## Be a mathematician

**What exactly does a mathematician do? **

My work mostly consists of two components: teaching and research. I usually teach between one and four courses per semester. At the moment, I am offering a basic calculus course for first-years, and in the second semester I will be teaching a third-year course on discrete mathematics as well as a second-year course for civil engineers.

The second major part is scientific research: I mostly work in a branch of mathematics that is called combinatorics – the ‘mathematics of counting’. I am specifically interested in applications to other sciences, such as chemistry, physics or computer science. For example, a simple combinatorial question from chemistry is: if you know the molecular formula of a molecule, how do you determine the number of possible structures?

An aspect of my work that combines both in a way that I particularly enjoy is supervising graduate students (honours, masters and PhD students).

** What made you decide to choose this field, and where did you study?**

It all came very naturally – I knew from a very early age that mathematics is what I wanted to do. It was always the subject that I enjoyed the most and that I was best at (besides, I don’t have many other obvious talents). So I decided to study mathematics (at the University of Technology in my hometown, Graz, in Austria). I got my MSc, my PhD, and finally a lecturer position at Stellenbosch University, which is where I am now.

**What subjects did you need to pursue your career?**

Mostly mathematics, of course, but it also helps to know a bit about physics, chemistry, biology and computer science, since there are so many connections between mathematics and other sciences.

**Is there anything that still baffles you?**

I can spend hours clicking through articles on Wikipedia about completely random topics… it’s just amazing how much there is to explore.

**What drives you crazy? **

Unnecessary bureaucracy!

**What’s the best part of your job? **

I get paid for doing what I enjoy.

**What surprised you most about your job once you had qualified?**

I always found and still find it amazing how many problems in mathematics are extremely easy to state, but extremely hard to solve.

**Tell us about a challenge you overcame using your skills and knowledge.**

A few years ago, I was working on a mathematical problem and just couldn’t find a way to crack it. Then a friend and collaborator of mine came to Stellenbosch University to visit me for a month. I told him about my problem, and we tried to solve it together. For about a week, we made absolutely no progress. Then one morning he suddenly came to my office, announcing that he had solved the problem – and indeed he had. This is obviously not a story about *my *skills and knowledge, but the moral is that good contacts with other researchers are crucial in today’s scientific world.

**Any words of wisdom for aspiring mathematicians? **

Enjoy what you are doing, and you will do well. I think this applies to almost everything, not just mathematics.

**Your top-three favourite gadgets or inventions of all time?**

There are way too many, so let me name three inventions from different eras: the wheel, the printing press, the computer.

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