Professor Ulrike Tillmann FRS - Photo: Ander McIntyre -

Professor Ulrike Tillmann FRS

There aren’t many roles that Professor Ulrike Tillmann has not held during her time at Merton. She has been a Fellow at the College since 1992: first as Tutor in Mathematics until 2010, and since then as a Professorial Fellow. She has also been Women’s Advisor from 2001-2003, Principal of the Postmasters for a year in 2008-2009 and Sub-Warden for two years from 2012 to 2014 under Sir Martin Taylor.

Professor Tillmann’s route to Merton, after going to school in her native Germany, started in the USA with an undergraduate degree at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She then went across the country to California to complete a PhD at Stanford University. After two years as a Junior Research Fellow in the UK at Cambridge, she came to take up a post at Oxford and Merton – and has been here ever since.

Ulrike’s research lies in algebraic topology, and how it can be used to study global properties of geometric objects. This research, driven by questions in quantum physics and string theory, has helped to increase our understanding of the space of surfaces. Most recently, Ulrike has been interested in applying topology to data science.

At the undergraduate level, Professor Tillmann teaches various topics within the pure mathematics syllabus; she gives graduate lectures and has an extensive research group. Yet she is also able to explain her work in a way that is accessible to non-mathematicians, as demonstrated by her lecture on ‘Surfaces and Strings’ to alumni during the 2018 Merton Society Weekend.

Beyond the University, Ulrike holds a string of awards and is a member of many prestigious societies. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society (elected in 2008) and served as its Vice-President in 2018. She was elected an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2012; has been a fellow of the Alan Turing Institute since its creation in 2015; and became a member of the Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences, in 2017. She founded the Journal of Topology in 2007, and currently sits on the editorial boards of eight journals.

Last year, 2020, Professor Tillmann became Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee for the period 2020-2025. It was in this capacity that she gave the Royal Society’s response to the A-Level results last August, noting particularly the rise in popularity of mathematics.

From October 2021, Professor Tillmann will take up the posts of Director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and NM Rothschild & Sons Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge. She will continue her research collaborations in Oxford part-time. In November 2021, she will also become the President of the London Mathematical Society.

All these scientific achievements have been accomplished while bringing up a family, which is why Ulrike was one of the scientists featured in the Royal Society’s Parent Carer Scientist initiative. This initiative was set up to tell the stories of scientists who have grown their research careers while also nurturing family life. She says: "It took a relatively long time for me to get a permanent position. But I always had been very clear that whatever professional life brought, there had to be enough time for a private one." Her three children and her scientific career are testament to that.

Merton & Me

Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch, what was your first impression?

I realised that I was stepping into a world connected to the past and wondered how much it was in the past.

Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your first years at Merton?

My first college meeting: the room was overfilled, the Fellows engaged in a heated discussion of aesthetics versus tradition – should the windows in the Jowett Walk buildings be at the corners of the rooms (as per architects’ plan) or placed centrally on the walls? As the buildings witness, the traditionalists won! (I personally was more concerned by the plans to have baths but no showers.)

Tell us something about yourself that we would not know

In my dream alternative life I am a celebrated soprano.

What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?

Work hard, play hard, but above all always be a ‘Mensch’.

Describe Merton in three words.

Friendly; academically excellent.

A conversation with Professor Ulrike Tillmann

Three recent prize-winning Mathematics alumnae took the opportunity to have a conversation with Professor Tillmann about her career, women in STEM, and more.

Jenny Dingwall (2015, Mathematics)
Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) Prize 2018

Following graduation, Jenny worked for one year as a Mathematics tutor at Christ's College in Christchurch, New Zealand. In October 2020, she began studying for a PhD at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She is based at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and her research focuses on ocean dynamics.

Francesca Lovell-Read (2015, Mathematics), MCR President (2021-2022)
Gibbs Dissertation Prize 2019

After graduating in 2019 from the four-year MMath course, Francesca stayed at Merton to study for a DPhil with the UKRI-BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership for Interdisciplinary Bioscience. Her research is in mathematical epidemiology, meaning that she spends her time building and analysing mathematical models that describe the spread of infectious diseases through populations. In the past year she has been focusing on Covid-19, working to understand the importance of non-symptomatic hosts in SARS-CoV-2 transmission and the effectiveness of different interventions that may be used to combat it.

Zershaaneh Qureshi (2016, Maths & Philosophy)
Gibbs Prize for FHS Mathematics and Philosophy 2020

During Zershaaneh’s time as a student, she was particularly interested in the Philosophy of Mathematics, and her master's thesis in Philosophy explored the relationship between mathematics and logic. Since graduating in 2020, she has started working as a Research Analyst for a publishing company that covers all aspects of the global water industry.