Making Waves in Math

Meet Dr. Kateryna Terletska, the Mathematician, Oceanographer, Science Promoter, and Global Talent Mentoring Partner Connecting STEMM Talent from Ukraine with the World

Dr. Katery­na Ter­let­s­ka has a lot in com­mon with the waves she research­es. While we may not notice the waves far beneath the ocean’s sur­face, we see the impact they have on our shores and in our envi­ron­ment. Like­wise, Dr. Terletska’s work as a sci­en­tist and sci­ence pro­mot­er has impact­ed many lives in Ukraine and abroad. When the doc­tor of phys­i­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ences is not busy study­ing the mechan­ics of waves, she is work­ing to give edu­ca­tion­al sci­ence oppor­tu­ni­ties to young peo­ple and oth­ers in the Ukrain­ian and inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties. Dr. Ter­let­s­ka also serves as the coor­di­na­tor of the UNESCO-rec­og­nized Junior Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine (JASU), which is main­tained by both the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion and Sci­ence of Ukraine and the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine.
The JASU is a val­ued part­ner of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing nom­i­nat­ing tal­ent­ed youths as mentees and STEMM experts as men­tors. Dr. Ter­let­s­ka recent­ly shared her thoughts with engage­ment spe­cial­ist Christin Graml on her work, men­tor­ing, and get­ting young people—especially girls—engaged in sci­ence and help­ing those who have already found their pas­sion to excel.
You are a sci­en­tist by pro­fes­sion. Would you please tell us a lit­tle bit about your area of STEMM exper­tise and your cur­rent research focus?
I have a strong back­ground in the area of mechan­ics and applied math­e­mat­ics. My approach to sci­ence starts with the research of waves in solids and con­tin­ues in the area of flu­id dynam­ics. Cur­rent­ly, I am work­ing on numer­i­cal mod­el­ing in oceanog­ra­phy. My field of inter­est is inter­nal waves that prop­a­gate not over the sur­face, but in the inte­ri­or of the ocean. Such under­wa­ter waves can exist when a body of water is strat­i­fied, that is, when it con­sists of lay­ers of water hav­ing dif­fer­ent den­si­ties. Such a phe­nom­e­non is usu­al­ly caused by a dif­fer­ence in water tem­per­a­ture or salin­i­ty. Mix­ing from break­ing inter­nal waves dri­ves a ver­ti­cal trans­port of water and heat through­out the ocean, there­by play­ing an impor­tant role in form­ing the cir­cu­la­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of heat with­in the cli­mate system. 
Since 2011, you have been work­ing as a senior researcher at the Ukrain­ian Cen­ter of Envi­ron­men­tal and Water Projects (UCEWP), which is part of the Insti­tute of Math­e­mat­i­cal Machines and Sys­tems Prob­lems (IMMSP). What are the main objec­tives of the UCEWP and IMMSP, and what are your respon­si­bil­i­ties there as a senior researcher?
The Ukrain­ian Cen­ter of Envi­ron­men­tal and Water Projects (UCEWP) is a research orga­ni­za­tion that applies knowl­edge in com­put­er mod­el­ing to water man­age­ment. Our team emerged in 1986 as a unit with­in the larg­er Insti­tute of Math­e­mat­i­cal Machines and Sys­tems Prob­lems (IMMSP) of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ence of Ukraine (NASU). Back then, the center’s main objec­tives were the mod­el­ing of radionu­clide trans­port in sur­face and sub­sur­face water after the Cher­nobyl acci­dent. Numer­i­cal mod­els that were devel­oped by the IMMSP were suc­cess­ful­ly used for envi­ron­men­tal health-risk assess­ment, envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing and ecol­o­gy, hydrol­o­gy, oceanog­ra­phy, mete­o­rol­o­gy, and riv­er and marine hydraulics. My respon­si­bil­i­ties in the team focus on numer­i­cal mod­el­ing of strat­i­fied flow, which cov­ers a wide range of oceano­graph­ic problems. 

The IMMSP focus­es on the devel­op­ment of meth­ods of math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el­ing of hydro-mete­o­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, dynam­ics of ecosys­tems and their cre­ation based on com­put­er fore­cast­ing sys­tems, and sup­port of deci­sion-mak­ing for eco­log­i­cal safe­ty and ratio­nal nature management. 

At the IMMSP, I am also work­ing on earn­ing my habil­i­ta­tion. The habil­i­ta­tion in Ukraine is a post­doc­tor­al research degree (in Ukrain­ian, “Dok­tor nauk”) that can be obtained after pub­li­ca­tion of a sub­stan­tive mono­graph and at least 20 arti­cles of high qual­i­ty. After obtain­ing this research degree, the recip­i­ent is eli­gi­ble to apply for a chair posi­tion at a uni­ver­si­ty or research insti­tute in Ukraine. 
What inspired you to become a scientist?
My par­ents were a big inspi­ra­tion. Dur­ing my child­hood, they sparked what would become my endur­ing inter­est in math. In pri­ma­ry school, I liked fig­ur­ing out prob­lems, solv­ing math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles, exper­i­ment­ing, read­ing books, and dream­ing of excit­ing new adven­tures. My enjoy­ment of math­e­mat­ics moti­vat­ed me to study the sub­ject in a math-focused school. As peo­ple pass through dif­fer­ent stages of life, they ask dif­fer­ent ques­tions about the world around them. For me, the main ques­tion was about the use­ful­ness of math—specifically, how math­e­mat­ics applies to real life. This ques­tion con­tin­ued to chal­lenge me and ulti­mate­ly deter­mined my path to becom­ing a scientist. 
Men­tors are like a life­guard in charge of ensur­ing that one makes informed deci­sions regard­ing impor­tant life choices.
Grow­ing up and through­out your career, did you have some­one who men­tored you on your path to excel­lence in STEMM? If so, in what ways was this per­son or these peo­ple influ­en­tial or supportive?
I had sev­er­al peo­ple who believed in my abil­i­ties along the way, begin­ning with my math teach­ers in grade school and uni­ver­si­ty. Dur­ing my post­doc­tor­al stud­ies, my sci­en­tif­ic advi­sor Prof. Vladimir Maderich has been very influ­en­tial. While work­ing on numer­ous inter­na­tion­al projects, includ­ing in the oceano­graph­ic insti­tutes in South Korea and Chi­na, Prof. Maderich sup­port­ed my ideas, inspired me, and showed me how to grow as a sci­en­tist. When I encoun­tered a prob­lem that seemed too com­pli­cat­ed, he always gave me ideas about how to solve the prob­lem more eas­i­ly through a series of small steps. 
Why do you think a men­tor can make such a big impact on a mentee’s life?
Men­tors are like a life­guard in charge of ensur­ing that one makes informed deci­sions regard­ing impor­tant life choic­es. Men­tors are usu­al­ly out­stand­ing indi­vid­u­als with a wealth of expe­ri­ence that should be shared with oth­ers. Men­tors help a mentee to grow and devel­op by shar­ing impor­tant pro­fes­sion­al or life lessons with their mentees. Aca­d­e­m­ic men­tors should inspire oth­ers by shar­ing ideas and explain­ing com­plex prob­lems in sim­ple words. In addi­tion, the rela­tion­ship between a men­tor and mentee is usu­al­ly per­son­al. A study by Microsoft about why girls lose inter­est in STEM (Choney, 2018) under­lines the impor­tance of men­tor fig­ures in young women’s lives in increas­ing the like­li­hood of them enter­ing STEM careers. 
In your opin­ion as a female math­e­mati­cian, why are men­tors espe­cial­ly impor­tant for girls and young women who are inter­est­ed in math?
For­mer UK Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatch­er once said, “If you want some­thing said, ask a man; if you want some­thing done, ask a woman.” There are sev­er­al stereo­types about girls and math. One of them is that boys are bet­ter at STEMM. This is sim­ply not true. A 2018 study pub­lished in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions (O’Dea, Lag­isz, Jen­nions, et al., 2018) showed that there was lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the STEM grades of the 1.6 mil­lion eval­u­at­ed stu­dents. More­over, girls had sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er grades over­all than boys by 6.3%.

So, we know that girls can do well in math, physics, and pro­gram­ming, but our stereo­types get in the way of girls being inter­est­ed in these dis­ci­plines. Our soci­ety needs to move past these stereo­types through inno­va­tion and sci­en­tif­ic progress so that we do not leave behind half of our pop­u­la­tion in this respect. 

I think girls’ low­er lev­els of inter­est in STEMM, espe­cial­ly in Ukraine, may be explained by social atti­tudes and beliefs about whether it is con­sid­ered appro­pri­ate for girls to choose these sub­jects and careers. Lim­it­ed knowl­edge about STEMM careers or career require­ments among stu­dents may be pre­vent­ing girls from choos­ing these fields. Men­tors and pos­i­tive role mod­els in STEMM fields can help change out­dat­ed atti­tudes. I was recent­ly fea­tured in a doc­u­men­tary series by INSCIENCE called “Naukovyt­si” (“Female Sci­en­tists”) about Ukrain­ian female sci­en­tists. The pur­pose of the doc­u­men­taries is to break down these stereo­types and show­case females who are suc­cess­ful in STEMM. 
What is your advice to females who might be afraid of pur­su­ing a career in math­e­mat­ics, which is a tra­di­tion­al­ly male-dom­i­nat­ed field?
For my young female col­leagues, I would advise them to com­mu­ni­cate with women who are more expe­ri­enced and senior. Female role mod­els are an effec­tive tool that gives girls the oppor­tu­ni­ty to not only suc­ceed in life, but also under­stand that women have what it takes to excel in an aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment and in lead­er­ship roles. Some­times, the “imposter syn­drome” or feel­ings of self-doubt can take over, which is com­mon for women in male-dom­i­nat­ed fields. We should remem­ber that we can still per­form well despite hav­ing these thoughts. It is impor­tant to keep this in mind and not for­get pre­vi­ous successes. 
You are known in Ukraine as a pop­u­lar­iz­er of sci­ence. For exam­ple, you helped orga­nize and were a keynote speak­er at a TEDx event held 2018 in coop­er­a­tion with the Kyiv School of Eco­nom­ics. Can you tell us a lit­tle bit about your sci­ence pro­mo­tion endeav­ors and why it is mean­ing­ful for you to tell the pub­lic about the impor­tance of science?
My col­leagues and I start­ed an ini­tia­tive called “Real Sci­ence,” which hosts lec­tures by promi­nent Ukrain­ian sci­en­tists for high school stu­dents. Real Sci­ence helps young peo­ple make deci­sions regard­ing their sci­en­tif­ic careers. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with sci­en­tists helps young peo­ple to train how they think. They learn how to dis­tin­guish good evi­dence from bad and what needs to be stud­ied in greater depth. This man­ner of ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing is impor­tant in many fields. Researchers are giv­en a chance to present a wide vari­ety of fields where sci­ence is applic­a­ble, such as med­i­cine and com­put­er science. 

Our audi­ence is actu­al­ly much wider than high school stu­dents. We orga­nize pop­u­lar sci­ence lec­tures for ordi­nary peo­ple of all ages. They have become quite pop­u­lar, as knowl­edge is an increas­ing­ly impor­tant resource and we all need reli­able infor­ma­tion. Admit­ted­ly, sci­ence can nev­er offer a uni­ver­sal truth. It offers the sci­en­tif­ic method with method­olog­i­cal­ly ver­i­fi­able inter­pre­ta­tions. We, as sci­en­tists and researchers, must mas­ter our skill of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with soci­ety. Sci­ence is espe­cial­ly impor­tant for a place like Ukraine, a coun­try with a Sovi­et men­tal her­itage, due to its con­tri­bu­tion to the func­tion­ing of democ­ra­cies and the way it dri­ves inno­va­tion and helps our coun­try to be com­pet­i­tive in the glob­al economy. 
Our Ukrain­ian mentees say that the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing pro­gram is like a ‘win­dow to the open world with its oppor­tu­ni­ties and perspectives.’
In addi­tion to being a sci­en­tif­ic researcher and pub­lic sup­port­er of the sci­ences, you are also the coor­di­na­tor of the Junior Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine (JASU), a UNESCO-rec­og­nized edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem for young peo­ple in Ukraine and inter­na­tion­al­ly. The JASU is also a val­ued part­ner of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. Can you please tell us about the work of the JASU, as well as how the JASU sup­ports the sci­en­tif­ic endeav­ors of young people?
The Junior Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine (JASU) facil­i­tates and coor­di­nates research activ­i­ties of high school stu­dents. There are ter­ri­to­r­i­al offices of JASU in all regions of Ukraine. The nation­al cen­ter, called the Junior Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine, coor­di­nates the work of these offices. The JASU is main­tained by both the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion and Sci­ence of Ukraine and the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of Ukraine (NASU). In each ter­ri­to­r­i­al office, we offer a num­ber of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties on var­i­ous sub­jects. In each region, JASU research com­pe­ti­tions take place. At the next lev­el are nation­al JASU com­pe­ti­tions, which are car­ried out in 63 dif­fer­ent sci­en­tif­ic fields. The win­ners of the nation­al com­pe­ti­tions have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rep­re­sent Ukraine on the inter­na­tion­al lev­el. The JASU gives tal­ent­ed Ukrain­ian youths the oppor­tu­ni­ty to par­tic­i­pate in inter­na­tion­al Olympiads and competitions. 
The JASU and Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing are part­ner­ing to bring young tal­ent­ed STEMM stu­dents togeth­er with STEMM experts from around the world. How do you think Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing can help young STEMM tal­ents in Ukraine? How do you think Ukrain­ian STEMM experts ben­e­fit by par­tic­i­pat­ing as mentors?
Our Ukrain­ian mentees say that the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing pro­gram is like a “win­dow to the open world with its oppor­tu­ni­ties and per­spec­tives.” Per­son­al expe­ri­ence of for­eign researchers is extreme­ly valu­able for Ukrain­ian stu­dents. Young mentees have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain con­fi­dence and cre­ate their own diverse net­works. Like­wise, Ukrain­ian STEMM experts obtain expe­ri­ence in inter­cul­tur­al exchanges, which improves under­stand­ing and coop­er­a­tion with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and cul­tures. Our men­tors have a chance to inter­act with indi­vid­u­als from coun­tries and cul­tures that they may have nev­er vis­it­ed before. Addi­tion­al­ly, our STEMM experts dis­cov­er dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems and are able to com­pare the lev­el of edu­ca­tion in Ukraine and abroad. 
What do you think is the most impor­tant aspect of the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing experience?
For me, the most impor­tant aspect of the Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing expe­ri­ence is the idea of men­tor­ing as an effec­tive tool to devel­op soft skills that are trans­fer­able across any indus­try. Men­tor­ing can be used to widen an individual’s per­spec­tive on dif­fer­ent fields and aspects of life. It is good prac­tice to pro­vide per­son­al men­tor­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties between col­leagues in the same indus­try or orga­ni­za­tion. We should encour­age more men­tors from the aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment as well as from busi­ness and indus­try to devel­op young tal­ent and there­fore boost eco­nom­ic growth in countries. 
Choney, Suzanne (2018, March 18). Why do girls lose inter­est in STEM? New research has some answers — and what we can do about it. Microsoft.
O’Dea, R.E., Lag­isz, M., Jen­nions, M.D. et al. Gen­der dif­fer­ences in indi­vid­ual vari­a­tion in aca­d­e­m­ic grades fail to fit expect­ed pat­terns for STEM. Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions 9, 3777 (2018).–06292‑0

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