Questions to Laura Schaposnik

Laura Schaposnik

Laura Schaposnik is an Associate Professor at the Mathematics Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. She finished her DPhil in Mathematics at the University of Oxford in 2013 with her thesis titled "Spectral data for G-Higgs bundles" under the supervision of Nigel Hitchin. From 2012-2013 she was Scientific Assistant at Heidelberg University in Germany and from 2013-2015 she was Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. In May 2019 Laura Schaposnik organized the Oberwolfach Workshop "Geometry and Physics of Higgs Bundles" together with Lara Anderson, Tamás Hausel and Rafe Mazzeo.


The first time you visited us in 2015 as Oberwolfach Leibniz Graduate Student in the Workshop "Differentialgeometrie im Großen". Looking back, how would you describe the impact of the Workshop on your research and your career?

My first visit to Oberwolfach in 2015 was extremely stimulating. The meeting was comprised of a group of mathematicians whom I mostly didn't know, and thus it was a fantastic opportunity to make new contacts, and learn about areas of mathematics that weren't exactly my own. At the time I was a post-doc at UIUC and felt honoured to be invited to an Oberwolfach workshop, but thought my research wouldn't be interesting enough to the audience there. However,  the organizers of the meeting approached me mid-week and asked me to give a talk and the experience was very rewarding. Moreover, the three page report I wrote at the time has been useful since then when in need of a concise summary of my research program.

Now you came back as an organizer of the Workshop "Geometry and Physics of Higgs Bundles". What was your motivation to organize the Workshop in Oberwolfach?

My experience in 2015 at Oberwolfach was truly wonderful, different from any event I had ever previously attended. In the past I had heard so much about the Oberwolfach workshops, and it had always seemed a place that wouldn't host events in my area. But having been there and seen how open participants were to my work, I thought it would be a great opportunity for my research community if we could have a workshop on Higgs bundles - the first on this topic at MFO. I was excited about showing the perfect facilities and the ideal research setting to a big group of mathematicians who had never been there before, knowing it would certainly stimulate new research and interactions within the Higgs bundles community. This is why I decided to find a group of colleagues who would like to organize a workshop with me, and whose research interest would align with mine in a complementary way.

How did you experience the preparations?

The presentations during the workshop were of very high quality - it was apparent that speakers had dedicated a lot of time to preparing their talks, and I would even say more than their standard for other meetings. At the same time, the audience also seemed to be paying closer attention than in other conferences, partially because they had a good amount of non-talk time in the middle of the day to re-fuel their energies. Having talked to my colleagues about the meeting, everyone enjoyed  took the opportunity as a challenge and an honour.

A week full of lectures and discussions with 46 researchers from different institutions lies behind you. What is your personal conclusion of the Workshop?

The week went very quickly and during those days I continuously saw happy faces of researchers sharing their mathematical thoughts - I was delighted to see collaborations being started between people that had never met before, since that was one of my main objectives when organizing the meeting. I heard from many participants who were at MFO for the first time that they'd love to come back and many asked me for details on how to make an application to organize a workshop, and how difficult it could be. Every time, I was very happy to explain how clear the application process had been, and how most logistics for the meeting are co-ordinated by MFO, making the organizers tasks be mostly about the selection of topics and participants. Having organized and attended meetings at many research institutes around the world, this workshop was certainly the one that allowed organizers to have the most time to dedicate to the meeting itself, and I'm most thankful for that.

I should mention that most participants were excited to see, for the first time, the arrangement of tables during the meals at MFO. However, after a few days most of us had sat several times with the same people, and so it would be very nice if a more standardized method was used to set the tables. Since a solution to the "Oberwolfach problem" was given recently (, and thus I propose the following process for implementing the table arrangement at MFO: Each table could be assign one distinct symbol. Then, each napkin could have a printed sticker with a sequence of 10 symbols: those would give, in increasing order, the table to which the napkin should belong to during each meal. Then, regardless of the name on the napkin holder, the dinning room staff could arrange the napkins by simply following the symbol for that meal number.

The MFO wishes to increase the number of female organizers and participants. From your point of view, where are we on the right track already and what else could Oberwolfach do to encourage more female researchers to submit proposals for Workshops?

I think MFO is doing a fantastic job when asking organizers to bring female participants explicitly - I think that this is the right moment to be actively encouraging scientists to be more inclusive and thoughtful about the subject. One further step could be taken, which for all my workshops I personally set as a requirement, which is to suggest to organizers that at least one female speaker should be chosen each day. Of course, these years it will happen that female speakers and participants will be considerably younger than their male counterparts, since there's a lack of older women (at least in our area). This issue is a point that comes up often in the meetings I organize, but once presented with evidence that there's not much one can do about the age gap, my co-organisers are usually happy with this proposal.

As for participants, for our meeting I personally did the "leg-work" of keeping track of good female students and post-docs I met over the years, and asked colleagues for their suggestions too. It was then possible to invite about 40% female participants. However, research has shown that women end up having more professional commitments, and thus we expected not a full acceptance rate. I think with organizers  actively searching for high quality research from women, meetings can start having a consistent higher percentage of female participants and speakers. It should also be noted that your program at MFO to support families is remarkable, and I'm not sure all participants knew about their options (I emailed most of those which I knew had children offering the assistance and they were surprised about it). I think that advertising this program more prominently would increase the acceptance rate of female participants and encourage future female organizers.

As for organizers, as I mentioned before, it has been a pleasure to organize a meeting at MFO, and the amount of tasks delegated to the organizers is very minimal. I would certainly advice researchers to organize meetings at MFO, and have been advocating for this to most of my female colleagues. There's a few areas, such as Higgs bundles, which I noticed have not been much represented in MFO workshops: maybe reaching out to leaders in those fields, and to post-doctoral female researchers, and inviting them to submit an application could bring new subjects to MFO.

Finally, I know that a few further things would certainly make the trip easier for a family with a young baby: for instance in our case our baby can't sleep properly in our same room, and thus providing two rooms, one for the child and one for the parents, would make a big difference.