July: Meet Malgorzata Peszynska

Malgorzata (Malgo) Peszynska is a Professor of Mathematics at Oregon State University and she has been at OSU since 2003. Originally from Poland, she received her MS in Applied Mathematics at Warsaw University of Technology in 1986, and her doctorate at the University of Augsburg (Germany) in 1992. She held various academic positions at Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw University of Technology, before taking on her first US visiting and postdoctoral positions at Purdue University in 1993 and 1994. After this she moved to The University of Texas at Austin where she worked in the Mathematics Department and the Institute of Computational Engineering and Science and Center for Subsurface Modeling.  She works on various applied and interdisciplinary projects with her students and with collaborators from oceanography, hydrology, statistics, computer science and engineering. 

My early interest in mathematics led me to a special high school program, an incubator for talent in mathematics where classes were taught by university professors. One of them called my parents to warn them that women in mathematics did not have much chance to succeed and therefore I should pursue other career goals! Undeterred, or maybe to spite that particular individual, I went on to pursue my studies of mathematics, first in theoretical mathematical logic based study of computing, and eventually in very applied projects and research environments in the United States. The farther I went, the fewer women I saw, and those I did meet, frequently adopted a one-sided lifestyle. And here I was, wanting to have it all, a life that would include a fascinating career, close family ties, and opportunities for pursuing my outdoors interest in mountain climbing, skiing, and sailing. This seemed difficult and I found to be always judged, sometimes harshly, especially by women who chose only one of these options.

What helped me in the darkest moments was exactly the very diversity of life. If I had difficulties at work, I could find solace in my family and friends. On the other hand, the friendships and support network at work that I established helped when my family was sick or things were going south in other aspects of my life. Dealing with sexist attitudes at work was easier when I could picture myself leading a climb or being a skipper. Juggling difficulties, multitasking, and negotiating transatlantic cultural differences in my family became a lifestyle, and it helped to build intuition and confidence when establishing interdisciplinary projects and collaborations with scientists and engineers across the board. 

Working hard at all aspects of life will give results, but if they are not coming soon enough, you should tell yourself that, as one of my mentors once said, “All you can do is work”. If there is an aspect of your life that you love, do not give up. If there is one you hate, give it up, even if means smaller salary. Stick to who you are but continue developing that notion of yourself so you can help the others. 

My mother gave back to community and I have been trying to follow in her footsteps. My career was influenced by many people I know and by many I do not know, and I have this eerie feeling of having had anonymous supporters. I try to pay it forward. Engaging in extensive professional service has given me a broad vision of the scientific world in my field and beyond. It is good to be in the limelight, but doing small things helps people sometimes in a big way, as does sharing the credit and being inclusive. When coffee needs to be made, roll up your sleeves and do it, even if you are the boss. Being open-minded is better and more productive than having snobbish attitudes, whether that’s about a particular scientific field, or one’s haircut. On the other hand, the best way to change the system is from within. If you work hard and have results to show, people will accept you more easily, which will pave the way for many like you to follow. 

Many find it difficult to balance the individual’s need and the drive to self-advancement, so natural in academic world, with the service, but I believe that in some mysterious ways, the principle “What goes around, comes around” has worked well for me, even though I do not have hard data or mathematical proof for it!

The hardest obstacles on my path were not computer bugs (of which I fought many), or poison oak on my son’s knees, or the students’ fear of (applied) mathematics, or snow on the trail in the middle of the summer, but rather the Know It All Network of people who fear change and resist those who do not.  My family and country have fought a variety of predicaments, and without people who had a vision for change, Berlin Wall would still stand, and we would continue using rotary phones. So what do you do with those who want to pull up the ladder so no one can join them in the paradise ? I have not yet found a universal way to convince them to open the door and let the light in, but hope you, the reader will help me. 

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