Monthly Archives: September 2015

Oh I’m rubbish at maths.

Few people look back at school and list Maths lessons as a highpoint. There is also a fairly automatic response to classify ourselves as either good or bad at maths, with the majority of people assigning themselves to the second category.

Part of the problem is that we associate Maths with being put on the spot. In school we had to recite times tables or answer quick fire mental arithmetic questions, with the pressure of then finding out whether we were right or wrong.  In adult life, we have to navigate the complicated set of rates and fees during an interview with the bank or calculate the 10% tip while the waiter or waitress watches over.

What attracts a lot of people to Maths is there is always a right answer. But this can be a double-edged sword as there are plenty of wrong answers too. These days you often also get credit for showing how you get to the answer. Although you are still expected to provide this in the pressurized environment of exam conditions, within a time limit and with no help from anyone else, textbooks or notes.

In my mind being good at Maths is not the same as reciting Pi to 14 decimal places, or listing the first 20 square numbers. Maths, like all sciences, is about understanding concepts and applying routines. There is no rule that you must hold all this information in your head at one time.

As I admitted in my previous post, I use the Internet on pretty much a constant basis to support my work. Often, I like to check that the test I have in mind is appropriate and that I can remember how to do it correctly, or sometimes I want to try something new and I want a step by step break down of how to implement this. None of this takes away from my mathematical ability.

So if you don’t have the best memory or respond well to exam situations, don’t let this cloud your judgement.  If you enjoy Maths but didn’t do so well in your exams, don’t write yourself off. Yes, it may take a bit of effort but there are plenty of great resources out there to help you. And, like with most things, if you repeat it a few times, sometimes it starts to stick.


It’s all out there.

My job is essentially a office job, I spend most of everyday sat in front of my computer. The reality is I do most of my maths with the help of statistical programming packages, however that is not to say you won’t find scraps of paper with hand written algebraic derivations littered around my desk – it just helps me think!

Predominantly, I work with one called R, which is free to download. Programming is an important part of my job and is a natural progression for anyone mathematically minded as it is essentially based on logic, and you get the same sense of satisfaction creating a working computer programme as you do solving an equation. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in a career in statistics to take a look at the tools out there as it may put you one step ahead in the jobs market.

I and most of my collegues are self taught programmers. Intially small things can be incrediably fustrasting, what really flummoxed me early on was working out how to read my data from an excel spreasheet into my R session. But, this should not deter as,  your ability accumlates quickly once you have made the initial breakthrough.  Further, these skills are so transferable (once you understand the principles of programming in one language, picking up a second, third, fourth etc is much easier) and valued by employers, it’s worth the early pain as it can open up so many alternative careers.

There is so much advice and many tutorials online, one I would recommend is which is great starting point for beginners, there is no reason why anyone can’t give them a go as all the material is accessible and FREE. Google is an essential resource for any programmer, it’s often quicker than looking up functions or commands in reference books and can save you a lot of time in debugging errors. ‘Have you Googled it?’ is a common retort when presented with an unseen before error message. The challenge is sometimes knowing what to search for, as the terminology may not be obvious, particularly if you don’t have any formal trainning but you will pick it up. It can also be helpful to know others are struggling as well. Stumbling across forums where people are publically declaring that they have hit the same wall as you, reaffirms you are not completely inept and on the right track. Remember we learn more from the mistakes we make than from our successes – which is a good thing as you will get lots of errors in your programming career.

Who am I?

I am a mathematician.

It’s not my job title, nor do I work in a Mathematics department but that is what I am.

If you wanted me to be more specific, I would say I am a statistician. And I work in a biological field, so maybe biostatistician would be more accurate. But I use computer programming to do my maths so that makes me a bioinformatician, and hey presto we’ve reached my actual job title. Underneath it all though I am a mathematician, that is my fundamental skill set, but I have always seen it as that a toolkit designed to be applied to a range of fields – in fact anything you fancy (energy output, retail, population demographics, economic trends, sports performance, elections,…). I chose genetics and now work in the School of Medicine amongst predominantly biologists.

Through this blog, I will discuss what it is like to continue doing maths beyond the classroom and hopefully encourage a few future mathematicians to stick with it.