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Guus van de Steeg works for Illumina, inc. – a company that specialises in Medical Diagnostics in Granta Park, Cambridge.
How would you characterise your current work?
My official job title is (still) bioinformatics scientist, but for the past two years my day to day work has consisted of supporting, maintaining, and programming our diagnostics pipeline. This is all done in the programming languages Python and Go, with statistical support using R.
How do you feel about maths?
I’ve never been a fan of maths as a kid and was horrible at studying it in school. I could never imagine where one would require knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem. Compared to other kids I felt that I wasn’t fast enough with even basic maths and to this day I still can’t understand integrals. It was in fact games like Magic the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons that finally improved my basic maths skills!
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
As a programmer, maths takes up a surprising amount of my day. Sometimes it’s simple statistics, like what percentage of samples went through our pipeline’s ‘happy path’, i.e. went through sequencing and analysis, and got delivered without an operator’s interference. Our automated pipeline produces quality control data, so that the next step can only start if the previous step was successfully completed. Other times we’re writing a graphical user interface for tools supporting our lab and need to write a function that calculates where a button should be located in relation to the rest of the window. We tend to forget that the software on our computer doesn’t just reshape itself.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
As mentioned above, I need maths to do statistics, calculate ratios, lookups and so on. I work mostly in an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) to write software, as it provides helpful functionality to keep track of variables, functions, folder structures, in addition to autocompletion and project management support.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
I think maths itself is a fixed science, but those who use it can get very creative in how they use it! We’re aware of variables in maths, and those same variables are used in programming as well. We could write a programmatical function that performs a mathematical function on the arguments provided. Then we call the function on a large amount of data and perform maths on thousands of datasets at a time. As an example, our database lists the size of data packages in bytes. Humans don’t like reading bytes, so we convert them to the largest unit (gigabyte, megabyte, etc.) using a mathematical conversion. Since we can list hundreds of thousands of data packages at a time, performing these conversions programmatically saves us hours!
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
Apart from basic maths (such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, roots and powers), I usually only use the higher maths taught in university, such as ANOVA tables used in statistical comparisons.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I didn’t go to school in the UK, so I’m afraid I can’t give my opinion on the British school curriculum.
But I do recall the first time I had to use trigonometry as part of the calculation of the angle at which a ball had to bounce back off a wall whilst programming Pong. I realised immediately that if my school had spent more effort on presenting functional maths, rather than just ‘maths’, I would’ve probably paid more attention in class! I think we should be teaching kids why they might need maths and focusing on nurturing their individual career aspirations.
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