Student Essay Contest

Marie Demlova: Czech Citizen of the World of Mathematics

2002 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in Grades 9-12 Category

By Jason Novick

Think of the distance between New York and Alaska — that is about how far the Czech Republic, a relatively small country in Eastern Europe, is from here. Now, think of the distance between your face and this paper — that is how close the Czech Republic becomes in the small world of mathematics — a world with no oceans or national borders, a world of which Czech Professor Marie Demlova is a devoted denizen.
Marie Demlova is a professor of mathematics at the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic. Having studied, researched, and taught for more than 30 years, Professor Demlova is now head of the Department of Mathematics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, which “means a lot of work.” But this prestigious and time-consuming position did not come in a gift-wrapped Christmas present. It took lots of hard work, grueling hours of research, and a strong dedication to this field of science, which has amazed her since childhood.
As a grammar school student, Professor Demlova attended special mathematics courses offered at a planetarium near her home, which she enjoyed immensely. She went on to study mathematics in college, and graduated from the Faculty (Division) of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague in 1972. She acquired her RNDr. (doctor of natural sciences) degree in 1974, after passing an examination in mathematics defense of a mathematical thesis, and her Ph.D. in 1978. She joined the faculty of the place she now calls home, the Czech Technical University, Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Department of Mathematics, in 1975, first as an assistant professor, and from 1991 as an associate professor. Finally, in 1999, after many long years of schooling, research and teaching, Marie Demlova was named full professor by the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, in a special ceremony given to all new professors, which demonstrates the great prestige and reverence of the title.
Marie Demlova has overcome many obstacles to be as successful as she is today. Although she did not experience any of what she would call “discrimination” being a female in mathematics, she did find difficult times “as a woman and mother in a Communist state.” Beginning in 1948 when the Communist party seized power, the people of the modern Czech and Slovak Republics led stringent lives under the harsh and restrictive rule of the Communist regime. Professor Demlova, being a wife and mother while working feverishly to complete her research, found living in Czechoslovakia at this time extremely difficult. Her travel was limited to only Communist-controlled areas such as Poland, Hungary, East Germany and other parts of Czechoslovakia, which made expanding her knowledge of her field of math very difficult. She was only allowed to leave the sphere of Communist domination once with special permission from the Communist faculty members of the university when she went to Oberwolfach, West Germany for a conference. In addition to the tight restrictions placed on travel, Professor Demolova’s research was limited by hindrances she experienced trying to publish the findings of her studies — she was unable to publish any of her works in any international journal with the support of and attribution to her university. On top of all the struggles she experienced with advancing her career, her responsibilities as a mother only served to augment the difficulty of life in Communist Czechoslovakia. Although life and learning were very challenging for her, Professor Demlova pulled through and managed to handle all of her obligations until the Soviet Union and the institution of Communism collapsed in 1989.
After 1989, the world seemed to have blown up to 30 times its size for Professor Demlova. The restrictions on travel and communication she previously endured were suddenly no longer existent, and she and her family immediately took advantage of it. She ventured to other parts of Europe for mathematics conferences and invited foreign mathematicians to Prague, while her two sons attended college in England. Then, in 1999, the globe truly shrank for Professor Demlova when she left the Czech Republic and Europe and traveled to the United States to meet with American mathematicians at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. In this enlightening experience, Professor Demlova realized how small the world really is by the similarities she found between her and mathematicians from more than 4000 miles away. These mathematicians spoke the same language (English) and specialized in the same field as she, making the differences between her and the Americans far fewer than the thousands of miles separating their respective lands.
Professor Demlova is currently involved in research as well as teaching students at the Czech Technical University. She received a grant from the Czech Grant Agency to finance her research in semigroup theory. In basic terms, the theory of semigroups studies the associativity law (as we know it from addition of real numbers or multiplication of real numbers, (a + b) + c = a + (b + c) and (a x b) x c = a x (b x c)), properties of operations satisfying the law, how these operations are built, and where such structures can be applied. Professor Demlova’s contribution to this theory and her most proud accomplishment is “how the more complicated semigroups are built from easier ones.”
In addition to her studies on semigroups, Professor Demlova is involved in a Socrates project with Bristol University, UK, a mission supported by the European Union to promote the exchange of university students and teachers from universities in the EU and post-Communist countries, and the CEEPUS project of Modern Methods in Teaching Mathematics, a project similar to Socrates but only involving Austria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. Finally, Professor Demlova belongs to the EWM, European Women in Mathematics, as regional (Czech Republic) and international (Central Europe) coordinator and member of the Standing Committee. The EWM, she says, deals with “showing young girls that math is not only for boys” and helping female mathematicians get information about conferences and job opportunities. Being an active female participant in the world of mathematics, Professor Demlova is very proud to be a big part of the EWM.
With all the difficulties and challenges working in mathematics has brought Professor Marie Demlova, what she finds most rewarding is to “finally understand something that was unknown to me [before].” Although she believes that sometimes her work and the work of other mathematicians goes unnoticed because “people have fears of mathematics and mathematicians — it [mathematics] is not easy and needs a specific way of thinking,” she is proud of what she does and all that she has accomplished in her 30 years of study. Speaking to all children interested in mathematics around the world, she says, “Mathematics is a fascinating branch of science — rather hard, but wonderful.”
About the author: My name is Jason Novick. I am a high school junior (11th grade) at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens, New York City. Although math is not my favorite subject, I do very well in the class and I will admit that I do enjoy certain parts. I like algebra and sometimes trig and geometry, but I hate probability.
What is most interesting about my essay is how I came in contact with Professor Demlova. I am involved in a Student Exchange Program sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in which a student from the Czech Republic, Aleš Hamhalter, has been living with my family and me for 3 1/2 months from the end of August to the middle of December of this year. Both of Aleš’s parents are involved in math — his mother is a high school math teacher and his father is a mathematician and professor at the Czech Technical University in Prague. At first I wanted to interview Aleš’s mother, but because she is not a research mathematician, I decided instead to e-mail Mr. Hamhalter and ask him if he would put me in contact with one of his female colleagues. He gave me Professor Demlova’s e-mail address and I contacted her about the interview. She was eager to be the subject of my essay and gladly answered all of my questions. In January 2003, I will be going to live in Prague with Aleš and his family for 4 1/2 months, until the middle of June. While there, I look forward to meeting Professor Demlova face to face, shaking her hand, and personally thanking her for her time and patience in being the subject of my interview.
I believe that through this contest, I have learned not only about the career of a fascinating and successful female mathematician, but also about the cultural and political differences that exist in this large world, and how much they are not part of the small world of mathematics.