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Features: Faculty Insights


Every year the Faculty sends bright young Cambridge mathematicians to spend the summer with host partners in industry and other academic disciplines through the Post Masters Placement scheme (PMP). It's a win-win experience for students, their hosts and mathematics as a whole.

"Excellent and highly trained mathematicians either infiltrate other technologies, or else students continue as academic mathematicians, but better equipped to teach and advise their students through their own personal experience 'Outside'," says Dr Marj Batchelor from the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, who has been developing the PMP for the last 10 years.

The students are key to the success of the PMP. Over 200 of the best young mathematicians from the UK and around the world come to Cambridge for Part III. This one-year taught Masters course that gives these students an in-depth introduction to a wide variety of important and cutting edge mathematical topics, providing an excellent preparation for future research whether in academia or industry. "No where else in the country, in the world, [has a group that] compares to this group of students," says Batchelor. The PMP scheme was originally designed specifically for these students, recognising that they were the right people, and at the ideal time in their careers, to transfer knowledge between the Mathematics Faculty and the wider community. "People who are more advanced in their careers don't have the time to put two months aside to learn something completely different," says Batchelor. "But these [students] have two months, and they have the naked curiosity, energy and desire to have fun. They learn incredibly quickly."

Will Boulton participated in the PMP in Summer 2016, hosted by Geoff Walker, Operations Director of Artesis LLP, a company that provides predictive maintenance technology. Artesis analyses changes in the waveforms of current and voltage of electric motors driving rotating equipment in industry to predict the cause and severity of problems in the system. Boulton had spent his Part III immersed in number theory and algebra and relished the chance to work in a new area. "It was a chance to get completely stuck into something totally different to what I was used to," he says. The project also appealed because it was so hands-on – on the first day Boulton and Walker visited a workshop and saw examples of the actual equipment, including the damage that can be caused when machinery fails. Boulton now works at Artesis as a project manager.

The importance of having the wrong background

One of the goals of the programme is to help students understand what other opportunities there are outside of their specialisations, says James Bridgwater, a Cambridge alumnus who now works with Symmetry Investments, and who has been involved in the project from the outset. "They broaden their horizons, learn new skills and have a taste of actual research," says Bridgwater. "They realise how applicable all of mathematics is."

And, perhaps surprisingly, these students having the "wrong background" is enormously beneficial to the host partners. "Coming to a field from a different perspective can reveal possibilities that are difficult to see coming from more conventional pathways," says Dr Mark Bostok, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of Biochemistry and Teaching By-Fellow at Churchill College. Bostok hosted Part III student Rob Tovey on a project investigating new methodology for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging. "NMR is a non-destructive technique which allows you to recover structural information of molecules which could not be done otherwise," says Tovey. "Recently the problem has been combined with the mathematical framework of compressed sensing (CS) which promises to reduce the time needed to image a sample to a mere fraction of the original time." Tovey transformed a messy piece of lab code into an extremely user-friendly software package that is now used by Bostok and his colleagues, and will be shared more widely. Tovey's mathematical expertise also resulted in substantial improvements in the algorithms used.

This knowledge transfer between mathematics and other disciplines and industry is one of the main goals of the project. "[The PMP project] brought some much-needed mathematical and coding expertise into our group to underpin an area of research we have been working on for a number of years," says Bostok. "Rob worked extremely collaboratively such that I learned a great deal from the project. I further developed my mathematical understanding of the CS approaches." Indeed, although Tovey returned to the Mathematics Faculty to pursue his PhD, he continues to collaborate with Bostok. And this knowledge transfer goes the other way too, encouraging future collaborations for the Faculty and encouraging mathematicians to be bold enough to stray into other subjects. "Opening up mathematics to outside influences was one of the goals of the PMP," says Bridgwater.

Fuelling the fire

Creating such a diverse range of opportunities and preparing hosts and students so these projects can be a success requires a lot of work. As part of the PMP, the Faculty trains their students in coding and other skills so they arrive ready for their placements. Then the students need to be connected with hosts ready to take them on, offering projects that are interesting to mathematicians as well as being a clear benefit to the host partner.

To date the PMP has been funded by individual donations, grants from industry and host companies. "The challenges now are to put these programmes on a secure footing for the future," says Bridgwater. "We've managed to coax a spark and some tinder into a proper fire, but the fire needs to be fed."

The project will continue to rely on open-minded host partners and the brilliant young mathematicians that come through the Faculty. Tovey, Boulton and all the PMP students are keen to encourage others to participate. "In a mathematics department it is easy to get a little detached from the real world aspects of the theory you produce," says Tovey. "In a summer project you are free to really 'flex your muscles' and channel your broad knowledge in a direction that interests you at your own pace."

"I'd recommend [the PMP] to organisations with an open mind to an interesting set of views," says Walker. "There is no point taking someone on and saying what they should do. You need to be open to new ideas and let the bright young mathematicians explore their bright young mathematical views."

If you are interested in hosting a PMP placement, or in supporting the programme, please contact Dr Stephanie North, Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Faculty of Mathematics (email