CHOOSEMATHS Grant Recipient: Elizabeth McCarthy

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CHOOSEMATHS Grant Recipient: Elizabeth McCarthy

Elizabeth McCarthy

The University of Southern Queensland

Can you give me a quick overview of the type of mathematics you are studying and its potential impacts for the broader community

At the most fundamental level, I am interested in learning and teaching approaches which enable and empower students in engaging positively with mathematics. This is where I operate during my work life, where I enigmatically (or as I affectionately phrase it, engiMATHically) spread my energies across two departments as a Mathematics Learning Advisor in Student Learning and Development, and a Lecturer in STEM courses.

I am also a fervent researcher, pursuing opportunities to explore machine learning and data science solutions to complex problems through my PhD studies, and as part of my academic scholarly activities. My PhD project uses machine learning models to capture location specific rainfall and drought trends and produce continually updated medium term forecasts, which are meaningful for workers in the agricultural sector. This PhD introduced me to machine learning, and has spurred my drive for discovery of applications of data-driven strategic decision making in the higher education sector. I am currently investigating models for capturing trends in first-year tertiary student assessment commitments in an attempt to improve student outcomes and to better inform our teaching practices.

You received a CHOOSEMATHS Grant to assist your attendance at AMSI Summer School 2018. How important was this in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the sessions throughout the program?

Through the CHOOSEMATHS Grant I had the opportunity to more comfortably relinquish my typical work-study-life patterns for a month, while seamlessly embracing the motions set by the summer school program. The CHOOSEMATHS Grant, together with the support received by my employer, enabled me to travel interstate, enrol at a prominent university and, for the four weeks, immerse myself in a mathematics culture that I am realising I have only previously existed on the fringe of.

How important are initiatives such as the CHOOSEMATHS Grants in terms of fostering the participation and achievement of women in mathematics, particularly in terms of access to networking opportunities and further training opportunities?

The CHOOSEMATHS Grant promoted diversity and delivered. I experienced a more diverse representation within the cohort who attended the AMSI Summer School than I have ever experienced during my studies.

My attendance at the summer school also afforded me the opportunity to observe and entertain the idea of different career directions in the future, and the professional community support structures available. In particular, this was true for the CHOOSEMATHS Dinner, the diversity lecture and the careers afternoon. After being tantalised by the career stimuli made available throughout the summer school, I am more determined and eager than ever to complete my PhD in machine learning as soon as I can. In the meantime, I am continuing to explore avenues through which my machine learning expertise may mature.

In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Has it influenced the direction of your research?

The statistical machine learning course was predominantly directed towards students with a more theoretical and pure mathematical interest in the topic, and hence the classwork was significantly beyond my applied understanding of the subject. At times I found myself fantasising about a future me presenting to students in a hypothetical class on machine learning concepts and the different student centred teaching approaches I would take (occupational hazard of being a mathematics learning advisor in real life, I guess). The classes inspired me to look beyond my official course material and discover open source online material which has enabled my engagement with the theory, and this facilitated the development of connections between the theory and application of machine learning principles for me. The experience at the AMSI summer school has affirmed my choice of machine learning applications as the focus of my PhD research, and turbo charged my desire to finish.

What was the most valuable part of AMSI Summer School 2018 for you in terms of furthering your career in mathematical sciences?

In particular, this was true for the CHOOSEMATHS Dinner, the diversity lecture and the careers afternoon. After being tantalised by the career stimuli made available throughout the summer school, I am more determined and eager than ever to complete my PhD in machine learning as soon as I can. My attendance also afforded me the opportunity to observe and entertain the idea of different career directions in the future, and the professional community support structures available.

In the meantime, I am continuing to explore avenues through which my machine learning expertise may mature. At present, I am commencing the supervision of undergraduate research students with interests in engineering applications of machine learning, and later on in the year, I plan to utilise what I have learned in a professional development technology demonstrator project on cluster analysis of the impact of student assessment deadlines.

On a side note, after having a heightened awareness of the spreading infiltration of data and mathematics across all industries, as raised indirectly and directly throughout the summer school, I was able to persuade my partner to consider enrolling in a business analytics course to supplement his project management skills. He didn’t stand a chance: he starts next week!

A presentation on the AMSI Intern program was included as part of the Careers Afternoon. One of the aims of the AMSI Intern program is to maximise employability and help prepare research graduates to drive industry/private sector research. Are you hoping to work with industry? How important is this experience for researchers? Particularly in terms of offering career flexibility for women?

I have to admit, I have been excited by the dazzling prospects presented during the summer school; particularly at the careers afternoon. The presentation of these options have broadened my understanding of where my ideas and skills may potentially be used in industry.

With this newfound perspective, I am more appreciative of the necessity of maintaining a connection to industry, in order to stay up to date with relevant and current technical skills that would enable career flexibility. Upon reflection of my own work, I can also identify that the technical skills developed during research under a particular context are transferrable to a wider scope of problems as presented by industry.

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from BHP Billiton to turn the tide on Australia’s maths deficit and strengthen maths education and participation of women across the discipline. What do you see as the big challenges facing maths in Australia, particularly for women?

Australia offers many exciting opportunities for working in mathematics-related fields. However, the reality is that many of these workplaces in Australia demonstrate disproportionate gender representation. The challenges threatening mathematics education and participation of women in Australia may be addressed by considering:

Greater investment in changing the cultural norms and unconscious bias which are shown in literature to have deterred women from remaining in mathematics related fields in Australia.

Increasing the utilisation of technology as a means to connect mathematically inclined students to more specialised skill nurturing programs across our geographically sparse nation.

Providing greater incentives to broader industry partners to encourage active interest and involvement in diversity awareness and mentoring.

Did you always want to pursue a career in maths? Were you encouraged to study these subjects at school? Do any particular mentors come to mind? Any outstanding teachers?

Initially my study of mathematics was incidental to my objective of completing a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronics. This casual fling with mathematics evolved into something significantly more serious upon my appointment as a contract mathematics tutor with the university. During intimate half hour sessions, my students bared their fears of mathematics and failures, and aired their emotional baggage of past negative educational experiences. I admired their bravery and drive to improve themselves. I also knew deep inside that I had to strive to do better as a mathematics educator, in both technique, pedagogy and communication. And I did. My students forever changed me and my relationship with mathematics. For me, my students have been the most outstanding teachers. And my students? Their transformations fuelled by improving confidence, understanding and technical skill are magical.

Where do you see yourself in five, ten years time?

In my future plans, I envisage myself reaping the rewards of successfully completing a doctoral degree, and achieving a healthy work-life balance. However as a keen lifelong learner, I will be in pursuit of developing a maturity in machine learning through a combination of industry experience, student mentoring and academic activities.

I look forward to experimenting further with the applications of data science and machine learning across a number of contexts, including agriculture, higher education and health, and where possible, incorporating elements of my mechatronics background.

Any other feedback/comments you would like to provide on the CHOOSEMATHS grant or AMSI Summer School 2018?

While I had a set of expectations of what I would gain from attending the AMSI Summer School 2018, to my surprise, the actual benefits of my participation turned out to be completely different. Overall I feel great satisfaction on reflection of my participation at the summer school. I was also happy to express my enjoyment of the summer school through regular social media posts, through which I hope to reach out to future students and encourage their attendance and pursuit of mathematics as a goal for a potential career direction.

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