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Dr Sophie Carr is the founder and director of Bays Consulting. Since founding the company in 2009 Sophie has overseen its growth to 12 people, providing data science and mathematical modeling for a wide range of clients. Outside of Bays, Sophie is the VP for Education and Statistical Literacy at the Royal Statistical Society, serves on the General Council for the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and was named the World’s Most Interesting Mathematician of 2019.
How would you characterise your current work?
My working week is split between running a business, providing technical oversight of the projects that Bays works on, and developing/writing my own code. Running a business needs good numeracy skills to make sure you’re on top of cash flow, invoicing, payroll, tax returns and the other financial aspects of running a business. As the company has grown, more of my time is spent on running the business, but I am still actively involved in technical review and oversight of the projects we deliver. I enjoy working with the technical team in Bays developing ideas as to how we can solve problems or investigating why some code isn’t working. The amount of time I get to spend actually writing my own code is much smaller than it was a few years ago, so I make sure that I do this just for fun on home projects to keep my skills up.
How do you feel about maths?
I really enjoy maths now, but it wasn’t always like that. At school my favourite subject was physics and maths was just something I needed to be able to do so that I could understand the physics. It wasn’t that I didn’t like maths, it just didn’t interest me as much. I decided to study engineering at university, which I absolutely loved. It didn’t take me long to realise that my ability in engineering was directly linked to my capability in maths. Over time I started to enjoy maths much more and ended up studying a Master's degree in applied mathematics and fluid mechanics. It wasn’t until I was working as an engineer on flight trials that I was introduced to Bayesian Belief Networks and that was when everything changed. I was utterly fascinated by them (which is helpful as they formed the basis of my PhD) and maths went from being something I needed to do to work in engineering to the area I wanted to work in. Since then, I’ve never lost the sense of wonder and joy that maths brings me. That’s not to say it’s always easy (it rarely is) or that there aren’t times when the work is a bit dull and repetitive, but maths has given me a career that I adore.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
Quite a lot! I work in developing and reviewing mathematical approaches to solving the problem that the company is working on. Sometimes I also get to write the actual algorithms (but less so as the company has grown, as I have moved more into running the business) which is turning the calculations and equations into code. A key part of the maths is that the results are understood and clearly presented. This means if I am writing code or reviewing others’ code, then I have to look at the visualisations produced, especially when graphs are being created.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
I use all three in my work as they are fundamental to developing data science solutions and mathematical modelling. It starts with the data cleansing and data checking to understand the structure of the data. That requires the numeracy skills – are there numbers which seem to be unexpectedly high or low? Where is the “average” value? Once I understand the data structure then calculations are developed in algorithms. I work mainly in Python now to develop code, but learnt R at the start of my career.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
Absolutely – maths is an incredibly creative subject. I think part of the “bad reputation” that maths and statistics has comes from the perception that “creative maths” happens when people get the number they want to see, the number that serves their own purpose. There is a real difference between getting the number right (which is what mathematicians try to do) and getting the right number (that is the number that they expect the answer to be because it serves their own purpose). I honestly believe that most people seek to get the number right, that they don’t set out to deceive.
At its heart, maths is all about solving puzzles – it is the one thing that unites mathematicians regardless of what area they work in. Also, when you work in maths in industry, unlike at school there is no answer sheet to work back from – in fact we often set out not knowing if we will find an answer. What that means is we need to be creative in thinking about how we could start to solve the problem. That is, what do we know that might be useful in starting to solve the problem? It is interesting and fun to see what ideas from diverse areas of maths and life we can pull together to get an insight that helps us take the next step forward in getting an answer.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
All the time! I think it is also worth mentioning that I still do my 9 times tables on my fingers, and regularly add up using my fingers too. I work a lot in statistics and specifically with probabilities. I often have to develop and work with conditional probabilities, which you learn at school in probability trees. I often work out the order that events happen in by drawing a tree, which helps me ensure that the probability being calculated is the one that answers the question.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
This is a very tricky question to answer as I don’t work in education, but I do have two children who definitely don’t share my love of maths. There are fundamental maths skills that are essential in everyday life – from problem solving, to ensuring your change is correct, to working out the best value for money. I think the question has to be how those skills are gained, especially within the context that they may be encountered. If there was a way to encourage maths to be learnt through exploration, where pupils realise that mathematicians are wrong far more than they are right (and that this is nothing to be ashamed of) and which helps develop their curiosity, then I think this would be fantastic. Looking after secondary school, encouraging as many people as possible to take Core Maths would, I think, make a big difference to many people’s futures.
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