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New Maths Building

When I started at Nottingham, I was told my office arrangements would only be temporary as we were looking to build a new building. Now that I am leaving (didn’t know? You haven’t been listening to the Math/Maths Podcast!) I will not, after all, be moving to this building. Building work has started, though. Here’s a picture:

New maths building site at Nottingham

They’re extending an existing building (IESSG), although I think the extension will be substantially bigger than the existing building.

This means Nottingham will follow several other recent moves by UK mathematics departments into new buildings. Off the top of my head, there’s Cambridge (2000-2003), Heriot-Watt (2005), Nottingham Trent (2005), Manchester (2007), Bath (2010), and upcoming at Oxford and Bristol. There are probably others I’ve forgotten.

Macro October

Longer term readers of this blog who follow me on Twitter may realise that I have posted considerably fewer posts here since I’ve been ‘micro-blogging’. The podcasts resumed in October, and the show notes posts were regular through the autumn. The non-podcast blog posts in between were less common. Here is a catchup post for October and an attempt at a promise to update more regularly.

The slide began over the summer. Back in September I noticed the Turing apology on Twitter the day after it happened, yet I didn’t get around to posting a blog post for 3 weeks, as “Turing apology“.

I resumed my IMA visits on 7 October 2009 with a trip to UEA, where I recorded podcast episode 47 with Mark Blyth. This event should have given me something to write about but in fact I didn’t get around to posting a blog post about it when the next day I went to NTU and gave my careers talk twice. This meant I had three visits to write about by the time I had been to Liverpool the following week, giving my careers talk at Liverpool John Moores, where I was asked about placements. One student felt that what I was saying about maths graduates having the skills needed by business was wrong because at a recent careers fair she had been told by several employers that all they required was a 2:1 or above and the degree subject didn’t matter. I tried to point out that the job of a recruiter at a careers fair was a marketing one, generally to attract as many applicants as possible. This, I claimed, doesn’t affect your chances of getting the job. And it depends what type of job you are going for.

Following this I met Andrea Donafee, who spoke to me for podcast 48, and to Sebastien Guenneau about his work in invisibility cloaks at the University of Liverpool for podcast 50. At Liverpool, I spoke on careers at lunchtime and on puzzles in the evening. The puzzles talk was organised by Joel Haddley and he had invited an audience of sixth formers without telling me, which was a bit scary! But the talk seemed to go well and I got some positive comments at the end. I was pleased to hear Joel sent off an IMA application form.

By total coincidence, the 42nd week of the year was also the anniversary of the publication of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the week I released episode 42. The number fact for the episode, of course, referred to the Guide.

The following week, I spoke at and took a stall to a careers fair at Kingston. I spent most of the day giving the IMA’s new Assistant Director the benefit of my views on all aspects of my work, which was quite fun. But something wasn’t right that day with my talk – I don’t know if it was nerves at being watched by the new Assistant Director, but my timings during my careers talk weren’t right and the whole thing felt a little flat.

By sharp contrast, I was much happier with my careers talk performance at Lancaster the following week. From my Twitter post: “Got the audience reactions I hope for: they gasp, they laugh, they consider!” Later that day I gave my cryptography talk to the Maths and Statistics Society (MASS) at Lancaster, which was recently formed with an IMA grant. The next day I travelled into Manchester and spoke at Manchester Metropolitan University. My careers talk went well there and I even overheard a student at the end sounding surprised saying: “I’m actually glad I came”! I attended my second Calculating Careers Fair at Manchester, which was a good experience again. In the evening I went to Bolton and gave my careers talk one more time before heading home. Despite some exhaustion and questions I didn’t know how to answer about further study, I think this went well. One the way home, the worse for a busy couple of days, I wrote my piece for Mathematics Today in December and was worried I might have “gushed” a little. You can read this as “Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference” and judge for yourself. The topic of that piece was the Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today conference, the provisional programme for which has recently been announced. The conference is supported by the IMA and takes place at the University of Greenwich on 6 February 2010. The deadline for registration is Thursday 28 January 2010.

Also in October I was shown a room at the University of Nottingham which offers recording of lectures at the press of a button, a facility I ultimately used to record the lecture I gave on cryptography for the History of maths and x in December.

At the end of the month, I noticed that episode 40 of the podcast had been released on the first anniversary of episode 1 of the podcast – to the day. I will have to try to remember 4 October in future!

This takes us into November, and I will leave that for another post.

Mathematics Today December 2009: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference

When I give my careers talk to undergraduates I talk about the skills their degree offers and those it may not. I highlight the skills employers think maths graduates do and don’t have, based on commonly held stereotypes. On the plus side a mathematician is logical, systematic, rigorous, clear thinking and analytical [1]. These are logical, analytical problem solvers, highly valued in many areas of employment [2]. On the other hand, employers think mathematicians are lacking in certain areas, including communication and social skills [1].

I believe the soon-to-be-graduate mathematician needs to be aware of the preconceptions held by the people who are interviewing them for positions. I tell students the person hiring them thinks they are a logical problem solver and worth hiring, but they believe that if they do so their new employee will need to be brought up to speed on communication and social skills. If the mathematician can demonstrate they conform only to the positive side of the stereotype they have the opportunity to surprise the interviewer and this may give them an edge. Of course it is not sufficient to simply make unsubstantiated claims: “I am an excellent communicator”. The student must be armed with experiences to provide evidence of their range of employability skills: “I have done x and this shows me to be an excellent communicator”.

It is against this background that I was approached by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich with a plan to provide graduates with appropriate experiences and evidence of their skills: an undergraduate conference. Students are invited to propose short talks on a topic of their choosing, which will be approved through an abstract submission process. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear we were very happy to support this initiative through the University Liaison Project.

The conference, Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today: an Undergraduate Mathematics Conference in London, supported by the IMA, is to take place on 6 February 2010 at the University of Greenwich. Abstracts are invited –by 1 p. m. on 18 December 2009 please to – and the students will be notified whether they have been successful in the new year. Students looking towards further study and research will benefit from having experienced (endured?!) the process of submitting an abstract to a conference. All student presenters will benefit from a skills enhancing experience and will return the better for having attended with clear evidence to demonstrate to potential employers what employable people they are. All attendees will find they have an enjoyable, enriching experience hearing about some interesting mathematics and mixing with their peers. As an added bonus Noel-Ann has managed quite a coup in getting IMA-LMS Christopher Zeeman Medal winner Professor Ian Stewart to deliver the keynote address.

The conference title – Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today – reflects the idea that the conference is designed to attract delegates who will become the leading mathematicians of tomorrow. In part I think this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy; having benefited from this conference the delegates are armed to go into the world and become the next generation of leading mathematicians. I highly recommend encouraging your students to attend. There is more information on attendance and a call for papers elsewhere in this issue of Mathematics Today or you can visit the conference website at


  1. CHALLIS, N., GRETTON, H., HOUSTON, K., and NEILL, N., 2002. Developing transferable skills: preparation for employment. In: P. KAHN, ed. and J. KYLE, ed., Effective Teaching and Learning in Mathematics & its Applications. London: Kogan Page, 2002, pp. 79-91.
  2. QUALITY ASSURANCE AGENCY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, THE, 2002. Subject benchmark statements: Academic standards – Mathematics, statistics and operational research. Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Activities Sept-Oct 2009

In September I returned from my summer break and started planning for the new academic year. I provided comments to Julie Hepburn, the IMA’s liaison in the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, on a rewrite she has conducted of the widely distributed careers advice leaflet “Your Options with Mathematics”. This leaflet had many limitations and Julie has made a substantial improvement despite severe restrictions on the style, length of individual sections and types of jobs that can be recommended. With the wide distribution and knock-on impact of that leaflet among careers advisors I think Julie has managed a substantial leap forward in improving the quality of careers advice offered to mathematicians. Also in preparation for the new year I arranged a print run of leaflets highlighting the benefits of membership to students that will be distributed to all departments and careers services where mathematics degrees are offered. I would be grateful if you could assist in distributing these and please let me know ( if you need more!

In October I resumed my visits to universities. I gave my careers talk at the University of East Anglia, twice during induction week at Nottingham Trent, at Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, Kingston, Lancaster, Manchester Metropolitan and Bolton. I also gave a talk on puzzles at Liverpool and one on cryptography at Lancaster. I took an IMA stall to a careers fair at Kingston and to the ever-successful “Calculating Careers” Fair at Manchester. I was shadowed to Kingston by new IMA Assistant Director, John Meeson, who wanted the opportunity to learn about students and their motivations re. membership, Altogether these events have put me in contact with over 500 students in October.

Mathematics Today December: University Liaison Officer’s Report

The right lever to move the world

The new academic year has brought a mass of activity and potential opportunities. I am keen to spread the IMA message as widely as possible so thoughts turn to how my activities can be distributed to as many students as possible. So it is that I have begun several new initiatives.
Starting with the October issue, selected articles from Mathematics Today are distributed electronically to student groups with whom I have a contact or other student reps where no such group exists. These contacts will then redistribute the electronic Mathematics Today to students within their universities. This means that, perhaps as you read this, I will be reading through and picking a selection of articles from this copy of Mathematics Today that I think are of interest to students. Students will receive links to PDFs that are active for a limited period. I am also sending each student group a print copy of Mathematics Today for them to display at their events. The intention is that by receiving some of the content from Mathematics Today, students might begin to gain awareness of the IMA and the role it can play in their lives post-graduation. Certainly, we can hope that more students will be exposed to the IMA through this method than could be by my actions in person. And with the quality content in Mathematics Today we can be assured that the exposure will be meaningful as well as wide-reaching. If you would like students at your university to receive Mathematics Today please contact me at

A second activity I have begun is a podcast, Travels in a Mathematical World, which features mathematicians talking about their work and careers, as well as Maths History features from Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and Maths News roundups with Sarah Shepherd of iSquared Magazine. This has been running for a few weeks now and the response I have had so far has been positive with students I have spoken to keen to hear from ‘real life mathematicians’. At a Mathsoc event at the University of Greenwich I was approached by a student who said “I was listening to you this morning.” It took me a moment to realise what she meant! You can listen to episodes and download the podcast at Any promotion you can provide for this is most welcome.

Thirdly (and I won’t say “finally”!), my relationships with university mathematical societies continue to increase in number. Through a group I am calling Representatives of University Mathematical Societies (RUMS), I am able to keep in touch with students at a wide range of universities through a single contact at each. Universities that do not have such student groups often have a student representative on some staff-student liaison group and sometimes it is possible for this student to act as my point of contact, or simply another keen student. So RUMS membership now includes students from universities without mathematical societies. This group is a huge advantage to my interactions as the task of maintaining a current list of students would be impractical. And there is, I think, a clear advantage to the students themselves in already participating in the mathematical community. If you are in touch with a student group, or know your university doesn’t have one but can think of another student who may be able to help, please get in touch via

I have set up a new blog for the members of the RUMS group to post news from their activities and share ideas. As I travel I am made aware of the different groups who all have similar goals and are all running into the same issues and this blog is designed for groups to share this experience. Particularly, I meet new student groups and it is good to be able to point them to the blog for inspiration. In the Student Section this time I have collected a few snippets of news from the blog. The blog is available at

Activities Sept-Oct 2008

Last time I mentioned a questionnaire that I have distributed to universities through our network of IMA University Representatives and I am glad to say that responses have been coming in through this period. I have a 37% response rate with questionnaires returned from 27 universities.

During September I made several trips to Birmingham. First, I met with the IMA’s new liaison with the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Julie Hepburn from the Cardiff University Careers Service. We had a chat about what AGCAS and the IMA can do together. I’ve also visited the more maths grads project, who do some great work in mathematics enrichment at school level. We are exploring ways we can work together in areas we overlap, particularly on careers advice. Lastly, I attended the LMS Popular Lectures 2008 and grabbed 5 minutes with the Co-Chair of the Mathsoc at Birmingham and I am happy to report they are now successful University Liaison Grant applicants.

In October, I visited the University of Leicester and met with the enthusiastic bunch who are the committee for the student group there. Those who enjoy a bit of wordplay will enjoy the name: Student Union Maths Society (SUMS).

Next came my small part in following the New Unified Mathematics Society tour. I visited Newcastle, York, Leeds, Warwick and my home city of Nottingham with the Presidents of the IMA and LMS, David Abrahams and Brian Davies, respectively. It was really useful to go to universities I have not yet had the chance to visit and I have made some useful contacts there. I took the opportunity to catch up with the Mathsoc at Newcastle, who have recently made their second successful University Liaison Grant application and the more maths grads regional base in Leeds.

I visited the University of Greenwich for a talk organised by the MathSoc there on “Thinking Mathematically” by John Mason. Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich is looking to organise a grouping of London Universities who can look to cross-promote events and I stopped on my way across London to meet the President of the Maths Society at Imperial College.

Finally I rounded off the month in Manchester, where I attended a mathematics specific careers event, “Calculating Careers”. I operated a stall at this with a mixture of careers advice, IMA materials and last but certainly not least a set of puzzles. This did lead to an afternoon of me calling out to passing students:”Fancy playing a game?” but it also led to all those students going home with a “Maths Matters” postcard from the Maths Careers website ( and a copy of the Mathematics Today article Careers for Mathematicians1 under their arms, and hopefully some raised awareness of the IMA. I was told afterwards that my stall had seen the most activity at the fair so there is something to be said for baiting mathematicians with intellectual curiosities!

You can find out more about the University Liaison initiative by visiting the IMA Student page or reading my blog, both via:


1. BRIAULT, S., 2008. Careers for Mathematicians. Mathematics Today, 44(3), pp. 117-118.

Nerd Sniping

Earlier, I reported on my visit to the Manchester careers fair, Calculating Careers, in which I used some mathematical puzzles to attract potential careers advice recipients to my stall. I just discovered that my attempt to draw people in using mathematical curiosities may be related to the practice described in this documentary piece.

Calculating Careers in Manchester

This week I attended the event “Calculating Careers”, a mathematics careers fair at the University of Manchester. I found this a really enjoyable afternoon. I ran an IMA stall in a hall of stalls from employers. I thought a lot about how to run this. I didn’t want to come across as another employer that people wouldn’t have heard of. I wanted to project a different image.

I last ran a stall at another event in Manchester. This went okay but there were large periods of time where everyone was huddled at the far end of the room from my stall. I decided that what was needed for such a stall was something interesting to draw people in. Not that IMA leaflets and copies of Mathematics Today aren’t interesting, but they don’t necessarily draw people from across the room.

I spent some time with some mathematical puzzle books I have picked up in a discount bookshop earlier in the year and chose a few that seemed interesting. I made a little box and collected 2p pieces for a ‘fitting the coins in a box’ game, made some cardboard cut out puzzles and a lot of print outs of a topology drawing puzzle. These seemed well received by the students I met, and by some of my fellow stallholders.

IMA stall at Calculating Careers

I was told at the end by one of the organisers that every time he had been over, my stall had more people at it than the others. So there is something to be said for baiting mathematicians with intellectual curiosities!

Of course, I sent everyone on their way with a Maths Careers website postcard, a copy of “Careers for Mathematicians” by Sue Briault and many of them with information about the IMA, copies of Mathematics Today and even IMA application forms. Hopefully I made some students aware of the existence of the IMA, which is the battle I am trying to win.