IFLScience Meets: Math Ecologist Natasha Ellison on Tracking Sharks With Numbers (And Falling Into Them …)
When mathematicians consider the discipline, sobering scenes of chalkboards and calculator fits probably spring to mind, but as number scientists know, it can have endless applications. For mathematician ecologist Dr Natasha Ellison, this led to her teaching, working in Alan Turing’s legacy, and even stalking sharks – though the latter ended in slight peril. Here, she explains to us why more influential personalities must defend the joy of mathematics, the versatility of which is not always appreciated by the younger generation.
What are you doing?
I am an ecological mathematician (this is a small part of mathematical biology). It involves using math to understand animals and plants, and teaching math in college. I also work in the area of outreach and public engagement where I aim to show people that math is really useful for understanding nature by visiting schools, giving public lectures, and making short videos.
What did it take to get here?
It took me a lot of exploring and trying different things before I embarked on the path of mathematical ecology. I never knew what I wanted to do, even at 20! Becoming a mathematician was not an easy journey for me, I repeated a few years of study and funded my degrees part-time while working in bars and shops.
Math was the only subject I was good at in school. I loved art but I was bad at it, so I studied math in college. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I really started to like it. That’s when I started learning mathematical modeling – using math to describe real life. I learned how math can be used to understand how the virus spreads and animal populations change. In my final year, I studied a project on Alan Turing’s Theories of Biology, something I’ve been talking about publicly ever since.
I didn’t have the confidence to go into math research right after I graduated, so I trained to be a math teacher instead. I taught in schools for three years and loved it! I would like to resume teaching one day.
I left to pursue high level math, really wanted to do something with the wildlife and lucked out. I discovered that the University of Sheffield had the most fantastic researcher, Dr Jonathan Potts, working on the use of mathematics to understand animal behavior. Sheffield accepted me into a doctoral program and we started working with bird expert Professor Ben Hatchwell to understand the behaviors of a population of birds in Sheffield.
Thanks to my teaching and research skills, I now spend much of my time working on outreach projects in schools. I want to make sure that as many students as possible have seen mathematical biology and how useful it can be. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of funding for awareness and engagement and it’s something I have to do in my spare time.
I will be leaving soon to continue my research on mathematical ecology at Mississippi State University, starting in November.
Imagine you met as a teenager at a career fair: how would you describe what you do to your old self?
If I had known that math could be used to describe animals and their behavior, I would have been interested in math much earlier. As a teenager, I had no idea that mathematics could be used to understand nature. This is why I am working so hard now to get the message out to young people that mathematics is useful and has so many interesting applications.
Why mathematical biology?
There is so much we don’t know about biology and the natural world, and we can use math to learn more about it. I like how easy it is to explain to people the importance of mathematical biology. Mathematical biologists use mathematics to understand the dynamics of the spread of cancer, populations, cells, and so many processes important to helping people and the planet. Working in this field means I can do some exciting science and because the ideas are so accessible I can talk about the job and try to get people to do the same.
What is the most common misconception about your profession?
As a math researcher, people often think that I do all my calculations with pencil and paper, when in fact much of the job is coding computers to solve complex math that we are unable to do. to resolve.
I am always very sad to hear negative things about math, especially in front of young people. Often people tell me it was their worst subject in school. I love it when I hear the opposite. I heard Emma Raducanu talk about enjoying Grade A math on TV this week. I was so happy, there is nothing better than hearing influential people talk about math on a public platform.
Memorable moments at work?
The part I’m most proud of is working on audience engagement with Dermot Turing. Being able to work on Alan Turing’s legacy with an expert is fantastic, it’s a lot of fun working with him.
Really, every day when I teach I am often so proud of my students, seeing someone progress is so rewarding.
I have already fulfilled the dream of my life, to find a wild harpy. I met a filmmaker on Twitter who decided to travel to the Amazon with me and help make my dream come true. The funniest experience I have had at work was observing the behavior of a young eagle. These birds are the largest eagles in the world and watching one have a temper tantrum with his mother was hilarious.
I was in the Maldives on a boat looking for whale sharks with a filmmaker. We wanted to film them for a short production on mathematical grounds. A huge storm came and we passed [h]ours in the middle of the sea being thrown on the boat. It was pretty scary, especially since I can’t really swim …
What do you never leave the house about?
Definitely my binoculars, I love bird watching and you never know when you will need it. Although my most valuable possession was the tooth of a three-toed sloth that I found under a harpy’s nest, we found a whole pile of sloth and monkey bones that the eagle had eaten , it was amazing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to embark on the same career?
To enter research in mathematical ecology, you must first study a science degree with mathematical content, and then think about a doctoral program. If you’re already on a different path, some people take longer than others to decide what to do, and that’s okay!
Choose the people you work with wisely, chat with them first, and find the best person for your personality before you apply to work with them. The science is amazing, but you have to deal with a lot of rejections along the way. It’s important to work with supportive people and find ways to take care of your mental health.