Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The real reason I engage in scientific outreach (Charles Gray)

My best friend is a high school teacher and the question he gets asked the most is “What am I ever going to use this for?”

I would wager that the subject that gets this question the most is mathematics.

As a PhD student in mathematical statistics, I know that problems of today and the problems of tomorrow, such as climate change, income inequality, and cancer, cannot be solved without the mathematical sciences. But high school students don’t necessarily know this.

It’s this message that I, as a careers ambassador for the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute’s Choose Maths campaign, have been sharing with high school students around Australia.

In March 2017, we toured the country screening the movie Hidden Figures, a chronicle of three extraordinary female mathematicians who worked in the space program at NASA in the 1960s, to high school girls. At each event, we have women who work in mathematics-related fields speak and share their journey. This role developed from my work as a student affiliate with Women in STEMM Australia, for whom I curated a feature series on women studying STEMM last year, and various similar projects.

Why would I do something like this?

Well, I could say that I feel honour-bound, given my rarified privilege as a research student, to give back to the scientific community - and I do.

I could say that I wholeheartedly believe we need to have greater diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields - and I do.

I could say that participating in projects like this is great for fulfilling that leadership and advocacy requirement for an early career researcher - and it is.

But none of these reasons addresses the primary reason that drives me.

I’m a brown woman in my mid-thirties, and I’m reminded all too frequently in everyday life that I don’t fit with people’s expectations of an (aspiring) academic in mathematics. This comes from comments, but also the people I meet. These stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies, and mathematics and computer science subjects are often dominated by young white males.

Through my involvement in outreach, I have not only connected with young people, but I have also connected with so many people in and around my field that remind me I’m not alone.

Just this week, on our way back from the last of these movie events, I ended up having a coffee at Adelaide’s airport with the executive director of the Choose Maths program, Inge Koch. I already knew that we both had similar research interests in statistics, but what I didn’t know was that Inge also went through her doctorate in her mid-thirties.

Now, anyone working on a postgraduate degree can relate to the ever-present imposter syndrome. These fleeting connections, a quick coffee, a throw-away comment - it’s these moments that keep me sane as a research student.

These little moments remind me that it is possible, that I can defy expectations.

Inge also made an observation that I think will always stay with me: mathematics is not about what you’re good at, but what you’re curious about.

Through outreach and advocacy, I get unparalleled opportunities to connect with and learn from role models like Inge. There is also the delight that comes from connecting with young people who aspire to scientific pursuits.

Sharing science with anyone always brings joy! Who doesn’t like talking about what they’re into?

The rewards of being in this role, as hectic as it has been, are tenfold what I've put in.


Charles Gray is a reformed musician, aspiring statistician. She is currently working on a PhD in mathematical statistics. 

Charles keeps busy with the Statistical Society of Australia, organising conferences, and advocating for women in science. 

Charles has had short stories published and performed professionally in classical, jazz, and Balinese music. Her first thesis contended that the contemporary Disney neo-canon of musical animated feature films are so racist their music is racist. Thesis two was in abstract algebra, and there were more numbers in her page numbers than the thesis. 

She wants to be a superhero when she grows up. Meanwhile, she tweets at @cantabile.

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