Introducing Brigitte Servatius: There's No Such Thing as Can't

by Caroline Adenberger


Brigitte Servatius is Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, where she has been for almost 20 years now. Looking all the way back to her very first contact with mathematics in school, it becomes clear that she overcame many obstacles before she got to the point where she is now. But Ms. Servatius seems to see obstacles as more of a challenge than a problem.

 

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Asked about when she first recognized her talent and interest in mathematics, she answers with a fairly unexpected statement: "Honestly, I was a rather bad math student in high school. But one day, a special preparation course was announced in school for students who wanted to participate in the Mathematik Olympiade (Mathematics Olympiade), an annual nationwide competition for math students. Though I was a student in a Neusprachliches Gymnasium (a high school with a focus on languages), with only girls as classmates, it stirred my interest. That was in the early 1970s, and one can imagine that girls weren't really encouraged to participate in that kind of scientific competition - the popular opinion was that women were not 'made' for the natural sciences."

But in spite of - or maybe because of - this general perception, Brigitte Servatius decided to participate as the only girl in this preparation course, and eventually competed at the Mathematik Olympiade. It was the first time she had challenged a general assumption - and she succeeded.  She became the highest-ranked female contestant. When then Federal Minister for Education, Science and Culture Fred Sinowatz personally congratulated her for her success at the competition, she remembers "it was such a great and impressive moment, and I decided for myself to study mathematics after school."


At the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Styria, Brigitte Servatius pursued her physics and mathematics master studies. When the time came for her final exams, her professors at the university recommended that she split the two final exams in physics and mathematics - first passing one exam, and later the other. Since no one had ever tried to pass both exams during the same examination term, the final exams for both subjects were even scheduled on the same day.  However, Ms. Servatius didn't see any logical reason to postpone one of the two exams - "no one ever tried it before" wasn't a convincing argument for her. She decided to give it a try and pass both during the same examination term. It was now up to the university to reschedule the examination days for mathematics and physics. The university did so - and Brigitte Servatius successfully passed both exams.

After her master studies, Brigitte Servatius started teaching mathematics, physics, and chemistry at a senior high school in Leibnitz, Styria.  While she was teaching, she prepared for the next step in her academic career, pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics. But teaching at the high school was time-consuming, and the circumstances at Austrian Universities didn't support her intention of pursuing doctoral studies, either. She applied twice for an assistantship, but wasn't selected for the position. "It felt like being in a bone-crushing situation, like no one really took my ambitions seriously. At that time I happened to meet an American professor at a mathematics conference organized by the University of Leoben. He advised me to try my luck abroad and to apply at an American university for a teaching assistantship," she remembers.

And so she did. She applied for a teaching assistantship at Syracuse University in upstate New York. She got the position, and in 1981 moved to the US. Brigitte Servatius stayed at Syracuse University until 1987, completing her doctoral dissertation on planar rigidity. What can be summarized now in one simple sentence wasn't that easy and required stamina. "At the beginning, the biggest challenge was that I had to start from scratch. At the university in Graz, people already knew me and I had achieved a certain academic reputation. But in Syracuse, I was a complete nobody. I had already begun to work on my doctoral dissertation on combinatorial group theory in Austria. But in Syracuse, no one showed the slightest interest in my work and I had to choose a new dissertation topic." Even though she began working on a new dissertation on planar rigidity under the supervision of Jack Graver, she also continued working on her paper on combinatorial group theory and published it on her own. "The publication of my paper drew some attention my way, since no other graduate student in math had ever published while still pursuing their graduate studies. Once again that proved to me that, as a woman in a male-dominated academic world, you always have to be a little better than the rest. But that was not a new insight for me after my experiences in Austria," Ms. Servatius adds dryly.

After a short stay in the summer  of 1987 at the University of Ulm (Germany) where she enjoyed teaching in German again after completing her Ph.D. in the US, she and her husband, who is also a mathematician, moved  back to the US. The situation at Austrian universities had remained the same, with very few job and career opportunities in academia. "I remember," Brigitte Servatius says, "many colleagues of mine who were excellent mathematicians having to work as an assistant for years, always with the hope that one day they might get tenured. But for many of them this dream didn't come true; not because they weren't good enough, but simply because there were not enough professorships available. Many of them even had to go back to high schools and work as teachers again if they didn't get an extension of their assistantships."

Under those circumstances the decision to stay in the US was not a hard one. In 1987 Brigitte Servatius started her career at WPI as an assistant professor, became an associate professor in 1993 and finally a professor with tenure in 1999. But she didn't just become the first tenured female on her faculty. At the same time, she also raised a family with seven children - four of whom she had "on the job."

"I always had to work very, very hard to be successful on the job and at the same time also manage to take care of my family. Even the day after childbirth, I was back at the university to teach again. For a long time, all of my colleagues were men and no one ever thought to offer me some support, for example by covering some of my classes the days following childbirth. Once I dared to ask our chairman if I could have some days off for maternity leave. He responded: "We don't pay you to bear children." He made his point pretty clear, and I was back at work again the following day after childbirth. Nowadays, things have changed - this chairman had to leave WPI a long time ago, and the situation for young female colleagues has improved."

Brigitte Servatius' days at WPI are divided between teaching and supervising students and her own research. "There are big differences between Austrian higher education and the American system of higher education. In the US, education is regarded as business, while in Austria the public opinion - still - persists that everyone has the right to receive an education. One of the most striking differences is also the gap of quality in university preparation between Austria and the US. I think the Austrian school curricula are excellent. They prepare students quite well for university. In the US, however, many students seem to be excellent at filling out multiple-choice tests, but they are unable to do real calculations. Students have to catch up a lot in the first year, and most of them do - surely to some extent motivated by the annual tuition of $31,000. The ratio of professors to students is about 1:30. We focus at WPI especially on the supervision of individual projects. We are proud of our "Quarter System," i.e. we have four terms of seven weeks each that are taught per year. As a normal load, professors teach four courses a year, one each term. One standard course meets four times a week for 50 minutes. The rest of the time is used for individual training and supervision. It is very work-intensive, but it offers students the opportunity to conduct research together with the faculty and to be more practice-oriented."

This fall, Ms. Servatius again supervised a fieldtrip with 21 of her WPI students to Washington DC. The students spend seven weeks in the Capital and work with several federal agencies on different projects. "We have had this cooperative program with Washington DC now for more than 20 years, and we have several other partnerships with research centers in Switzerland and Thailand, for example." She adds: "It would be interesting to establish that kind of cooperation with an Austrian university, too."

Although Ms. Servatius has lived in the US for more than two decades, she still feels very connected to her home country of Austria. During the 2001-2002 academic year, she taught as a visiting professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, a neighboring country to the south of Austria. During her visiting professorship in Ljubljana, she touched base once again with her former university in Graz and also visited the university in Koper in Slovenia. "My hope is that the European Union will offer new opportunities and possibilities for research networks and academic collaborations," Brigitte Servatius says, "and maybe also an opportunity for me finally to do the work I do, in Austria . . ."


Contact information:

Brigitte Servatius
Mathematics Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609-2280
Tel: (508) 831-5361
Fax: (508) 831-5824
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