ScienceCommunication

Susan Okereke

Susan Okereke

Born in Liverpool, UK • Studied Mathematics and Business Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK • Highest Degree Master’s in Teaching (MTeach) from the UCL Institute of Education, UK • Lives in London, UK • Occupation maths teacher, maths communicator and education consultant

I love teaching maths! I am a maths communicator and teacher and I passionately believe that numeracy is an essential basic skill that everyone should have – like reading and writing – and every student should leave school competent and confident in it. Sadly, I am aware this is not the case for many students in the UK and I am trying to use my expertise and experience to help improve this situation.

I began to understand the importance maths education plays in society and realised that maths teachers have a crucial role in making the world a fairer place

As a teacher, I have a keen interest in teaching and learning. I believe that teachers should be model learners, so a few years ago, I decided to do a Master’s in Teaching (MTeach) at the UCL Institute of Education. The Master’s looked at what is needed for ‘effective’ learning to take place, exploring the complex relationship between learner, teacher and their environment. It opened my eyes to how education can transform people’s lives, especially maths education. I began to understand the importance maths education plays in society and realised that maths teachers have a crucial role in making the world a fairer place, with recent data by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills.

My Master’s dissertation analysed the effectiveness of a targeted maths intervention on students’ attainment and reflected on the challenges secondary schools face when implementing interventions. Working on my dissertation clarified the fact that I want to use my expertise to bridge the gap between primary, secondary and further education maths learning, supporting all students to feel confident in maths, especially our most disadvantaged students. I believe the key to bridging this gap is to ensure all students have solid basic maths skills and a positive attitude to maths and this starts with good maths teaching.

Completing my Master’s ignited my interest in finding ways to present maths that are accessible and engaging for everyone, especially people who find it challenging. My work as a maths communicator is an extension of this mission.

Maths has a reputation for being boring, difficult and irrelevant to people’s lives and many people are intimidated by the subject because they believe ‘you are either right or wrong’ and that is all that matters. I’m on a mission to challenge this common misconception. Maths is so much more than the final correct answer, it is about seeing patterns, making connections and solving problems, which is an emotional and collaborative process and can be a lot of fun.

Completing my Master’s ignited my interest in finding ways to present maths that are accessible and engaging for everyone, especially people who find it challenging. My work as a maths communicator is an extension of this mission. Over the years I have been involved in a variety of amazing maths events and projects for students, teachers and the general public. Events that strive to bring maths to life for audiences by highlighting the weird and wonderful places maths can be found, which I share on my blog www.DoTheMathsThing.com. Also, the podcast Maths Appeal I co-host with TV personality and fellow maths teacher, Bobby Seagull, presents maths in an accessible way by including maths puzzles and interviews with maths champions from the worlds of tech, entertainment, comedy and education.

Engaging in this range of maths-based endeavours has made me realise I am on a lifelong learning journey with maths education and I hope to take my students, listeners and readers with me as I try to show that maths is everywhere and for everyone.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Rachel Thomas

Rachel Thomas

Born in Perth, Australia • Birth year 1974 Studied Mathematics at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia • Highest Degree MSc (Research) in Pure Mathematics • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

When I started university, I planned to be a physicist or astronomer – I can’t deny I was heavily influenced by a love of scifi! I had a great time working in a gravity wave lab one summer, but the experience also made me realise I didn’t have the patience or practical ingenuity to be an experimental scientist. I found the theory fascinating. But at the lab flanges wouldn’t seal properly and huge niobium bars couldn’t be cooled low enough – I wasn’t as fascinated by the practical experimental problem solving.

I then remembered my other film-influenced career plan of becoming an archaeologist and took courses in Australian archaeology and Greek art and architecture. I had a brilliant time but again, I realised I didn’t have the patience required for the field work and analysis. I spent weeks trying (and not really succeeding) to make sense of tray after tray of very small grubby objects that I had dug up. I loved the ideas behind both of these glamorous careers, but the actual nitty gritty doing of the work just didn’t excite me.

Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with.

In the meantime, I’d been doing maths all along and I loved it. Originally, I took maths because I needed it to study physics. Then I kept studying maths because it turned out to be really fun. I really liked the actual doing of the maths – playing with linear algebra, proving something in group theory – each new area we were taught was so exciting with new concepts and new language or giving familiar ideas an entirely new perspective.

I loved doing research in semigroup theory for my Master’s degree and often couldn’t wait to get back to the desk to move my work forward. Unfortunately though, I didn’t really feel part of the community of my maths department. With hindsight, I’m sure this was partly due to being one of just a few female students when I was at honours and then postgraduate level. Academia wasn’t appealing to most of the women I had studied with. When things didn’t work out with my supervisor I nearly dropped out and left academia to work as a consultant mathematician on projects in government and industry. But fortunately, my generous boss, a brilliant female professor from the department, and my good friends supported me to finish my Master’s dissertation.

(…) it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

My work as a consultant was varied, and despite rarely crossing paths with the maths I’d learnt at university my degree had prepared me to learn quickly and to discern the structure of a problem and how I could use available data to answer meaningful questions. My maths training also helped me to communicate with the clients and it was in this job, and during the writing of my Master’s dissertation, that I discovered how much I loved communicating mathematics.

When I moved to the UK, I knew I wanted to write about maths. I was lucky enough to get a job with the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), a maths and education outreach initiative based at the University of Cambridge, before I left Australia. I quickly moved into working on Plus magazine, the part of the MMP that enables anyone who is curious about maths and the world to see the maths behind current events and keeping up to date with current maths research.

To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Twenty years later I still love working at Plus, every day learning about new maths and new applications and talking to the mathematicians who make it all happen. My brilliant co-editor of Plus, Marianne Freiberger, and I get to go on all sorts of amazing mathematical adventures. Our work has taken us around the world, we’ve spoken to brilliant mathematicians from academia and industry, we’ve written several popular science books, appeared on TV and radio and worked on documentary series for the Discovery Channel working with our colleagues at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. And over the last two years we’ve been lucky enough to work with epidemiologists working on the mathematical front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to explain and communicate their work. To see maths so visibly making a difference in the world, and to witness the passion, creativity and dedication of the mathematicians involved has been amazing.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university.

Things have changed a lot since I found myself as one of only a few female students at the end of my time at university. Despite no longer being an academic mathematician, I feel firmly part of the maths community today.  And I’m very happy that nearly half the mathematicians and researchers Plus has collaborated with over the last year are women. A new community spirit seems to be rising in many mathematics departments, heavily influenced by the experience and hard work of the female researchers already there. I hope that these networks, and projects including Her Maths Story, are helping women in mathematics find the support and the supporters they need to follow their own maths stories.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Constanza Rojas-Molina

Constanza Rojas-Molina

Born in La Serena, Chile • Birth year 1983 Studied Mathematics at Universidad de La Serena in Chile and at Université Pierre et Marie Curie – Paris VI in France • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematical Physics from Université de Cergy-Pontoise, France • Lives in Paris, France • Occupation Lecturer at the CY Cergy Paris University

I was a late starter in maths. As a child, I was always curious and interested in many things, I was an avid reader and spent a considerable amount of time drawing. During highschool, I learnt about physics and chemistry and I was hooked on the quantum world. There, all the intuition was lost and the usual rules of physics didn’t apply anymore, it was fascinating, like Alice in Wonderland! But even then, maths was not among my main interests. I never made a connection with physics or chemistry. I knew it was something useful and necessary to know, but I always kept it at a reasonable distance. You would never see me solving maths exercises for fun. Why would I, when I had a pile of comics and books to read and stories to draw?

I discovered operator and spectral theory, functional analysis and the maths of quantum and statistical mechanics. And it was beautiful.

It was only when I entered university that my view of maths changed. University maths were something completely different. My hometown is a region of Chile known for its clear skies, suitable for observational astronomy. It’s where the first telescopes in Chile were built. So, since I didn’t have the resources to travel to the capital to study, studying physics at the local university seemed like a good fit. With all the innocence that the age of 17 could give me, I thought: if I’ll ever amount to anything, it shouldn’t matter where I start.

So, I decided to stay home and enroll in the local university physics program. The first two years of this program were in common with the maths program, and by studying physics I realized that maths was connected to many things and was very important. So important that at some point after two years I thought: I can’t continue this without having a good understanding of maths (I would have made a terrible physicist). During those two years, I found beauty in the clarity of maths. I got a first glimpse of the elegance of proofs and the usefulness of drawing the picture to go with it. I discovered operator and spectral theory, functional analysis and the maths of quantum and statistical mechanics. And it was beautiful. I was excited to be able to study physics problems from a rigorous and clear point of view.

I went to Paris, without knowing anyone, with no grant and no connections whatsoever.

So excited that I didn’t stop when I finished my undergraduate studies. I went to Paris, without knowing anyone, with no grant and no connections whatsoever. With all the courage that ignorance can give. Ignorance of the country, of the system, of how academia works. That ignorance and the support of my family made me brave enough to cross the ocean looking to satisfy my curiosity.

It’s been many years since that happened. I did my Master’s in Paris and then continued with a PhD in mathematical physics. I successfully applied to a Marie Curie Fellowship of the EU to do a postdoc in Munich. Then I did a postdoc in Bonn. Then I was a Junior Professor in Duesseldorf, I was a DFG (German Research Foundation) grant holder, I supervised students. I still do. Now I’m back to France as a lecturer. I’m also an illustrator and for the past years I’ve been focusing on mathematical communication.

This is my mathematical adventure (…). And I say adventure because this was clearly a detour, as I was supposed to become an illustrator. Now I’m both.

Looking back, I am aware now that I was a total outsider. I made my way through it and became part of the system, taking an unusual path and building my own alternative journey. Academia is tough, it’s elitist, it’s traditionalist, it’s conservative, it’s a lonely place and can lead to a lot of frustration when one does not entirely fit. It’s easy to get lost in the bad thoughts when there is no support for those that don’t follow a straight path. However, I’ve met some wonderful people along the way who helped me build my path, collaborators, and friends, and with them I’ve been able to experience the part of the job that is about connections. Connecting ideas, connecting with colleagues, connecting with students, connecting with people. That is the best side of this job, and I’m grateful for that. This is my mathematical adventure, it has ups and downs and cliffhangers and suspense, and some teary moments and some funny ones. And I say adventure because this was clearly a detour, as I was supposed to become an illustrator. Now I’m both.

I like to remember how my mathematical adventure started, because it helps me feel connected with my most essential motivations. My motivations weren’t to be a tenured professor, or a group leader, or get all the grants. My motivations were to discover and enjoy the act of discovering.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Marianne Freiberger

Marianne Freiberger

Born in Münster, Germany • Birth year 1972 • Studied Pure Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics from Queen Mary, University of London • Lives in London, UK • Occupation Editor of Plus magazine (http://plus.maths.org)

I first became interested in maths when I learnt about the epsilon/delta definition of a limit at school. The fact that something as intuitive as a limit could be expressed so precisely in symbols blew my mind. Despite that interest, I didn’t really plan on studying maths at university. The reason I did was that I had moved to the UK from Germany after school and, when I finally decided to do a degree, thought my English wasn’t up to studying a more wordy subject (which is ironic given that I am now a writer).

I enjoyed my BSc, but by the end of it still didn’t think that maths would be part of my future. I spent a year working in all sorts of jobs and travelling, until a book by Ian Stewart re-ignited my passion. I applied for a PhD place with Shaun Bullett at Queen Mary, University of London, where I spent the next few years studying and researching holomorphic dynamics (which involves things like Julia sets and the Mandelbrot set). Shaun was a great supervisor who safely got me through my PhD (can’t have been easy!) and enabled me to stay on for another three years as a postdoc.

Because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine

Finding the next postdoc proved tricky and my heart wasn’t really in it. I didn’t want my life to revolve around my job, which as a postdoc is something you usually have to accept, and wasn’t sure I was a good enough mathematician. (Whether the latter was true or just down to lacking confidence — a notoriously female affliction— I still don’t know.) But it all turned out for the best: because I’d been interested in science communication for a while, I applied for a maternity cover job at Plus magazine. That was in 2005 and I am still at Plus now, co-editing along with my good friend and colleague Rachel Thomas.

Plus is a free online magazine about all aspects of maths, aimed at a general audience. It’s part of the Millennium Mathematics Project based at the University of Cambridge. My job there involves writing articles, producing podcasts and videos, and editing other people’s submissions. We cover anything from abstract algebra to astronomy, and theoretical physics to the science of sport. 

(…) Once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others

Starting at Plus was quite a gear change initially. My command of English no longer felt like such an obstacle, but I had no journalistic or writing training. I did a couple of writing courses offered by Cambridge University, but all the really important stuff I learnt on the job from the two brilliant writers and editors then working on Plus, Rachel Thomas and Helen Joyce, and by example from my boss, the amazing John D. Barrow (who sadly died last year).

Ironically, my ignorance also helped me with my writing, I think. I knew almost nothing about most areas of maths, let alone other sciences. This meant doing lots of reading and then explaining things back to myself in baby language — and once you have an explanation of something in very simple terms, you’ve done some of the hardest part of the work that’s needed to explain it accessibly to others.

As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool

While writing gave me lots of joy, other things were harder to learn. When I started at Plus, I think many mathematicians weren’t as familiar and comfortable with public engagement as they are now. I struggled sometimes to be taken seriously. As a young researcher I’d internalised a fear of asking stupid questions, but as a maths communicator questions are your most important tool. It took me a while to work that out and learn the courage to ask.

Today things are a lot easier in that respect (though I still sometimes spend ages trying to figure something out when I could just go and ask someone). The reason it’s easier is probably that attitudes towards science and maths communication have changed, and that I am older, a tiny bit wiser, and a little more confident.

At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience

I love my job because it allows me to do what research didn’t: to learn a lot about all sorts of topics but without having to dig too deeply into the technical details. I get to meet amazing people and there are lots of opportunities to branch out and learn more. Rachel and I recently worked as science editors on a Discovery Channel series about the work of Stephen Hawking and privately co-wrote three popular maths books. At the moment we are collaborating with a group of diseases modellers (called JUNIPER) who have been advising the UK government, to bring important concepts and issues about COVID to a general audience. I feel very fortunate to have been given these opportunities.

To someone who’d like to go into science communication as a career, I’d say to get a good grounding in maths before (or while) you’re getting training in writing and communicating. Maths is everywhere in science, and if you can vaguely understand the maths in a piece of science, then you’re already a good way to understanding the rest. 

Posted by HMS in Stories
Joana Sarah Grah

Joana Sarah Grah

Born in Germany • Birth year 1987 • Studied Mathematics in Münster, Germany • Highest Degree PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Düsseldorf, Germany • Occupation Scientific Associate

My decision to study mathematics was anything but straightforward. I always enjoyed maths classes throughout my primary and secondary school years. I also have to add that I personally believe this experience was significantly influenced by the fact that I had great maths teachers. Luckily, against a sadly very common (mis)perception of society I never felt that maths was not for girls. Maybe this was unconsciously strengthened by the female maths teachers I had in early school years. Shortly before my last two years of secondary school began, I decided against choosing mathematics as a major (which always seemed to be clear beforehand) because I did not enjoy the maths classes I attended in the preceding year. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the following two years of maths classes, which is among other things certainly due to the amazing teacher (and possibly first maths mentor) I had. From the beginning, he made quite clear that he did not really understand why I only chose maths as a minor, but he would motivate, encourage and challenge me even more throughout the two years. He also was one of the few persons I could consult when I was thinking about applying to study maths at university.

In the end, (…) I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked.

I was the first family member to attend university, let alone having received a university-entrance diploma, and so my family could not really provide me with a lot of advice or experience in this regard. However, they were incredibly supportive in multiple other ways throughout my studies and without their support I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.
In the end, after considering other options such as linguistics and language studies, I decided to study maths but was pretty much clueless about how a typical workday of a student even looked. At first, I thought it was sufficient to attend the lectures (like the classes in school) and go home after. This also fit snugly with the hours I had to work in my side-job. The ‘homework’ was surely very similar to the one at school and I would just solve the mathematical problems we were given by myself like I did in school. Preparing for the exams would certainly be similar to schooldays and I would not have to study too hard. It did not take too long until I realised that I was completely wrong. The first unsuccessful exams hit me quite hard and ultimately, I found myself in a situation that I had not known up to this point in my life. It was already pretty late to turn things around completely and after many thoughts and conversations, I decided to start all over again one year later.

It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life.

The further I got and also the more I was able to specialise in my studies, the more I enjoyed student life. I was lucky enough to have a strong and supportive network of fellow students and friends. What is more, especially in the final year of my Bachelor’s, I had two extremely dedicated, passionate and encouraging advisers, one of which was going to become one of my main mentors throughout my academic career. And this is the main message I would like to convey here. It is essential to have role models to look up to from the beginning and ideally to be mentored and supported by experienced and committed persons. I am extremely lucky and thankful to have those people in my life. In addition to my Bachelor’s and Master’s supervisor, I had two incredibly supportive, heartening and inspiring women as a PhD supervisor and co-supervisor. I believe that my passion for women encouragement was significantly influenced by my main PhD supervisor who herself has given numerous talks on her own experiences as a woman in maths, her career path and her very personal journey to become an excelling mathematician and leader.

We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Already during my Master’s, I participated in a mentoring programme that was coined by a very committed (male!) diversity officer at our maths department. We had regular meetings in small groups of three mentees and one mentor who was a female PhD student. We were able to informally chat about positive and negative experiences, the decision whether to continue as a PhD student or search for a job in industry and how being a woman in a still male-dominated field poses some challenges. We realised that we were not alone with our struggles and doubts and this was extremely liberating and empowering.

Without all of this amazing support and encouragement I am 100% sure that I would not have continued doing a Master’s respectively PhD respectively post-doc, as I have fairly often thought about quitting at various points in my career. In the end, persevering, listening to my mentors and believing in myself was worthwhile. Nowadays, I try to identify situations in which I observe sexism, female students and colleagues struggling with imposter syndrome, or simply the exhausting and competitive environment that academia sometimes is. Then I try to speak out or even manage to become a mentor myself.

My PhD research was in applied mathematics. More specifically, in one of my main projects I developed mathematical image analysis tools for an application in cancer research. In an interdisciplinary collaboration I worked with biologists that studied the efficacy of anti-mitotic drugs trying to slow down or prevent mitosis, the process of cell division, in cancer cells. I developed a graphical user interface that facilitated the automatic analysis of sequences of microscopy images showing the treated cells over time.

I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. 

I always liked collaborations in my academic career and I believe that against all stereotypes, at least applied maths is a very team-oriented discipline and it is essential to discuss lectures, papers and ideas with fellow students and colleagues. I loved the communication part of post-grad academic life; not only discussions and exchanges, but also communicating my work to others at conferences, workshops and during outreach projects. Recently, I even quit research and started working as a scientific associate at university focusing on science communication as well as education.

Posted by HMS in Stories