Myfanwy Evans is an Emmy Noether Research Group Leader at the Institute for Mathematics, Technische Universität Berlin. Her research is in the field of geometry and topology in soft matter physics.
What did you train in? What are you working on now?
My undergraduate degree was in science, majoring in mathematics. My PhD was already in an interdisciplinary setting, officially part of “Physical Sciences”. It involved mathematics, physics, with some chemistry and biology on the side. Ever since my research has been swinging between mathematics and physics, depending on my collaborators and students at the time. My current research is focused on a theoretical framework to understand tangling in soft matter systems. It uses geometry and topology to investigate how filaments can tangle in a variety of settings, in the view of making a connection with protein and polymer physics.
Do you think of yourself as a mathematician or physicist?
Both and neither! Much of the content of my research is geometry, but the style in which I do it is more physics. However, I like to define my research via the problem that I am trying to solve rather than a specific discipline and I don’t like to be restricted by the methodology or traditions of a specific discipline.
What motivated you to move to this field of research?
I had already started in this general area as a PhD student, and it really grabbed me as an interesting topic. I finished my PhD with far more questions than answers, and this has snowballed into an array of research topics that I am still working on today. My motivation to continue in this direction is driven by my own curiosity, and a kind of religious belief that the results I am getting are so beautiful that they must be important.
What are the main challenges and the main advantages of working in an interdisciplinary team?
The main advantages are that everyone can bring something unique to the table, and the breadth of expertise opens really interesting research directions. I find that the students feel less constrained by their prior knowledge and disciplinary expertise, and are able to work on broad problems from many perspectives, learning a huge amount along the way. The main challenge is keeping the research also relevant to specific fields, in particular for PhD students who wish to stick to a more traditional discipline. Finding the right place to publish, that means reaching the right readership, is always a key problem too.
Do you find it particularly difficult to obtain funding? Or to get your research published?
I think that interdisciplinary research has become a big focus of many funding agencies, and in general I don’t find any major obstacles in obtaining funding from the standard sources. I find the same with scientific publications, where new interdisciplinary findings are often published. Of course, there are exceptions and I have a handful of examples of journals claiming that the research is “not physics” or “not mathematics”, without refereeing the scientific content. But these are few and far between.