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One of a few: exceptional mathematician Jessica Fintzen

Outstanding mathematician and Jacobs alumna Jessica Fintzen at a break during a conference in Sydney.

June 29, 2018

Perhaps you can compare her to a top athlete who trains hard for years to achieve a goal. Only in her case it’s not about faster, higher, further, but about mathematical proofs. “This feeling, when you have proven something new, which no one has ever achieved before, and which can no longer be refuted - this feeling is indescribably beautiful,” says Jessica Fintzen. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to take on all the frustration experienced on the long and hard road in reaching this goal.”

In her doctoral thesis, the 29-year-old graduate of Jacobs University Bremen proved something new and received two awards: the doctoral prize awarded by the “Association of Women in Mathematics” in the US and the Friedrich Hirzebruch Doctoral Prize awarded by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation.

“On the Moy-Prasad filtration and stable vectors” is the title of her Harvard University thesis. Only a few are likely to understand what it is all about. The prizewinner believes that there are two very different areas of mathematics that are mysteriously connected with each other. The German Academic Scholarship Foundation describes these areas as follows: “...a full understanding of which could have profound effects on our daily lives, for example in data encryption.”

When she was still at school she had already embarked on a quest to “discover the beautiful structures of mathematics,” as she says. Raised in Quickborn near Hamburg, she participated in the “Jugend forscht” [Young researchers] competition, became a national winner and traveled to the International Mathematical Olympiad in Madrid. “I find mathematics fascinating because everything is so logical,” says Jessica Fintzen. Once something is proven, it is proven forever. In addition, mathematics can be done anywhere - all that is needed is paper, pen and access to other publications.

How does research in mathematics work? “Reflecting, thinking, more thinking, reading other publications, learning a lot, thinking for yourself, thinking, learning new methods, thinking, more thinking, rejecting ideas, testing new ideas, trying out examples to get new ideas, testing different methods, thinking, reflecting, mulling things over, hoping for brainstorms, learning more, trying out more.”

Studying mathematics at Jacobs University was a springboard for Jessica Fintzen.

The springboard for her career was her mathematics studies at Jacobs University, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in 2011. “That was great,” she says, “because Jacobs University is an English-medium university and international. The relationship with the professors is very close, the groups are small and the fellow students are very good, which is an additional motivating factor.” She then moved to the US to study for her doctorate at Harvard University and was employed as a Postdoctoral Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Albert Einstein was once a professor.

He was undoubtedly a man. And when Jessica Fintzen looks around, she sees many men in mathematics, but few women. “From college to the postdoctoral qualification: the further one gets, the fewer women there are,” she says. What the reason for this is, is not so easy to answer. There is a lack of role models like her, and discrimination and perseverance are also involved. When she was a schoolgirl, she says, she took part in a competition in which a boy rejected her solution because it came from a girl. “I not only had to solve the problem, but also fight for its recognition in the group.”

Gender equality is much more of a topic in the United States than it is in Germany, she says. Jessica Fintzen has a clear position on this: “Women should of course have the same opportunities as men and there should be no devaluation of performance based on gender.” She is a mentor to students herself and is involved in the Association for Women in Mathematics. “I’m just trying to be present in the math community and show younger women that you can do math as a woman.”

She will do more math in England in the future. On August 1, Dr. Jessica Fintzen will take up her Junior Research Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. She will retain her job as Postdoctoral Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. At Cambridge, she hopes to indulge a passion that has recently been somewhat neglected: gymnastics. She not only masters mathematics, but also floor gymnastics, as a video by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation well worth seeing demonstrates.

This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs", in which Jacobs University is featuring students, alumni, professors and employees. For more stories, please have a look at