interview to the winners of the ECMI STUDENTS COMPETITION 2021

The ECMI Students Competition 2021 was won by the two groups Mathdisk and Inetfomm. The selection committee run the following interview to the winners.



  • Greta Malaspina, University of Novi Sad
  • Stevo Racković, IST Lisbon
  • Filipa Marreiros Malveiro Valdeira, University of Milan


Blas Kolic and Arkady Wey, University of Oxford

Tell us briefly about yourselves and your education

Mathdisk: We are 3 PhD students enrolled in the BIGMATH programme – an EU funded PhD programme on the areas of optimization, statistics, and large-scale linear algebra for Big Data. We are enrolled in 3 different universities: University of Lisbon, University of Milan, and University of Novi Sad; and each of us cooperates with a company located in a different country (Serbia, Portugal, and The Netherlands). Our specific areas of research entail statistical shape analysis for 3D data and application of statistics and optimization for big data (Filipa), distributed optimization of biokinetic models based on large 4D sequences (Stevo), large scale optimization for network adjustment problems and distributed optimization (Greta).

Inetfomm: BK: My name is Blas Kolic. I’m Mexican and did my undergrad in Physics at the Faculty of Science of UNAM, Mexico. I’m now doing my Dphil in Mathematics in the University of Oxford, with a main focus in Applied Complex Systems. More specifically, I apply statistical physics, network theory, information theory and dynamical systems modelling into societal systems. I also enjoy music, travelling and getting to know people from different cultures and backgrounds.

AW: I am a postgraduate student in the Oxford Industrially Focused Mathematical Modelling (InFoMM) Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). I’m also part of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (OCIAM). My research interests are broad! My doctoral research is in collaboration with W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., and focuses on developing models for particle filtration using network homogenisation, a novel and computationally-tractable method for extracting global information from networks. Other projects I’ve worked on include agent-based modelling for pandemics, and mixed integer linear programming for stock allocation in supermarkets. In my spare time, I’m an aspiring entrepreneur, and I’m a fellow of the Enterprise Process Labs – High Intensity Training program, as well as the ImagineIF! pre-accelerator for scientific start-ups. I’ve been involved in a diverse range of projects, from helping carers of dementia patients, to developing software for the optimal loading of ships in ports.

How do you value initiatives like the ECMI student prize competition? How do you think they can contribute to strengthen international relations in Europe?

Mathdisk: Initiatives of this sort motivate students to have an experience with different areas of research, other than their main one. Besides, holding it as a competition makes it appealing, as it has concrete goals and a limited time frame, so it is a chance to dive into a completely different setting, in a motivating way. It allows us to get familiar with other methods or look at topics in a different way. It brings together people from across Europe within a common goal, promotes new collaborations and increases the connection not only from a research wise point of view, but also in a more general way.

Inetfomm: The ECMI, and similar organisations, are invaluable! As applied mathematicians, we love to work on projects outside of our usual areas, and so It’s amazing to be provided with incentives to do so. Competitions like these also encourage us to work with different people we wouldn’t usually work with. This is a great way to produce novel science, and, of course, it’s much more rewarding to disseminate our skills and findings as a collective! In short, relations between countries, and the research institutions within them, are much better whenever their research is shared. Competitions like this one, and the associated presentations, papers, and meetings, encourage fruitful interactions and useful collaborations.

What caught your attention in the subject of the competition and what tips about how to address similar problems would you give other students thinking of entering the competition?

Mathdisk: Two years ago we took part in a ECMI modeling week and it was a very interesting experience, motivating us to know more about this year’s COVID competition. This problem was new for us since none of us worked on modeling disease spread and their effects before, but after checking a few papers with similar objectives, we got the impression that this might be interesting and that we could find a solution. Even if we wouldn’t have been selected, this would have been an interesting experience, as we got to dive deep into a new area of understanding the process of modeling a disease, while working as a team and learning from each other as well. For other students – if there is a challenge that seems at least a bit interesting, and if they have a team they would like to work with, they shouldn’t miss the chance. It only gets better when you get invested.

Inetfomm: As applied mathematicians who have worked on problems related to the pandemic before, it was a ‘no-brainer’ for us to enter the contest. The Covid-19 pandemic has deeply affected the lives of so many people, and it was incredibly rewarding to work on something so important. For us, the two key ingredients in the recipe for success are communication and organization, particularly in a competition with a tight timeline! We are university friends, which helped us with this! It’s always a lot easier to conduct good science if you can collaborate with colleagues who you’ve already built a relationship with. Planning, and iterative problem solving, was also very important for us. We’d recommend that future competitors form a general and flexible plan of how they’re going to proceed before starting. It’s good to have a final outcome to work towards, even if this changes as the project develops. In our case, we started by exploring the data. Next, we looked at multiple model types and explored which ones worked well with data of the type available to us. We then discussed possible routes for testing these models, before settling on a model and producing results. Throughout, we constantly had the “what if this doesn’t work” question in our minds. Of course, in the end we had pivoted our original idea several times, meaning that our planning, and the iterative process, was essential.

The Covid 19 pandemy has strongly changed our way to work: how did you organise yourselves to prepare the project? How was the interaction with the partners in your team? Tell us a pro and a cons! 

Mathdisk: During this competition, each of the three of us was in a different country (Italy, Portugal, and Serbia), so we were meeting on video calls or communicating via mail and messages. Usually, we would split the tasks, and each member would work independently between the meetings, and in that sense, the distance didn’t affect our work. However, sometimes it felt like it would be easier if we had these meetings in person. It is easier to share the findings and ideas and maybe would lead to a more productive brainstorming (mainly because we often experienced troubles with connection or an audio lag). On the other hand, it requires us to be more organised with our work and to transmit our ideas in a clear way, so that we are able to work independently but in the same direction. So, our skills in those areas have improved, and as time went on it became easier to manage this situation and work together.

Inetfomm: Since we conducted this work during the pandemic, our offices were closed, and our meetings were all carried out online – we were not in the same city for the majority of the project! We used lots of Zoom calls, an active WhatsApp group, a shared Overleaf paper, and a Trello dashboard. Once again, the fact we already knew each other was a huge advantage, since this meant that it was easy to organize these calls and a group for communication outside of them. Since it’s not widely known, maybe it’s worth mentioning that Trello, which is an online shared-dashboard planner, was very helpful to keep track of what we had to do and what had been done already. We both agree, though, that this work would have been easier, and probably more enjoyable, if we could have met in person. We’d have loved to have sat with a whiteboard and discussed ideas.

What is the meaning you give to the concept of industrial mathematics? How do you think it can impact the present/future society?  

Mathdisk: People often think of mathematics as a purely theoretical field that has no place outside of books and classrooms. This cannot be further from the truth, especially today, with  all the technology and gadgets that people use daily. Industrial mathematics nicely directs researchers towards the specific problems that need to be solved, and this is what attracted us to get invested in this field. We work on different problems that have a direct application of mathematical concepts, and it is fulfilling to see that the research that we back up theoretically can be immediately incorporated to solve them, and give concrete results and validations.

Inetfomm: Mathematics is becoming increasingly important, as people continue to realise the value of using models to simulate real-world phenomena. Our reaction to the pandemic is a great example – many governments have turned to mathematical models to help them establish the best policy. The increased use of mathematics in industry is being further encouraged by developments to computational hardware. Modern computers have made it possible to collect ‘big-data’, and to execute methods for solving data-driven problems that were previously far too computationally expensive. This fire is being stoked further by the emergence of artificial intelligence as a way of extracting useful information from the vast amounts of data that are now available. In the coming years, there probably aren’t many industrial sectors that will not be improved using mathematical modelling.

Tell us about an experience as a student where you benefitted of an international environment 

Mathdisk: From the beginning of our PhD program, we have been interacting with students all around Europe, which gives new perspectives and brings more high-quality ideas to the table. We visited a number of international conferences, and these are the places where we had a chance to meet even more new peers and accredited researchers. Presenting one’s work in such a place is an experience in itself, helping a lot in advancing presentation and communication skills. Besides, getting feedback from a wide circle of researchers is great to become aware of possible flaws in your work and develop new ideas and get new perspectives.

Inetfomm: AW: My whole PhD research is based around an international collaboration! I work with a company called W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., which is head-quartered in the USA. I work with two members of their modelling team, and so we meet regularly. I would have travelled over there to visit the offices several times by now, but the restrictions on travel caused by the pandemic have made this difficult. Despite this, we have a great working-relationship, and meet online regularly. This international collaboration has been really fruitful, and we’ve produced some interesting research, which has been mutually beneficial!

In a short time, you will enter the job market as a young graduate: where do you see your future? Is your home country the place where you want to pursue a job?

Mathdisk: This is always a hard one to answer. We still have about a year to think about this, but currently Filipa and Stevo have a general tendency to move to industry towards more applied research, while Greta is more interested in pursuing an academic career. Being exposed to so many international experiences has made us open to pursuing a career in a different place than our home country, and we all consider that possibility. However, we also consider the possibility of staying there and, in the end, it will mostly depend on the opportunities that will present to ourselves.

Inetfomm: BK: The pandemic has taught us that everything is very uncertain. I see myself looking for a mid-term job in Europe; I am now thinking about either applying for a post-doctoral position or to a private company where I can further apply my knowledge in complex systems. In the long-term, I want to return to Mexico, which is my home country. I would like to bring back all the knowledge that I have acquired, and to contribute to the development of Mexican science.

AW: I really enjoy working at the interface between academia and industry. Once I finish my doctorate, I’ll be looking for roles that involve solving important real-world problems. I find it really challenging but rewarding to explain complex mathematical solutions to non-mathematical audiences. My future probably lies within the UK, since I have so much family here!

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