Each year—as part of their Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course—St Leonards School appoints an Associate Researcher to familiarise their pupils in the Sixth Form with research, to provide a general point of contact within the University of St Andrews for them, and to give them an opportunity to explore an Area of Knowledge in more depth together with a PhD student from the University.
After attending an interview process at St Leonards in November 2017, which included delivering a ‘taster’ presentation to the students about my research in mathematical oncology, I was excited when St Leonard’s Doctoral and Postdoctoral College informed me that I had been appointed the Associate Researcher for 2018. In addition to the fact that I enjoy public outreach in general, there were two main reasons why I was greatly looking forward to developing and delivering my five formal presentations and three tutorials to the students:
As a researcher, I do not spend much time considering basic questions like the one central to TOK “How do we know what we know is true?” on a daily basis. So I was looking forward to taking the opportunity to reflect upon what this means to me in the context of my research area—mathematics.
Secondly, the opportunity to speak to the pupils, who would soon make the life-changing decision of what career they would pursue, appealed to me: When I was in their shoes, I was very unsure what path to follow. Through a number of coincidences and by following my interests, I am very lucky to have found my way into a very rewarding career as a researcher in mathematical oncology.
I have two personal highlights from this opportunity: The first was being able to demonstrate to the pupils the amazing and useful things one can do using mathematics, and the second was conveying to the pupils that it is okay to be undecided about what exactly one wants to pursue after school and that it is always a good start to let one’s true interests guide the way.
Apart from explaining my own research in mathematical modelling of cancer cell invasion and metastatic spread, topics we covered included: a short introduction to the history of mathematics and science; mathematics in nature, art and architecture; mathematics and science in the job market; and (the relative lack of) women in mathematics and other STEM subjects.
To facilitate TOK-related discussions, we explored each of these topics with a particular Knowledge Question in mind. These included:
- Is mathematics invented or discovered?
- If mathematics is “out there” in the world, then where exactly can it be found?
- How can a mathematical model give us knowledge if it does not yield accurate predictions?
While these are questions that I do not claim to have an answer to, I believe that they are worth exploring. The exploration in itself is of great importance—we must never forget to question the status quo of knowledge as well as its sources, in particular those of us with the mission of generating knowledge through research.
Also, after finishing my lecture series as an Associate Researcher as well as other previous enriching public engagement encounters, I can only recommend to any researcher who feels that there is a slight possibility that they may enjoy public outreach to just give it a try.
On a final note, I would like to thank Mr Ben Seymour, the coordinator of the TOK course, for the warm welcome to St Leonards School, and the engaged TOK pupils, who I found to be a very responsive and interested team in exploring the topics of my lectures—thanks to you I thoroughly enjoyed lecturing in my role as an Associate Researcher!
(The full report is also published here.)