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CHOOSEMATHS Grant Recipient: Theresa O’Brien

Theresa O’Brien

The University of Wollongong

Theresa O’Brien is an undergraduate student in statistics and mathematics, with an interest in rigorous mathematical modelling in the social sciences. She first developed a background in sociology and linguistics while doing a Bachelor of Arts in those fields at the University of Sydney, then when on to do a Bachelor of Mathematics at the University of Wollongong, majoring first in applied statistics before broadening her horizons to include both pure and applied mathematics as well.

Particularly passionate about multidisciplinary research and bridging the gaps between quite different academic fields, Theresa developed a keen interest in the necessity of strong quantitative skillsets, seeking to fill that need through her education and research. She also advocates for the desperate public need for good education in these skills, in a society that is increasingly driven by statistics, mathematical models, and algorithms.

Can you give me a quick overview of the type of mathematics you are studying and its potential impacts for the broader community

I am currently working to develop a general background in all of statistics, pure, and applied mathematics. The intention is to go on to do statistics and mathematical modelling in social sciences, as I have a BA with majors in linguistics and sociology. There’s a growing body of quantitative analysis in social sciences and very few people who have the necessary background to do it really well.

You received a CHOOSEMATHS Grant to assist your attendance at AMSI Summer School 2018. How important was this in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the sessions throughout the program?

I would not have attended without it. I had no capacity to afford the travel and accommodation on my own.

How important are initiatives such as the CHOOSEMATHS Grants in terms of fostering the participation and achievement of women in mathematics, particularly in terms of access to networking opportunities and further training opportunities?

The networking opportunities are really useful, I found a potential masters supervisor at ANU and met a woman from UNSW who is now coming to Wollongong to do her masters who I’ve been giving support in making that transition. I am not sure, however, that these are more useful to the female attendees than to the others, though having grants specifically for women may encourage them to apply.

In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Has it influenced the direction of your research?

The summer school has given me a potential masters project, which liberated me from some amount of decision paralysis. Topological data analysis sits in a nice intersection of pure, applied, and stats so I can apply all of those hard-won skillsets. In addition, attending has given me a broader perspective on the discipline which will be useful.

What was the most valuable part of AMSI Summer School 2018 for you in terms of furthering your career in mathematical sciences?

Meeting a potential masters supervisor, finding a field that I’m interested in that will use all my skills.

A presentation on the AMSI Intern program was included as part of the Careers Afternoon. One of the aims of the AMSI Intern program is to maximise employability and help prepare research graduates to drive industry/private sector research. Are you hoping to work with industry? How important is this experience for researchers? Particularly in terms of offering career flexibility for women?

I don’t intend to work in industry, and I found the intellectual property restrictions somewhat of an issue, as handing all the rights to the industry partner may well limit the contribution interns can make to the field more generally. There is too much good research that gathers dust in the prison of intellectual property.

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from BHP Billiton to turn the tide on Australia’s maths deficit and strengthen maths education and participation of women across the discipline. What do you see as the big challenges facing maths in Australia, particularly for women?

Starting at the primary level, teachers are not supported to deliver maths content well as many of them are weak in the field, and it is rare to find a school who can employ a maths specialist. In general, the economic disadvantage that cripples the school system for so many students also affects mathematics, perhaps particularly so. Students are further discouraged because the way the curriculum is set up means that if they miss a fundamental idea, they do not have the resources or time to catch up or correct the misconception. The impoverishment of the maths curriculum at the highschool level is an issue in its own right, as is the ongoing lack of good support for people who have fallen behind. This may well affect girls more than boys, as boys are more likely to overstate their competence, while girls tend to underestimate it particularly in STEM areas, but I haven’t seen any research specifically linking those two.

While the efforts to support students at the highschool level are laudible, it could have better outcome to look at funding classroom-level support in economically disadvantaged schools particularly at the primary level, or otherwise addressing the gross under-funding of public education more generally.

Did you always want to pursue a career in maths? Were you encouraged to study these subjects at school? Do any particular mentors come to mind? Any outstanding teachers?

I did not do maths particularly well in school. I failed at least one exam in year 11, and only completed the advanced maths HSC subject with a band 4. Some of this was due to falling a bit behind due to not getting along with an early teacher, some of it was due to other psychological factors that didn’t really get dealt with until my first degree.

It wasn’t until I came to do a stats degree (with an eye to the need for such skills in sociology) that I found myself enjoying maths as well. There is a considerable list of people at UoW who have helped me in this: Aidan Sims, Maureen Edwards, Mark Nelson, Marianito Rodrigo, and Anne Porter are the most prominent. I blame Aidan Sims with getting me to enjoy pure maths, and Mark Nelson for introducing me to applied. All of them have played mentor roles to some extent, particularly when I’ve had rough patches while doing the degree.

Where do you see yourself in five, ten years time?

In 5 years I hope to be doing a PhD. In ten, in an academic position somewhere, hopefully with teaching as well as research, doing mathematical modelling in social sciences.