Having recently returned from the 25th annual Women and Mathematics (WAM) program at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, the path to an academic career in mathematics is clearer than ever for fifth-year mathematics student, Kirsten Wilk.

Wilk grew up on a farm near Vauxhall, Alberta, and says that her high school math teacher, Nadine Schellenberg (BSc, BEd, ’08) was an incredible mentor and someone who always expressed enthusiasm about math. After attending an open house at the University of Lethbridge (U of L), Wilk was inspired by the passion she encountered from people in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science and, despite being uncertain what kind of career she desired, she decided to pursue a degree in math.

Throughout her time at the U of L, Wilk has taken full advantage of opportunities such as participating in co-op work terms, foreign exchanges and working as a research assistant with several of her professors.

“Going on an exchange to La Rochelle, France was an unforgettable experience. I got to live and study in another country for eight months, during which time I met incredible people from all over the world, learned French and gained confidence,” says Wilk, who was able to complete a minor in French over the course of her exchange.

She believes her experience growing up on a farm gave her the work ethic needed to succeed in post-secondary study. She has had the opportunity to return to agriculture through the Co-operative Education program and is currently completing her fourth co-op work term, this time with the Cereal Agronomy program at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge.

During her previous co-op work terms with the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science, Wilk had the opportunity to work as a research assistant with Drs. Habiba Kadiri, Nathan Ng and Dave Morris. A direct result of these co-op opportunities is that she has one research paper that has been submitted to a journal, and two more that will be submitted after the final edits are complete. Her work as an NSERC USRA with Kadiri and Ng led to a presentation given during the U of L’s Number Theory and Combinatorics Seminar in Fall 2017, as well as a talk at the 2018 Alberta Number Theory Days X conference in Banff.

“It was a valuable experience to speak at a conference as an undergrad, and to be able to meet other math students and researchers in the province,” says Wilk.

She hopes that her published papers, speaking opportunities and attendance at conferences will help with acceptance into a master's program.

Both Kadiri and Ng speak highly of Wilk’s ability to absorb new material quickly, along with her enthusiasm, determination and curiosity during the course of their research project.

“I appreciate how determined Kirsten is to work in mathematical sciences. She has enough confidence to attack problems and does not shy away from the work it requires,” explains Kadiri.

Recently, Wilk’s professors encouraged her to apply to the WAM program at the IAS, a program dedicated to mentoring young female math students and researchers. This year was the 25th anniversary of the program, and many of its past participants have continued on to become great mathematical researchers and lecturers.

“It was inspiring to learn about mathematics from female lecturers, in a room full of female math students, as part of a program organized almost entirely by women,” says Wilk. “This year, the topic was modern cryptography and I really enjoyed learning about some practical applications of math to the real world – one of the lecturers showed us the math behind how the Enigma machine from WWII was broken. This lecturer was from the National Security Agency (NSA), so she had access to an actual Enigma machine, which she brought with her to demonstrate how it worked!”

While her acceptance and participation in the WAM program was a humbling experience, Wilk says it inspired her to continue pursuing a MSc and possibly a PhD.

“One of the most valuable takeaways from my experience at the IAS was the opportunity to talk about math with other women similar to myself at various stages of their academic careers,” says Wilk. “For example, I talked to one woman who did her master’s studying the mathematical theory behind general relativity. It never occurred to me that this was something that could be studied from a mathematical perspective and it got me excited about continuing my academic career in math!”

After she graduates in August, Wilk looks to fulfill her dream of a working holiday in Scotland before pursuing a master’s, either in Canada or Europe, studying applied mathematics in either physics, astronomy or mathematical engineering.

“I am very proud to be a woman studying math. I’ve been lucky to have several great mentors in math, many of whom are women. I think it’s important for women to support and encourage each other in any discipline, but particularly in a male-dominated discipline such as math.”