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Katie Steckles is a mathematician and maths communicator who gives talks in schools around the country about mathematics. She is also a Mathematics Masterclass speaker for the Royal Institution.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My second cousin Stan studied mathematics at Cambridge when I was still a child, and I remember going to his parents' house in the holidays and him showing me a calculator trick in which you multiply 12345679 by a multiple of 9, and it gives you a nice result. I've always found maths something I got on well with, but it was this kind of interesting trick I found really hooked me in.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I don't remember having any of the kind of outreach activities I now provide in schools when I was studying maths - the idea of taking maths students on a trip to see a maths show like Maths Inspiration, or having an off-timetable day to watch maths talks was unheard of, and the only subjects that got trips were drama (to the theatre), and occasionally science trips to the museum. I imagine there are plenty of schools who still don't get enough of this now, but the idea that maths is now something to get excited about I find really positive.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I recall learning in a second-year university module about the middle third Cantor set, and how it behaves due to being a fractal - I found the whole thing totally mind-blowing and it really made me want to learn more. I think it helped me realise what a rabbit-hole some topics in maths can be, and how much a simple idea can lead to very complex interesting structure. That's part of the fascination of maths for me.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I love doing maths with others - I run the MathsJam in Manchester (www.mathsjam.com) where we get together in a pub and do maths puzzles and play games. It can sometimes get pretty serious and we can cover some really cool stuff, but it's also a nice social space. Working on my PhD was difficult and at times lonely, but there were others around going through the same thing so in a sense that was maths done together, even if we were working on different things. And we could share in weekly seminars what we were doing, which is a big part of how maths research works - it's very collaborative.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
I'm not formally a maths teacher, so my opinion on what makes a good teacher is largely born from my experiences in enrichment and my own school days - but I'd say it's important to love the subject and let that come across, and to make use of the way maths always has more than one way of looking at something - if someone doesn't understand something, you can always find a different way to frame it that might work for them. Whether mathematical ability is innate is a difficult question - but I know a large part of success in maths is perseverance and determination, so I think anyone can make progress in maths if they put in the time and effort.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
For me, the best thing is seeing how it all fits together, and dropping down that rabbit hole - thinking about infinity, and how these soaring concepts all connect together in this beautiful structure mathematicians going back centuries have carefully created. It's also good to think about how maths is this underlying language of the universe, and how a proven mathematical fact is always there and will always be true forever, which is in itself kind of epic. But the correct answer is of course, laser cut tessellating tiles and a large floor.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
We did a survey on the blog I write for, Aperiodical.com, to find the best maths pun a little while ago and I think the winner was brilliant. It was about the improper fractions helpline - it's open 24/7.