematics as a career for oneself.”

Mirzakhani has been a great role model, Erlandsson said, and Professor Moira Chas of Stony Brook University. At the Graduate Center, Professor Emerita Linda Keen (GC/Lehman, Mathematics) had a big impact on her studies and career.

“Linda Keen is a well-known leading expert in complex analysis and hyperbolic geometry,” Erlandsson said, “who I not only learned a lot of math from, but just having a female professor of that caliber around made a huge difference.”

Her Graduate Center experience also showed that what Erlandsson calls the traditional idea of the “lone, eccentric, male mathematician” is a myth. The researchers, seminars, and visiting scholars made it a great place to be a student, she said, and Basmajian made giving talks and traveling to conferences a big part of her Ph.D. training.

“This made me realize that research is actually very collaborative and social, with a tight knit community,” Erlandsson said, “which definitely was a big part in my deciding to pursue a career in academia.”

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