Be a mathematician

Published on August 25th, 2011
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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