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Meet Ozan Öktem, recently promoted to Professor of Numerical Analysis

Publicerad 2023-12-20

Ozan Öktem, recently promoted Professor of Numerical Analysis, spoke about the challenges of an interdisciplinary background. He pointed out some of the drawbacks of the current market focus of academic research in applied mathematics, and shared his hopes for a future in which academia rewards more interdisciplinary career choices and research directions.

Congratulations on your promotion! How long have you been employed at KTH and where did you move to KTH from?

Ozan Öktem, photo: private

Thanks. My employment history at KTH is somewhat complicated. I was first employed at KTH in March 2009 as part of the Center for Applied and Industrial Mathematics that was hosted by the Department of Mathematics. I then left KTH in 2018 to attain a visiting professorial position at University of Göttingen that was followed by visiting professorial positions at the Alan Turing Institute and University of Cambridge. These were followed by a chaired professorial position in Edinburgh in 2020-2021 and a professorial position at Uppsala university in 2021. I finally came back to KTH in 2022 to a faculty position.

Do you expect your duties to change after your promotion?

No I don’t. In fact, I held many high level duties at KTH during 2009-2018 that are usually reserved for full professors, like serving as vice director, and later as director, of the KTH Life Science research platform, vice director of Stockholm Mathematics Centre, and representing KTH in the establishment of EIT Health and Medtech labs. As such, I do not expect my duties to change notably after the promotion.

One of the things Ozan finds challenging at his work is keeping the balance between research and course demands: "The overall challenge is to find the time needed for pursuing research while also actively developing the course curricula in applied mathematics at KTH." There are several other aspects of the job that he considers rewarding: "Seeing the enthusiasm among students while teaching, albeit only for a brief moment of time, is very rewarding. Another is to take part in the personal development of PhD students as they transform towards becoming independent researchers. Finally, the freedom to select the research questions to work on is very rewarding."

Looking back to when you initiated your career, are there any thoughts you would like to share? For example, are you satisfied with your choices and academic development?

Prior to returning to academia in 2009, I worked as an applied mathematician (not programmer) in Swedish industry for more than 13 years at companies ranging from a start-up to a large international corporation. This time in industry was an important part of my scientific journey, which started with a PhD in pure mathematics but has over the years migrated towards applied and computational mathematics. A key driver for this transition from pure to applied mathematical work was my desire to solve challenges in sciences, medicine and engineering. In particular, I learned to let the challenge dictate the methods to consider instead of the other way around. Another closely related matter is that true impact requires developing tools (software libraries) for external stakeholders. This requires a substantial effort that is rarely acknowledged in traditional ways of assessing applied mathematical research. Also, looking back, my career path is highly risky since experience from research & development in industry is rarely appreciated in assessing merits for faculty positions in mathematics at KTH.

Ozan expands on this: "I would like to see serious attempts at valuing experience from applied mathematical work outside academia when assessing merits for faculty positions in applied mathematics. I know this can be difficult since such merits do not necessarily show themselves in terms of publications (one can e.g. look at patent applications or other commissions of trust), but I am sure one can do better than now where such merits are not counted at all."

Any further thoughts?

Another thought relates to conditions for pursuing research in academia in applied mathematics. Even though I have been able to raise grants to support my own research, I am becoming increasingly weary about the scientific risk in pursuing new scientific ventures. The reason is simply a concern that funding may be cut in case of a failure. Due to this, many of us in academia find it safer to work more with development than with open ended research. Such a development is unfortunate as it will in the long run adversely affect both the research and teaching environments at KTH. I therefore would like to see attempts at strengthening the faculty funding of research.

Finally, I would like to see more collaboration between various departments in developing courses. We have the Kaizen-meetings, but what I am asking for is collaboration across departments in actually developing mathematics courses for the different engineering programs. One would of course need time for such development work, but I think it is well worth it.

Text: Danai Deliogiarki