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Women in Science

Helen studied maths at Cambridge University and then did a Masters, PhD and post-doc at Oxford. After a post-doc at Bath University, she held lectureships at UMIST and Nottingham, being promoted to professor in 2003. She returned to Oxford in 2011.

Helen Byrne


at the time of the interview - 2017

Helen is a Professor of Mathematical Biology in the Mathematical Institute and Director of Equality and Diversity in the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division. She has two children.


at the time of the interview -  2017

Helen enjoyed maths at school and describes how the environment, an all-girls school, with small class sizes and encouraging teachers, helped her develop her interest in the subject. She was particularly interested in how maths can be used to solve real problems.

She went to Cambridge to do an undergraduate degree in maths and found the contrast from school quite marked. Helen found the best way to deal with being in such a male dominated environment was to forget about or ‘ignore’ her gender and think “I’m just a person”. She did a Masters in mathematical modelling and numerical analysis at Oxford University and then a PhD modelling combustion in porous media.

Being a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful mathematician, and have a family.

This was followed by a post-doc, working between Oxford and Hammersmith Hospital and applying maths to modelling cancer. She went from Oxford to Bath where she was awarded but declined a post-doc fellowship accepting instead a 3-year post on a grant that she co-authored and then held lectureships at Manchester and Nottingham Universities.

At Nottingham, Helen was instrumental in establishing a successful Maths Bio group; she was the Director of the Centre for Mathematical Medicine and Biology from its foundation until she returned to Oxford. Helen has been the MPLS Director of Equality and Diversity since 2016.

Helen feels she was lucky to move into an area of maths (mathematical biology) that was new and rapidly expanding. She also feels she was in the right place at the right time in terms of opportunities. She thinks there are still inequalities between men and women in maths but is optimistic for the future. She thinks the Athena SWAN initiative has raised awareness of gender issues while also putting in place measures that are beneficial for all. Helen is keen that the expertise, skills and potential of women scientists, particularly those who have had career breaks, is fully recognised.