I'm working on some cool mathematical modelling problems relating to how to safely return to work after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed and some problems in mechanics and in cell biology.
Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys (although it changed its name while I was there from a Technical High School).
I am old enough (just about) to have done O-levels rather than GCSE. I did the usual combination of academic subjects including Maths and Additional Maths. I seem to recall a mixture of As and Bs. I did four A-levels, Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Religious Studies, again all As and Bs. I was not a straight As student. I went on to do Maths at Birmingham and. PhD in Maths at Oxford.
I have been almost 27 years now at the University of Bristol. Prior to that I had a temporary position for a year and a half at the University of Bath. I didn't have many jobs as a youngster, apart from fruit picking in a couple of Summer holidays. Strawberries are the worst. They grow in wet, straw-covered soil so you either get a wet rear or a sore back (and after you've picked several hundred, your thumb nail gets sore too).
Professor of Applied Nonlinear Mathematics
University of Bristol. I work in a unique Department called Engineering Mathematics.
I am an applied mathematician interested all kinds of dynamical processes
I am 53, I live in Bath, am married and have three children who have now all left home. My two boys went into engineering; one is doing a Masters in renewable energy in France, one a PhD in machine learning. My daughter is just finishing the first year of her degree in Biochemistry. I play table tennis, like indy music, enjoy following cricket, travel, reading, creative writing and generally exploring the countryside.
How I Use Maths In My Job:
I use algebra, and geometry a lot. My main area of expertise in dynamics. My real scientific hero is Henri Poincare who introduced topology. Topology has been described as rubber sheet geometry. That is a square and a circle are the same in topology, because you can stretch the paper to turn a circle into a square. But a figure-of-eight is not the same as a circle because it has a self-intersection point and no amount of stretching can remove that. This way of thinking turns out to be key to the way I understand a lot of mathematical descriptions of the real work qualitatively, rather than quantitatively. If you want to make it quantitative, then you need to add algebra.
I teach, I do research I help others to do research.
I have never really known a career outside of the University environment. What I have learned over the years is that you don’t have to be cleverest or the deepest thinker to succeed as a an academic. What it takes is inquisitiveness, inspiration and humility. It also helps if you like people. It is really a very varied job.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that University professors don’t just teach. In fact, formal teaching in lectures is just a small part of my job. I do enjoy that, especially the large lectures that are like a performance. I also do research. This is often in interdisciplinary teams with people from other Universities, from all over the wold, and people from industry. I also teach others how to do research. In fact, like most subjects it is not possible to really teach this, it as about showing, observing, reassuring, and doing. It is about giving people the mental permission to use their imagination and to engage.
My Typical Day
Writing, supervising and occasional hard sums.
A lot of what I do is writing. I write publicity materials and pieces for the Mathematics Today professional magazine. I write research papers which appear in academic journals, I write teaching materials, books, webpages, exams, student appraisals, proposals for funding, referee reports on other peoples papers, proposals etc. All of these often go through many drafts. I am quite a dab hand at bashing words and equations into my laptop in all kinds of strange places like on busses and in airport departure lounges.
I also have a lot of meetings with students. I typically supervise about 4 or 5 PhD students, 2 or 3 MScs students and a range of different undergraduates doing research projects with me. I have tutor groups that I meet regularly, in every year of our programme. I enjoy meeting these people, encouraging them and giving support. Then there are meetings (often online, even before lockdown) with international collaborators. In total I probably have 4 or 5 such meetings in a typical working day. Some days I teach lectures or computer labs. Sometimes I attend or give research seminars, where other people get to talk about their findings. I meet with industry quite regularly too, to talk or brainstorm about problems in research or knowledge exchange. There are also administrative meetings, get-togethers to discuss ideas with colleagues.
All of this means that thinking time – time to actually do maths – is usually confined to odd moments in the day. I also write and run various bits of computer code, although increasingly I supervise other people who do that. But I am not averse to doing all kinds of maths on the computer.
The best part of being an academic for me is people, and travel. Conferences and research visits can take place all over the world. I tend to think I actually have best ideas when I am in transit.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Intuitive, Passionate, Inquisitive
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Reading about the rich and varied lives of past scientists, engineers and mathematicians
What's your favourite use for maths in everyday life?
Why busses tend to come two at once rather than well spaced out.
What did you think about Maths when you were in school?
Bits of it were fun, other bits were hard, confusing or boring. I always liked it when I saw how one bit of maths connected to other bits, or to things in other subjects.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Not a clue. Does anyone really know.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes. I was cheeky and noisy. I was the kind of kid who the teachers either loved or hated. I was not the kind who the teachers didn't know who I was. ]
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I have a secret hankering to be a standup comedian, or failing that something in the entertainment business.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
David Bowie. No question.
What's your favourite food?
Strange one, Marmite and Tomato Ketchup on Toast. I've eaten it since I was really small.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Many things. I have been to New Zealand about 5 times. An amazing country. I took up skiing a couple of years ago aged 50. For our 25th Wedding we went up a hot air balloon.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I could keep my mouth shut a bit more often. I became a bit more patient. I could travel more and see more cool places.
Tell us a joke.
Why are the toilets in Buckingham Palace in such a mess? Because they are used by the highest peers in the land!