April 23, 1965 -
Irene Hueter was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in the statistics department at the University of Bern in Switzerland. It was rare for a woman in Switzerland to become a mathematician working in academia. By the time she received her Ph.D. and left Switzerland, there were only two female math professors in all the Swiss universities.
Dr. Hueter was born in Bern, Switzerland. Before entering high school, she was often discouraged to like math as a girl and was pushed in other directions in spite of mathematics being her strongest subject. In the seventh grade, girls at her school were forced to take a sewing class while all boys took geometry. While the school did not want to make an exception upon her request to take the geometry, she still managed to learn it from her male classmates. In exchange, she solved the problems that they got stuck on.
Dr. Hueter attributes her first encounter with probability to an exceptional and gifted high school teacher, whose class on probability and statistics thrilled and intrigued her. She recalls, "It was in a talk I gave in his class that, for the first time in my life, I got a sense of how exciting and how much fun doing research in math could be." There had been no doubt about her talent in mathematics since her early age, yet this wonderful and critical experience made her pursue further studies in statistics and mathematics. Shortly after, a bright professor at her university also led her to see the beauty of many other areas in mathematics through his lucid lectures and thought-provoking conversations with her. He was influential in her staying in mathematics and supported her in her early career. She went on to earn her M.Sc. in statistics and mathematical actuaries in 1989 with minors in mathematics and computer science, and her Ph.D. in the area of probability and statistics in 1992 with a thesis on "The Convex Hull of n Random Points and Its Vertex Process" under the direction of Professor Henri Carnal.
Before starting her current position in 2002 as an associate professor of mathematics at Baruch College - City University of New York, Dr. Hueter taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Florida. As a female mathematician, she feels respected and comfortable working with male mathematicians. She does not believe that there is any difference in the talents in mathematics between men and women. In her opinion, women can achieve as much as men in the field of mathematics, and women bring qualities to complement those of their male colleagues, especially, in applied mathematics. However, she points out that hurdles for women mathematicians still exist in the distribution of funds and this phenomenon can limit women in developing and progressing in research.
During this interview, Dr. Hueter gave examples related to her research that demonstrate how probabilistic thinking and stochastic processes significantly contribute to other fields and to questions concerning many of us individually. She described how "we often perceive events in everyday life as being influenced by randomness. In the long run, patterns of our lives become more visible and predictable." As an illustration she mentioned that "epidemiologists applied mathematical models to foresee how to stop the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) disease or foot-and-mouth disease. In those instances, 'How many borders should be closed?' and 'How many airports should be shut down for whom?' were questions of great concern not only amongst European countries." Dr. Hueter mentioned that "since an infection from one individual to another can spread when there is contact but does not always spread, these transitions may be assumed to happen with certain probabilities. This leads to the study of the stochastic model contact process in which particles sit at certain fixed locations, exactly one at each site, and each of them is of two kinds: healthy or not healthy." Dr. Hueter has analyzed how far and how fast the population of infected particles grows under various probability assumptions and has examined the phase transitions that occur.
Another example of her research deals with random minimal spanning trees. She is interested in properties of the longest path between any two vertices of the tree as well as between the center of the network. As an example to explain the meaning of the center, she says "Since the restaurant business in Manhattan is competitive and dense, a restaurant's survival much depends on its location. If we believe that many tourists randomly pick a place after reading a couple of menus at nearby restaurants, then restaurants along busy streets will enjoy more customers than restaurants remote from the center." In her example, these restaurants are like vertices and the streets in between are like edges. She concludes, "The notion of where the center lies in the graph becomes important."
In addition, Dr. Hueter is fascinated with self-avoiding paths. She explains this concept of efficiency, often seen in nature and human nature, by starting with the example of an emergency vehicle driver who will always try to find the fastest path. She comments "looping does not make sense when one likes to minimize the distance traveled between the starting and end points. Investigating self-avoiding paths naturally leads to the study of self-avoiding random walks. How far one goes on such a path after n steps, especially in three dimensions, is a big open mathematical problem that mathematicians have been thinking about for nearly sixty years." She has a paper about this area in two dimensions that is still being checked, reporting substantial progress on a long-standing open conjecture.
As Dr. Hueter has carefully painted above a picture for us to understand the significance of her research studies, her thoughtful attitude also reflects on the leading principle of her philosophy in mathematical education, that is, to make mathematical ideas more accessible to everyone. She believes that people who are good at math are so because they have practiced this profession for many years. Based on this belief, every student in her class is treated equally and receives the same amount of attention.
If the saying "Everyone is a sort of genius, if you are in the right position of your talent" has some truthful meaning, Dr. Hueter firmly is one who promotes this idea. She encourages us to "Follow your inner voice. Be critical towards other people's advice yet consider it. If you remain true to your heart, do the right thing, and do it well, even if there is hardship, then at some point everything will fall into place." Dr. Hueter stresses the powerful combination of expert knowledge from different fields with mathematics. Therefore, she advises students to learn at least one other scientific field along with mathematics. There have been a number of students who have been inspired to accomplish their goals in mathematical studies by her passionate and unselfish support. After all, it is a big pleasure for her to help others to succeed and to watch them on their journey. Certainly, her spirit and her passion for mathematics will go on.