Kathryn Hess Bellwald


Professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Lausanne

"I like that I get to explore new mathematical worlds, guide young people in their research and be creative every day. And on top of that, I’m always learning."

My career path

I’m a mathematician and professor of mathematics at EPFL, so I teach, supervise theses and do research. My specialty is topology, which I apply to studying the brain. Topology is not a well-known field, because it’s not taught at school. It’s the study of shapes, but unlike geometry it doesn’t involve metrics. Topology is kind of like using plasticine to work out what properties shapes have and what properties are maintained when those shapes are deformed. It’s like getting around an unfamiliar city : you need to know how the streets are organized, not necessarily who lives where. It’s the same thing when you study the brain. Alongside my purely mathematical research, I work on applied projects. I worked with chemists and other mathematicians to develop a method to categorize innovative nanoporous materials used in chemistry and medicine and identify the most promising materials from among a vast database. I’ve also worked with the Blue Brain Project, the Swiss arm of the Human Brain Project coordinated by EPFL, which seeks to digitally simulate how the human brain works. And I was involved in setting up the Euler course at EPFL, which is designed for schoolchildren with a gift for maths.

My passion. I like that I get to explore new mathematical worlds, guide young people in their research and be creative every day. And on top of that, I’m always learning. I also enjoy discovering and creating new things.

My career path. Thanks to my parents, I was able to get very good at maths from a young age. When I was doing my bachelor’s degree in maths and physics, the only female professor I had was a physicist. She advised me to focus on maths because she didn’t think I was good enough at physics. She was right, and I’ve always appreciated that she was frank with me. Several senior researchers were supportive early on in my career, especially the professor who hired me as a postdoc at EPFL and really fought for me.

A downside or obstacle ? I don’t enjoy the administrative work that professors have to do so much, like sitting on committees and things like that. And it’s not always easy to manage a high-level research career and a family life, especially when your children are young. Switzerland is really lacking in childcare facilities, and it was even worse when my kids were small. And there aren’t many women in my field.

I’m proud to have contributed to furthering our understanding of maths, to have worked with researchers in other fields in order to apply maths in an innovative way and to be recognized as a very good teacher by my students and peers.

The Proust Questionnaire

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Au-delà de votre profession

Les maths, les neurosciences, l’avancement des femmes en science, les enfants à haut potentiel.

Des personnes qui vous inspirent

Sonja Kovalevskaya, Emmy Noether, Michelle Obama et Henri Poincaré.

Un livre & un film

Depuis longtemps, je ne lis des romans que pour me divertir, pas pour m’inspirer et de même pour les films que je regarde…

Un modèle

Sonja Kovalevskaya, une des premières femmes à devenir professeure en mathématiques en Europe.

Un objet

Un violoncelle

Une couleur

Le jaune

Un rêve

Faire la Haute Route.