Dr Nira Chamberlain
Dr Nira Chamberlain

‘The Professionals’ is our latest addition to The Hub. Here, we share wisdom and advice from inspirational professionals who have made their mark in their respective disciplines. I (Amara) was privileged to be invited to speak at a STEM Careers Event and I was inspired and challenged by Dr Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for his subject. I wrote the quote below in my notebook and have been applying it to every personal and professional challenge I have come across to date. In today’s article, Dr Nira Chamberlain – listed by the Science Council as one of the UK’s top 100 scientists – discusses his passion for Mathematics and what it takes to excel as a professional mathematician.

“Mathematics is not easy, it isn’t supposed to be easy. It is about being tenacious and working on a problem until you can find a solution, it is about not giving up!”

Nira Chamberlain 

APH: Can you tell us about your educational and professional background?

NC: I am a Professional Mathematical Modeller, Chartered Scientist, Chartered Mathematician and Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. I have a PhD in Mathematics, MSc in Industrial Mathematical Modelling and BSc (Hons) in Mathematics. In addition to this, I am a BBC Expert Voice.

APH: When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in Mathematics?

NC: When I was 17 years old, I successful solved a Geography field trip problem using mathematical statistics. I had to find the relationship between a river’s depth and its speed. I thought… this is good fun! Four years later, I was informed that I could pursue a career as a Professional Mathematician.

APH: Please could you expatiate on what you mean by “you were informed you could pursue a career as a professional mathematician.”

NC: As I was entering the final year of my Mathematics Degree, I took a Careers book from the Library. I went through this to list all the possible jobs I could do. When I reached the section Professional Mathematician, I closed the book and looked no further.

APH: In your opinion, what are the important skills and personal attributes that are required to succeed as a Mathematician?

NC: In my opinion, to succeed in mathematics you would have to be highly motivated, hard working as well as fiercely competitive but have honour and integrity. You must also be determined to show you are the best in the world but must respect and learn from other highly skilled mathematicians. Finally, you must be absolutely willing to go to heroic lengths to avoid being defeated by a problem. This is how you succeed as a mathematician. The moment you become arrogant or complacent is the time you stop being a mathematician.

APH: You mention being ‘fiercely competitive’ as an important attribute to succeed as a mathematician. Please could you elaborate on this? Sometimes people read ‘competitive’ as ‘combative’ Do you have any wisdom to share on how we can remain competitive but not fall into the ‘win at all costs’ trap?

NC: A mathematician’s competitiveness is driven by the need to solve even more complex problems, in other words, ‘to up my game.’ This is similar to a weightlifter lifting larger weights than before. In order to improve, a mathematician will need other mathematicians to bounce his/her ideas off which may require them to up their game as well. Mathematics is creative not political, you cannot push the frontier of mathematics forward by knocking down your fellow mathematician or stealing their ideas.

APH: Are there any myths about Mathematics & Mathematicians that you come across?

NC:  Some common ones are that the best mathematicians are those who can solve problems in 2 seconds flat, can multiply big numbers in their head, find mathematics easy and never ever make mistakes! This is so far from the truth.

Another myth is that mathematics is boring. It certainly is not! Mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas!

APH:  Can you describe a typical working day? What do you like the most and least about your job?

My day consists of solving the “impossible” and doing the mathematics that scientist and engineers can’t do.  Most days, I am designing a mathematical approach on the whiteboard, then I am working on a computer writing complex mathematical algorithms. What I most like about my job is turning complex real life problems into a mathematical argument and then solving it. On the downside, sometimes due to the nature of my job, I could be away from my family for long periods. However, due to technology advancements this is occurring less and less.

APH: What do you wish someone else had told you before you embarked on your professional journey?

NC: The importance and value of doing a PhD. Seven years into my career I met members  of the Congress of African-American Research Mathematicians. They showed me the importance of adding significant knowledge to the field of mathematics as well as the need of having more Black mathematicians achieving this.

APH: Do you have any mentors? If yes, who are they and how important has having a mentor been to you?

NC: My cousin is a Professor of Economics and is my intellectual inspiration. A Black man who pursued his intellectual passion to the very top of his field   – wow! He gave me advice and encouragement, so he is the nearest thing to being a mentor. I also have an international and domestic network of mathematical friends. We chat and encourage each other. There is a saying, “iron sharpens iron” and this is true. We keep each other mathematically sharp,

APH: What achievements are you most proud of? 

Successfully completing my PhD part time while I was working full time and raising a family at the same time. Being recognized by the Science Council as one of the Top 100 Scientists in the UK. Becoming the first Black Mathematician to make it into the Who’s Who. There are only approximately 30 mathematicians in the Who’s Who and they tend to be the UK’s most top notch mathematicians. To be recognized in this way and to join such an exclusive group, I have to give God the praise.

APH: What advice would you share with parents or guardians about helping their children develop a love for Mathematics? 

Mathematics is really a fantastic adventurous game and should be viewed as such. The British mathematician Sir John Kingman once said,

“Mathematicians are better if they stay a bit childish and play the game as a game. This is the key to teaching mathematics, it’s not to flood people with practical problems, rather it is to say that this is the best game that has ever been invented. It beats Monopoly, it beats chess and it happens that it can enable you to land rockets on the moon. The real mathematical advances have been made by people who just loved it.”

APH: What advice would you share with anyone who is thinking of a pursuing a career in Mathematics?

In my formative years there were not that many Black mathematical role models. However, my Dad instilled confidence and self-esteem in me by telling me that;

“You do not need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician”.

These words has stuck with me to this very day.  Believing in yourself is one of the keys in doing mathematics.

APH: How do you maintain a sense of balance while juggling your different roles – both personal and professional?

If there is a mathematical problem I need to go to war with then I do the “Nairobi shift”. This means getting up at 4am to do 3 hours of mathematics. I spend the rest of the day working and looking after the family before going to bed at 8pm. At 4am, I am at my mathematical peak and my boys are asleep! : )


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