A month for celebrating women in maths

By Sara Loo

Across the globe, May 12th is a day of celebration for women in mathematics. The May 12th initiative was started by several international associations that support and represent women in mathematics. It came as a response to growing awareness of the need to support and celebrate women who commit their lives to mathematical research.

May 12th was chosen to remember the birthday of Maryam Mirzakhani and recognise her as the first and only woman to date to be honoured with the prestigious Fields Medal in 2014.

The Fields Medal is awarded by the International Union of Mathematics to those under 40 who demonstrate excellence in their research and who hold immense promise for future achievement.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Mirzakhani passed away from breast cancer on July 15, 2017. But her legacy continues through this day each year as mathematicians around the world come together to recognise the women in our field.

As an applied mathematician myself, people are often surprised when they hear what my work involves. I’m usually met with a look of anxiety as people remember mathematics as a thing of their high-school days – with confusing arrays of numbers and the stress of not remembering the quadratic equation.

Why then, would I want to chase a career that is embedded in such confusion?   

Dr Sara Loo

Mathematics is a field with broad application, and its utility pervades all of the sciences. All aspects of science have the flavour of mathematical reasoning and logic. Qualitative and quantitative research alike require tools of analysis. These are often based on mathematical and statistical theory. These tools can be used to identify patterns and significance, to investigate rates of change, and calculate costs.

To celebrate our own women in maths, we reach out to a few of our Champions to see what they say about mathematics, and why they think Women in Maths day is important.

Quantitative psychologist, Dr Jessica Lee says, “I like maths and statistics because it enables me to make sense of data and answer questions about complex psychological phenomena. I always thought that once you ran an experiment it would be obvious what the results were, but that’s often not the case.”

Dr Jessica Lee

Mathematics is a tool of discovery and curiosity. It is investigative and helps us to ask questions we didn’t know were there originally.

Not only can mathematical analysis help us uncover the patterns beneath the surface of our data, mathematics can also help us think logically and critically. “As [I’ve learnt] more and more about different statistical techniques and computational modelling, I’ve found that it’s expanded my way of thinking about data and made me more critical of the types of conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence,” says Jessica.

Mathematics also crosses many disciplines. Early career researcher, Dr Sanaa Hobeichi, started off as a mathematics teacher in Qatar before moving to Sydney to undertake her doctorate in climate science. She is passionate about showing high school students the power of mathematics through practical use in this field.

“Mathematics is a unique tool for getting insights into the science of climate. Thanks to probability and statistics, calculus and algebra, we are able to understand how our climate is changing and how this change will impact life on earth.”

Dr Sanaa Hobeichi

It helps us look at the past and understand how to better our future. “With its ability to… generalise, maths enables us to reconstruct the past climate, where no measurements were taken. It is the basis for the numerical algorithms that help us translate satellite measurements into meaningful information of the current climate. Maths [helps to develop] climate models [that can predict] future climate based on our current emissions and sustainability choices,” says Sanaa.  

Even across the small sample of researchers that is our cohort, mathematics can be seen in many forms. Laws of geometry help shape metals, statistical theory helps uncover correlations in psychological research, logistics and network analysis help research in aviation, fluid analysis may help in optometry, probability theory helps predict how viral genes may mutate.

We continue to celebrate the breadth of our Champions’ research, and the many ways in which mathematics finds its way into their work. Recall our battle cry: “You cannot be what you cannot see.”

Numbers from the 2019 HSC highlight that only 36% of Extension 2 Mathematics students were female. Only 45% of females note interest in mathematics, compared to 56% of males. This divide only increases into higher research.

A study from 2014 showed only 23% of academic and research staff in mathematics departments were women. Another stunning study from USA note an average of 16% of PhD candidates in mathematics at five top tier universities are female. This shrinks to a shocking 7% female at senior faculty positions.

What can we do to encourage women to love maths, and stick with it?

As Jessica highlights, “Days like Women in Maths Day serve to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion by celebrating the achievements of women all around the world. It helps to break down stereotypes of traditionally male-dominated fields and provides visibility of role models that will inspire the next generation of great women in STEM-related careers.”

Sanaa adds: “Given the declining interest in maths among high-school students, celebrating maths day is a way to highlight the application of maths in the real world. Helping young students see the relevance of the subject to their lives can hopefully improve their attitudes towards maths.”

Let’s not get stuck in forcing students to memorise and learn by rote, but let’s instead stoke curiosity and provide mathematical tools that can help reveal patterns. Let’s show our students, and especially our daughters the joy of thinking creatively through mathematics. Let’s use it to unearth secrets hidden in our data. Let’s be surprised and astounded by what we see.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical & Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS) last week released a number of videos from some of these women across Australia, answering why they love mathematics – take a look at what some of these women had to say.

Follow Sara and Jessica on Twitter.

Meet Joanne: Caring for youth with e-health technologies

Interviewed by Sara Loo

Joanne Beames is currently a post-doctoral researcher and clinical psychology registrar at the Black Dog Institute. She is passionate about seeing results come out of the work she does with school students. As one of our ECR cohort, we chatted to her about how new technologies can help youth mental health, and what she loves about psychology.

Dr Joanne Beames

You work at the Black Dog Institute. What is the focus there?

The Institute is the only medical research institute in Australia that is all about improving the mental health of people of all ages. 

We’re working in the early detection, prevention and treatment space for common mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety. There’s a big focus on bridging the gap between research and practice to increase the delivery of effective mental health strategies to the people that need them, when they need them. This is one of the main reasons why I like working at the Institute. I think that equitable access to evidence-based treatments that work is a really important cause to contribute to. 

Using e-health technology is one of the ways that we are trying to increase the availability of mental health care options for people in Australia, and worldwide. There are so many benefits and opportunities for using technology in mental health, like increased access and reduced cost, but we don’t really know much about how to do this in a way that maximises outcomes for the people that use them.

To address this gap, a lot of our work aims to improve the implementation of e-mental health services and programs in real-world contexts. In my work specifically, I look at how to best use e-health technology to prevent mental illness in young people.

What is “e-mental health technology”?

E-mental health technology just means any mental health service or program that is delivered using technology. The program could be delivered via a website, phone app, or a sensor-based monitoring device such as a smart watch.

I look at the school-based delivery of prevention programs to young people using smartphone apps. Because most young people have a phone, they are a great way to reach lots of young people at once, regardless of their location. They help to overcome other barriers of face-to-face therapy, like high cost, embarrassment, and stigma. They also help to increase engagement by building the sense of autonomy that young people have in their own mental health care – autonomy is really important for this age group.

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

I am evaluating whether, and how, a depression prevention app can be implemented at scale in Australian schools. We hope to reach at least 10,000 Year 8 students from a range of schools – public, private – and areas across Australia – rural, regional, and metropolitan. Schools are an ideal environment to implement prevention programs because they provide access to large numbers of young people, at the developmental phase when mental illness first emerges. School staff who have a mental health role, such as counsellors, well-being officers, and teachers, are responsible for supporting the delivery of the app to students.

Information from my research will help to maximise how much young people engage with and use the app and, in turn, preventative effects on depression. It will also inform how mental health prevention technologies can be disseminated at scale in schools, in a way that is sustainable over time.

How do you explore the implementation of the prevention app in schools?

I’m interested in the factors that help school staff to support the delivery of the app in their school. I’m equally interested in the factors that make it difficult for them to do so. I use surveys and interviews to explore how staff perceive the app, as well as their experience with supporting its delivery. Because schools are complex environments and staff are often time-poor, we expect that the delivery is going to vary across schools. This means that staff might provide different levels and types of support across different schools, which will affect student adherence and, in turn, their mental health outcomes.

You interact with a lot of young people, who your research focuses on. What do you enjoy about that?

I think that working with young people is really important in the mental health space. Given that many mental health problems first emerge during early adolescence, prevention and early intervention efforts at this time are critical for improving their trajectory.

I also think that young people can be extremely resilient, and their ability to cope in the face of multiple stressors and major life transitions is inspiring. For me, seeing how young people can respond to mental health strategies is a source of hope.

What drew you to study psychology? And why research in particular?

Psychology was a good fit for me because I was interested in why people feel and do the things that they do. I initially wanted to work as a clinical psychologist rather than a researcher, but during my postgraduate studies I quickly saw how important it was to be a scientist-practitioner. So now I do both! This means that I use gold-standard evidence to guide what I do with clients during psychological therapy, and also use insights from working with clients to guide the types of questions I explore in my research.

I was also drawn to research because there is still so much that we do not know about mental illness – the causes, the individual risk factors that contribute to onset and relapse, and the optimal treatments. I was drawn to the challenge of contributing to something that can have a meaningful impact on the quality of life of many people around the world.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I spend most of my day thinking critically and creatively. I read and write articles, analyse

data, and design new studies. This allows me to do deep dives into topics of interest, helping me to create new ideas and outputs to share with other people. Teamwork also forms a big part of what I do. Collaborating with others is crucial for producing innovative ideas that have real impact on people’s daily lives – the trope of a lonely scientist in a lab or stuck behind a computer screen is not always true!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m all about crime, fiction and non-fiction, so I spend a lot of time reading, watching, and listening to it (but not doing it, obviously). My other hobbies are playing field hockey, baking, and camping. Having different ways to wind down and enjoy life outside of research is really important for increasing motivation and a positive outlook.

Follow Joanne on Twitter.