Professor Nira Chamberlain OBE talks to the Fourth Form about Saving Lives through Problem Solving

Pupils from LIV and UIV were treated to a lecture from Professor Nira Chamberlain OBE, a Mathematical modeller who is regarded as one of the 100 most influential Scientists in the UK. The presentation started with the provocative question: What is the point of Mathematics? Sine, Cosine, Pythagoras and Algebra just don’t seem that important.

Professor Chamberlain also talked us through his rich and varied career, and the answer to his question became clear. Put simply Mathematics can save lives and make the world a better place. He described how his model led to the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carrier, and that more recent work will help to prevent an AI Apocalypse. His calculations also led to a method to safely free sailors trapped in a sunk submarine, a rescue that had previously been deemed impossible. Drawing on the inspiration of Muhammed Ali he concluded that to a Mathematical Modeller, “Impossible is Nothing.”

You can watch the lecture below.

A sense of social justice ran through Professor Chamberlain’s talk and he is justly proud of being a particular role model for young black Mathematicians, who are still underrepresented in both universities and industry. He recounted the discrimination he faced at school where a careers advisor replied to him saying that he wanted to be a Mathematician with the observation that he “looked more like a boxer”. He is on a mission to promote Mathematical Sciences to those from under-represented groups and as outgoing President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and incoming President of the Mathematics Association he spends considerable time on educational projects to widen participation.

This outreach work helped Nira Chamberlain introduce our School to the wonderful Dr Angela Tabiri, founder of FemAfrica Maths whose inspirational work was recently featured in Nature. In 2021 Nira Chamberlain spoke at Wycombe Abbey about the Black Heroes of Mathematics and during his talk described the work that Dr Tabiri does to promote STEM careers to girls in her home country of Ghana and across Africa. This has led to a fruitful collaboration between Wycombe Abbey and the African Institute of Mathematical Science, with 30 of Dr Tabiri’s students from the Girls in Maths and Science Programme (GMSP) regularly attending Wycombe Abbey’s Maths Society events as well as Dr Tabiri giving lectures to our pupils. In return, I have also given Masterclasses for the GMSP and taught for one week at a residential at the AIMS centre in Accra. You can watch this film below. Angela was able to join us (virtually) in the audience for Professor Chamberlain’s return visit.

In the spirit of widening participation, we were delighted that Professor Chamberlain’s talk was also attended by children from local state schools, with a large contingent from Wallingford School and some pupils from Cressex Community School in High Wycombe. It is very much hoped that they enjoyed the talk and that they felt inspired by Professor Chamberlain’s story. Having given the long list of real-world problems he has solved and the manifest enjoyment he has had working on them, I think few left the talk in any doubt about the crucial role that Mathematics plays in the world.

Mr David Vaccaro
Director of Learning and Innovation