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Features: Faculty Insights


The Millennium Mathematics Project, the Faculty's flagship outreach and engagement initiative, welcomes Professor Julia Gog as its Director.

"We in the Faculty of Mathematics are delighted that Julia Gog has agreed to become the second Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP)," says Colm-cille Caulfield Head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). "She is an outstanding research mathematician and an outstanding teacher, with a profound and long-standing commitment to mathematics education, outreach and public engagement."

What is the Millennium Mathematics Project?

The Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP) is an initiative reaching both schools and the public. "Our aim is to connect and engage everyone with the excitement and impact of mathematics," says Julia Hawkins, Deputy Director of the MMP. "We want to challenge, inspire and engage students, and encourage them to explore the subject."

Much like mathematics at Cambridge itself, the MMP brings together expertise in many areas — education, communication and widening participation — in a family of complementary programmes.

If a researcher couldn't answer someone in the street asking 'why are you doing what you are doing and why should others value that?' then I think we are failing.Julia Gog

One of these is Plus, which works with mathematical science researchers to communicate their work. Through articles and podcasts, published primarily on its free online platform, Plus is aimed at students and teachers, policy makers and press, industry and researchers in other fields, and indeed anyone curious about what happens at the cutting edge of mathematical science. Plus also works more widely on innovative engagement strategies with researchers, including a recent collaboration with the Faculty's Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology on a 25-episode series for the Discovery Channel.

Complementing Plus is NRICH, which develops free, curriculum-linked resources for learners and teachers of mathematics from primary to post-16 levels, focusing on developing problem-solving skills and helping students to develop their mathematical reasoning, confidence, resilience and creativity. It creates opportunities for students to learn mathematics through exploration and discussion, and provides professional development for teachers to help them embed rich mathematical tasks in everyday classroom practice.

"For me, I think the children in my class have become far more adventurous and courageous," commented a teacher who participated in an NRICH programme. "They're able to solve problems with confidence, they're flexible, they're thoughtful and objective, and I really feel that it's promoting the idea of them being a problem solver for the future."

Another initiative under the MMP umbrella specifically supports school students applying to Cambridge. The free online STEP Support Programme helps potential university applicants develop their mathematical skills and prepare for STEP Mathematics exams. In addition, the MMP also organises mathematical events for schools, families and the public, and hosts the East of England Advanced Mathematics Support Programme.

Lasting impact

Although the team that makes up the MMP is relatively small, its activities have significant impact. In the 2021/22 school year its web-based resources attracted over 9.5 million visits from users worldwide, while over 13,000 school students and more than 2,900 teachers were involved in face-to-face activities and online webinars and events. It has won a number of awards, including the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2006.

As Director of the MMP Julia Gog follows in illustrious footsteps. When it was founded in 1999 DAMTP appointed John D. Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences and celebrated author of many popular science books, to lead the project. When Barrow unexpectedly passed away in 2020 the role of MMP Director became vacant, at a time when much of the world was paralysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gog, Professor of Mathematical Biology at DAMTP, was then playing a leading part in the UK's COVID response, so it was only when the pandemic had begun to abate, in October 2022, that she was able to start leading the MMP.

"Since its foundation under the inspirational directorship of Professor John Barrow, the MMP has succeeded in providing the widest possible opportunities for people of all ages to experience the richness, beauty and value of mathematics,' says Caulfield. "I am very excited to see how Julia will lead the MMP in the years ahead, inspiring, I am sure, both school-age children and the general public to 'think like a mathematician'."

Outreach is a two-way street

Gog's long-term involvement with the MMP demonstrates the benefits of having a multi-faceted outreach and engagement programme sitting within a university department — both for researchers who, like Gog, would like to communicate their work to external audiences, and for these audiences themselves.

Gog first discovered her passion for outreach before she joined the Mathematics Faculty in 2006. As part of a Royal Society University Research Fellowship she attended a course in communications, which dared participants to take up the next public engagement opportunity offered to them. For Gog this was a general call to Cambridge mathematicians from Jenny Gage, Academic Coordinator of the MMP's Motivate programme. Founded in 1999, Motivate was well ahead of its time. Linking mathematicians with schools via video conferencing, it enabled school students to experience mathematical research in classroom projects delivered by researchers. Gog's project explored the epidemiological models that featured in her research, then at the Department of Zoology at Cambridge.

Inspired by colleagues, Gog then realised that the engagement with schools could work both ways: since schools represent a key risk group for the transmission of infectious diseases, students' knowledge of social contact patterns in schools represents a goldmine of information. Together with Gage and other colleagues, Gog developed a further highly innovative project, which embedded a scientific study within the mathematical activities at the schools involved: while students learnt how to handle and analyse data, researchers gained the much needed information on social contact patterns provided by the students. This groundbreaking project resulted in a paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Motivate ceased operations in 2010, when remote video communications had become more easily accessible, but Gog's initial work with the project was only the beginning of her public engagement work. She went on to write articles with Plus and regularly gave public lectures, for example at the Cambridge Festival. In 2018 Gog and her team were behind the UK's largest citizen science experiment in collaboration with the BBC, using data contributed by users of a smartphone app to better understand how pandemic influenza might spread.

Gog praises the Faculty's attitude to this kind of work. "I'm part of a culture here where outreach and communication is valued," she says. "I feel permitted and supported to do it and that's not universally the case in academe. I may be more involved in outreach than the average researcher, but in this Faculty I'm by no means an outlier."

Stepping up in a crisis

This culture, together with the experience Gog had gathered, naturally led her to recognising the need for communication when the pandemic hit. From early 2020 she worked with the Editors of Plus to explain important epidemiological concepts and the role of mathematical modelling to non-expert audiences, using the existing Plus platform for dissemination. When Gog co-founded JUNIPER, a consortium of disease modellers, to contribute to the pandemic response, the Plus team were invited to join to provide in-house science writing expertise. The collaboration between Plus and JUNIPER has resulted in a large repository of articles and podcasts, and has featured in government guidance on COVID-19 as well as information submitted by disease modellers to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

"We wanted to bring Plus into JUNIPER partly because we understood that communicating these things well for a general audience — who are living through the pandemic — is important. We have a responsibility and a duty to communicate why vaccination is important, why household bubbling is important, or even just to explain R. But the collaboration was also about communicating those concepts to the government via senior civil servants." The Plus Editors, along with other members of JUNIPER, received a SPI-M-O Award for Modelling and Data Support from SAGE for their work. The collaboration also helped to spearhead a new way of working for the Plus team, which has the Editors embedded into research groups and institutes, working directly with researchers over extended periods of time.

Gog's communications efforts during the pandemic were not confined to Plus. She also contributed to radio and TV programmes, podcasts, and newspaper coverage, gave many public talks, and contributed to the 2021 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

Bringing mathematics to the world

Gog's work with the MMP illustrates the many ways in which researchers can engage with the project: writing articles, giving talks or interviews, helping to develop school resources, or embedding MMP staff in their research groups. The MMP team can engage at multiple levels, providing support to ensure the end results reach and inspire the intended audience. This goes for any area of mathematics, from the theories underlying societal challenges to topics in pure maths.

The advantage of a multi-stranded project, says Gog, is its flexibility and adaptability. "Apart from the ability to exploit synergies, it gives you the possibility of evolution. Technologies change and needs change — an organisation like the MMP can adapt, it can grow, it can fill niches, it can spot the unexpected and timely opportunities." Indeed, while Plus was busy communicating COVID related concepts with JUNIPER, NRICH provided vital support for schools, helping parents across the nation home-school their children. The STEP support programme has also scaled up, now delivering webinars to hundreds of hopeful university applicants at a time.

The Faculty, says Gog, benefits from researchers having easy access to outreach and engagement opportunities. "As mathematicians, we love what we do, we're excited about it and we want to share that. Also, we have a responsibility to communicate. If a researcher couldn't answer someone in the street asking 'why are you doing what you are doing and why should others value that?' then I think we are failing."

Gog has received many honours in recent years, including an OBE and a Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture from the Royal Society. The latest on the list is a Hedy Lamarr Prize for Knowledge Exchange in Mathematics and its Applications, awarded by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. In the context of flexibility, it's a fittingly named prize: Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood star who also did significant work on signal processing, contributing to the World War II effort. "She did not feel confined to being an actress, she just decided she was going to pile into technical innovation," says Gog. "Probably people told her not to do it, but I suspect she ignored them. The idea of not being constrained solely to the industry you're in — that's very inspiring!"

As Director of the MMP Gog's primary goal is to "enable the MMP to keep doing the amazing work that it does, and continue to thrive and adapt to future needs." With the role of mathematics in our lives becoming ever more apparent, and "maths to 18" being discussed for schools, there's a need and an appetite for mathematics outreach and engagement at all levels. With its wide remit, flexibility, and direct access to researchers the MMP will continue to deliver it.

You can find details of the Millennium Mathematics Project's activities, resources and events on the MMP website.

Photo: Julia Gog and the cat Finn. Credit: Lionel D’souza