(Interview by Mireia Martínez i Sellarès)
Last week, you got to know about Pilar Bayer from our words about her and some comments of her own. If you already though that she totally rocks, brace yourself because this week and the next one you will get to read about her and her life as explained by herself: the good things and the not-so-good ones. Much can be said about her, but it is clear that she is a fighter and that her work and her career have paved the way for many coming after her. We hope you will enjoy the read as much as we enjoyed talking to Dr. Pilar Bayer!
Barcelona, 12 June 2019, around 11am.
Pilar: Griselda Pascual was my mathematics professor throughout my secondary education, which back then lasted 7 years. She was the “high school chair of mathematics” at the Institut Maragall: she was a mathematician and she had won the chair in Tortosa very early in her career and later on the one in the Institut Maragall. The thing is that when I started high school, at 10 or 11 years old, she was already the mathematics teacher there. I remember her saying: “Your first high school lesson ever will be in mathematics.” She was so tiny and so young! We were only 20 years apart, and she did look like a little girl to me. She was a fantastic teacher and explained things in a very organic way. So it’s not that I really liked mathematics, I just found it very natural. So when I finished high school I said to myself “You don’t know enough mathematics yet;” besides, it was what I enjoyed the most.
Here at the university, there was a “common course” for those who wanted to study mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, or geology. So the mathematics degree was 5 years long, but in reality it was 4 years long since you only started with pure maths in your second year. Griselda had a position at the university to teach some exercise practice hours, but I never came across her, she was never my teacher at the university.
M: But were you still in touch?
P: I would sometimes see her in the corridors, but we were not really in touch, no. But by the time I finished my degree I didn’t want to become a mathematician, I wanted to become what we called “a Miss Pascual.” (Laughs.)
M: (Laughing.) Because of Griselda?
P: Yes! Even my friends used to tell me: “You will become a Miss Pascual”. So it was very clear to me that I wanted to end up teaching in high school. I was just 22 so I felt much more at ease teaching boys or girls who were 13 or 14 years old, rather than…
M: …people who were just 3 years younger than you.
P: Exactly. So I got a position teaching evening classes at the Institut Maragall –Griselda hired me– where I would teach boys who were tired from a long day at work, and day classes at a newly opened high school, the Juan Boscán. The first day I arrived at the Boscán to teach –I had a class of 30 to 40 young girls– and the blackboards hadn’t arrived yet, and I thought “Now what?”
M: A mathematician without a blackboard! (Laughs.)
P: So I said: “We’ll go over the multiplication tables!” (Laughs.) I’d finished my degree in 1968, so this was in the academic year 1968/1969. But then one of this ‘universal constellations’ happened, and the Autonomous Universities were created: the one in Barcelona, the one in Madrid, the one in Bilbao… Maybe they already had some humanities faculties, but at least the science faculties –not even Mathematics, just Science– appeared then. They asked the mathematics chairs in the Universitat de Barcelona to go and teach there, but these chairs didn’t really want to, so the people at the UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) decided to ask us newbies who had recently graduated and offer us positions there: “Would you like to come to the UAB with a contract?”, and I said “Well, I am very happy teaching in high school!”, to which they replied “But we need people!” And not only this: “Please let skilled colleagues of you know, and we’ll take them to the UAB.”
P: Anyone! So some of us went to the UAB, where we started teaching those ‘common courses’. A couple of years later the need for mathematicians was rising and there was still not enough people, and at the UAB they were clear in that they wanted mathematics chairs. But you need to have done a doctoral thesis for that and I hadn’t. Besides, at that time the first research scholarships appeared, which was something that the politicians at the time created to support Spanish universities. So I went to Griselda Pascual and told her about the scholarships, and she thought those were great. But I was like “What am I even going to do research on?”, and she said “Well, nevermind and let’s start studying together. I would be very glad to do so, since it’s been a long time that I have not done any studying myself”.
M: Oh! Of course, since she probably hadn’t really studied for the last… 20 years?
P: 20 years indeed.
M: And there she goes and starts working on a PhD thesis!
P: No, no, no, we were not even thinking about any thesis! We just wanted to learn. These scholarships had just come out, and they required a chair to avail them, so we went and asked this mathematics chair, his name was Dr Linés. So we asked him, “Dr Linés, what should we do research on?”, and he said, “Before doing research you need to study!” So we were like, fantastic, let’s study. He asked, “What do you like most in mathematics?”, so I just picked up the books from the last year of my degree: there was topology, differential geometry, number theory… And with the number theory one I thought to myself, “Ah, I would love to know how this one ends,” because we had only gone through the first 30 pages of that book in class. And Griselda was like, “Yes, yes, let’s learn from the number theory book,” and so we told Dr Linés.
So Griselda and I would meet as often as we could: if we couldn’t meet during the week, then we’d meet Saturday evening. And we went on like this for about two years, studying quite some hard stuff: local field theory, global fields, and things like that.
Meanwhile, the UAB mathematics department is created within the faculty of Science and mathematics chairs start arriving. Where from? Catalan exiles had gone to Mexico during the war and had kids who had studied mathematics there and were now coming back as mathematics chairs. So among these Mexican people who spoke Catalan from 1936 –we found this very amusing– was an analysis professor, Carles Perelló. He is now already retired, but back then he came with lots of energy! He came to me and said, “Girl, how’s the thesis going?”, and I was like, “What? The thesis?” “Aren’t you working on one?” “I am just studying…” So I went to tell Griselda what had happened: this Mexican man, who speaks Catalan from 1936, came to me and asked me about my thesis. She said: “Look Pilar, this is no joke. For 20 years I’ve been wishing I’d done a thesis!”
Suddenly this professor who had availed us to receive the research scholarship for 3 years (we were on our second year) went and moved to Madrid. “I am going to Madrid. Dr Mallol, would you mind taking care of these girls’ scholarship?” “No problem, alright.” You see, with Linés, we would go to him once a week and I would explain at the blackboard, and anyone who wanted to could come and listen. With Dr Mallol, we asked him what day would suit him for these meetings and he was like, “I’ll let you know, I’ll let you know”: we ended up never going. With Griselda we started looking for research topics. I did many trips to France and asked French professors whether this and that had been done already. Two consecutive summers I went to France during the month of August because the library there was much more complete, two summers in a row I spent a whole month closed up in the library.
M: Yeah, because now if I want to find out what has been done already, I just go to Google Scholar and online journals. But back then you had to talk to the people who were working in the field, right?
P: Of course! So it would take me a whole month just looking for a topic. Then I came back with a topic for Griselda, and she liked it. But, you see, I’d never seen anyone supervise a thesis!
M: But wait, was she still working as a high school teacher all along?
P: Yes, she was. We would meet outside of working hours.
M: And you, what were you doing?
P: I had stopped working in high schools and had a contract with the UAB. So any time we had a free afternoon we would meet up to study and work out some problems together. As soon as Griselda’s thesis started having some substance of its own I started looking for a research topic for my own thesis.
M: And how long did this whole research process take?
P: We studied together, without a thesis in mind, for about two years. And then the whole process of finding Griselda a topic and setting it up took us about three and a half years more. So when her topic was up and running, I said to myself, “Now I need to find something different to work on!”
M: Wait, so basically you supervised Griselda’s thesis without having one of your own yet?
P: (Just smiles knowingly and doesn’t reply.)