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Meet Susanne Ditlevsen

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Susanne Ditlevsen is a Professor of Statistics and Stochastic Models in Biology at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

Photo by Lars Svankjær

STEM to Susanne is "the foundation of discoveries about the beautiful world we live in". The start of Susanne's STEM interest goes back to her childhood, she mentions that she has always loved mathematics and was also exceptional at it already as a child. She loved solving all types of puzzles and shared a fun bond with her older bother, who used to explain to her everything from Einstein's relativity theory to showing her the square root of 2 is not a rational number. After Susanne finished high school, she decided to choose an artistic path, she worked as an actor for more than 10 years. But, of course the love of mathematics had always been within her and her intellectual hunger kept on bringing her back to mathematics. Therefore, she decided to in parallel to her acting career study mathematics. After enrolling to a major in mathematics, she became so captivated by it that she chose to change career paths and fully devote herself to this path. When Susanne was choosing her master's project she ended up choosing statistics and has never left since, but believes that it was a good choice. She loved it! "Statistics is a perfect combination of rigorous and fun mathematics with real world problems, where deep and logical thinking could help finding the right tools to squeeze out information from data." As a student, Susanne was a fan of theoretical problems and did not think much of applied problems. Later during her PhD in biostatistics, where she got very inspired by Niels Keiding, who was a professor and founder of the world famous Biostatistics department at University of Copenhagen. He taught Susanne to respect data, and opened her eyes to the vast and intriguing world of data science. Susanne considers herself as very privileged, as her job as a researcher is also her hobby, and that is I think a combination everyone should strive for.

In terms of Susanne's education background, she completed her a MSc in mathematics in 1999 from la Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia, Spain. MSc in statistics in 2000 from Department of Mathematical Sciences and then she went on to do a PhD in biostatistics in 2005 from Department of Biostatistics at the University of Copenhagen. During Susanne's career, she has many collaborations with researchers from other fields in interdisciplinary projects. She says, that it has always been very rewarding to see how the projects unfold with disperse inputs from people with very different expertise. The first hurdle is always to find a common language to discuss and work on the things, and to get to understand the scientific problems from different fields. It is fantastic to see how real solutions can only come from collaborating between different fields. Currently, she is involved in a collaboration with a group of wildlife biologists, where they try to understand the behaviour of marine mammals around Greenland, and how they react to climate changes and human disturbances. The biologists collect huge and complex data sets, that we could only dream of in the past thanks to the rapid development of new technology - but the methodology to analyse the data is still lacking behind, and that is where Susanne finds interesting and important problems to work with. Along with that, Susanne also works with more theoretical problems, where they try to understand stochastic processes, that is, something that evolves over time with some randomness, and how they can infer properties from observed data. These processes are pervasive almost everywhere, and can help us understand such things as how the brain works, the intriguing interactions between glucose, insulin and lipids in the blood, how pandemics evolve and how to combat them, or the dynamics of an ecological system and how it is affected by climate changes. If there is an achievement that Susanne is particularly proud of then it is her entire career as a researched, as it was extremely unexpected and he had never imagined that she could land such an amazing job.

Susanne is a successful woman in STEM, but there are certain changes that she wishes to see around her which she believes would make life of other women in STEM easier. Firstly, to get a career in academia today a young scientist is expected to be abroad for a longer period of time, preferably years. That is a challenge for couples with small children, and Susanne think it is a much bigger problem for many women. Even if experiences abroad are important and very rewarding in a scientific career, there is too much focus on this - as one can still be an excellent researcher and with a large international network even without being abroad for years. This creates a hurdle for some women who have to forego their career in academia, because of their other commitments to their family and children, therefore some change in this area would surely encourage more woman to pursue a career in academia. Also, as a standard on most applications (for positions, grants, etc) one has to state one's age and gender. Susanne think that some unconscious bias could be avoided by not having this information on the front page, and all applications should be sent in as anonymous, so the only judging factor is education and work experience. Susanne has also noticed that in some conferences, child care facilities are offered. This is a huge step in the right direction, and takes a huge burden off the guardian of a child, and creates ease for the people participating. For younger girls, Susanne agrees that role models are missing, and much needed.

Lastly, here are Susanne's closing words of encouragement for young girls who want to join a STEM field:

"Go for it - it is so much fun, and so rewarding!"

You can contact Susanne Ditlevsen on her university page:

I thank Susanne Ditlevsen for taking part in this project and answering all the questions in a very informative manner. I hope, your experience and STEM story will inspire a young girl to join a STEM field and excel just like you have.

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