Spending some time abroad after my doctoral degree is something I have always considered important. I think an extended research period away from your habitual university environment is inspirational and has a beneficial impact on your personal and professional development. Apart from broadening your horizon it mainly fosters your scientific independence and self-sufficiency. Today, it is indispensable for young mathematicians to gather experience in several places of research before they aspire to permanent employment. The Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship offers an excellent opportunity in this context. It gives you the chance to spend (a maximum of) two years at the best international research institutions and to work together with eminent scientists.
Place of research
My journey took me first to Pisa for nine months and then for 14 months to Toronto. My research project had both analytic and geometric aspects. For the analytic part I sought the collaboration of Ferruccio Colombini in Pisa, an expert in partial differential equations, and my contact in Toronto was Prof. Edward Bierstone, a specialist in analytic and algebraic geometry. With the Centro di Ricerca Matematica Ennio De Giorgi and the Fields Institute, both Pisa and Toronto boast excellent mathematics research centres outside of their respective university mathematics departments. From January to June 2009, for instance, the Fields Institute in Toronto organised the “Thematic Program on O-minimal Structures and Real Analytic Geometry”. Taking part in this thematic programme turned out to be very useful for my Schrödinger project and led to many new contacts; I have already started working together with some of them. The Fields institute, which is next door to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Toronto, has been headed by Edward Bierstone since July 2009.
A big difference between North American and Austrian universities lies in the teaching system. Teaching two undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto, I was surprised by how naturally and implicitly the students held me responsible for their study performance and satisfaction. This may be put into perspective, however, by the awareness that they pay very high tuition fees. The recruitment for academic posts is also affected by this circumstance in that teaching experience counts considerably more than in Europe. Undergraduate courses, for instance, are mostly taught by postdocs.
At present, academic employment opportunities for young mathematicians are few and far between. In Italy, there have been hardly any vacancies for years, and many North American universities suffer from the impact of the financial crisis. So I count myself very lucky to be able to continue my research after returning to Austria within the framework of my FWF project for independent researchers at the University of Vienna.
People and impressions
Of course, a stay of two years leaves you some time besides work for getting to know the host country and the people. As someone hailing from the Alto Adige (Northern Italy), I am quite familiar with the Italian way of life, so Pisa held no great surprises for me in that respect. Toronto is one of the largest metropolises in North America and the commercial capital of Canada, which is still a country of substantial immigration. Hence, the city is a multi-ethnic place with a plethora of cultural events. This is also reflected by the most popular interpretation of the name Toronto: in the 19th century, the historian Henry Scadding concluded that this name came from a native Huron term meaning “many people” or “meeting point”. (This interpretation is nowadays rejected by many historians. They believe the name is derived from a Mohawk term for “where trees stand in water” and initially referred to a place near today’s Lake Simcoe.) The best things that Canada has to offer are found outside of the populated areas, where one can discover huge territories of relatively pristine nature. I was lucky enough to see a tiny part of them on my trips through Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
I admire your research. How many useful things have you brought to this world