Success Borne From Failure

January 28, 2013

in Blog

For many students who aren’t yet in love with mathematics and statistics, learning maths is about passing a test. Promises of “building important skills” are met with skepticism as it’s not very often one needs to calculate the volume of a swimming pool with a certain set of dimensions and, besides, there’ll always be a calculator on your phone, right?

While I enjoyed maths in primary school I struggled to get through the intermediate maths class in my senior years of high school. I ended up passing and scraped a pass in physics by a quarter of a mark. I failed and repeated half of my first year of an electrical engineering degree (including the second maths subject) but 11 years later I have a Bachelors in Mathematics (second class Honours) and have recently submitted my PhD thesis on spatio-temporal statistical modelling of air pollution.

What caused the turnaround? I found myself in an entire department dedicated to all sorts of maths and stats. I was shown how the same mathematical ideas could be used to model the populations of a predator species and their prey, the growth of tumours, the spread of diseases, the formation of patterns on cone shells, the spread of a drug in the bloodstream and the tools we have developed to solve these problems. I came to realise that far from just being a set of formulae, theorems and rules to memorise, mathematics was a tool with which I could better understand the world around me.

I wasn’t a brilliant mathematician but I was hooked. Once I had my honours degree, I started looking around at what I could do next and found three interesting projects. The first was about using mathematics to model how the brain learns. I would be working with neuroscientists, biochemists and linguists to understand how we understand. The second was with a government department using Bayesian statistics with a group of environmental scientists to look at changes in Australia’s environment. These were fascinating projects that went far beyond dry calculus or algebra rules and bland applications.

I ended up working as part of a huge project looking at the impact of traffic emissions on child health. I work with physicists, chemists, medical scientists, engineers and other statisticians on a huge range of topics, each of which requires a different approach in its solution. By sticking with statistics—which was only ever a minor area of my undergraduate study—I have ended up in a research job that gives me an opportunity to meet people from many different fields and work with them to solve their scientific problems.

So if you’re at all curious about the way the world works, maths and stats are tools for solving real problems that open up fantastic opportunities to work with a diverse range of people on a dizzying array of problems. The maths you’re learning now are the building blocks of powerful tools that enable you to explore the unknown.

Sam Clifford

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia