Chair of Number Theory, EPFL.
Maryna Viazovska holds the Chair of Number Theory at EPFL. In July 2022, she was awarded a Fields Medal, widely considered to be the highest accolade in her discipline and described as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics (a field in which the Nobel Foundation does not sponsor an official award). Maryna received the Medal for solving the sphere-packing problem in 8 and 24 dimensions, resolving a question that had stumped mathematicians for more than four centuries: how to pack spheres – such as oranges stacked in a pyramid – as close together as possible. Previously, the problem had been solved for only three dimensions or fewer.
Maryna, 37, is only the second female Fields Medallist – after Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014 – and joins a list of over 60 mathematicians to have received the prestigious honour to date. The Fields Medal was created in 1936 and is awarded every four years to one or more mathematicians under the age of 40.
After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine, Maryna moved to Germany to obtain a Master’s degree at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern (2007) before joining the University of Bonn, where she completed her PhD on modular forms in 2013. It was during her postdoc research at the Berlin Mathematical School and the Humboldt University of Berlin that Maryna took on and solved the sphere-packing problem in 8 and 24 dimensions. In December 2016, she accepted EPFL’s offer to become a tenure-track assistant professor. Just one year later, at 33 years of age, she was promoted to full professor.
3 questions to Maryna Viazovska
What do you appreciate most about working at your university and/or your department?
There are many things that I appreciate about EPFL, especially my colleagues and the atmosphere that we have at the school and in the maths department in particular. I also like the fact that EPFL is a technical university. I myself represent the “pure science” but we also have a lot of applied research – here, fundamental research meets technology and innovation. It is very interesting to talk to people with different mindsets who are more practice oriented. At the same time, it is a challenge to do fundamental research in a place where people search for applications closer to the “real world”. But I consider this exchange enriching and also as a mission to create a bridge between both sides.
In hindsight, what was/were the decisive factor(s) that got you where you are today?
There was certainly a combination of several factors. What has always driven me was my curiosity about mathematical research and my passion for the field. Looking for truly interesting projects to work on turned out to be a good strategy. To focus from the very beginning on such projects that are worth the effort and investment is, in my opinion, more important than trying to target scientific metrics, like numbers of papers and citations. Of course, the things you work on should also be interesting for other people but that should not be the target from the beginning. Furthermore, without the collaboration with my co-authors, the contributions of my teachers, students, and colleagues I definitely would not be where I am today.
EuroTech is all about collaboration across borders. What role has international collaboration played for your career?
My field of research is a very small field – there is only a small group of people in the world who can appreciate the fine details of my research. The opinion of those people and communicating with them has been extremely important for keeping up the motivation and advancing my research. In that respect, prestigious awards like the Fields Medal tend to be a bit of a trap as they are often given to one person, recognising the contributions of only that person. They also increase the competition between scientists. This is healthy to some extent, as long as it doesn’t undermine the importance of collaboration and of being intellectually open to each other.