20 January 2020
Dr Nira Chamberlain, Principal Consultant, was appointed President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications
(IMA), the UK’s largest professional and learned society for qualified and practising mathematicians, on 01 January 2020. #InsideAtkins took the opportunity to speak with Nira about his career highlights thus far, the role he plays in Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin group, and what inspires him as a mathematician.
Can you tell us a about your role within the business?
I’m a Principal Consultant working within our Security, Aerospace and Defence Technology business (ADS&T
) in the Business & Digital Consulting practice. My field of expertise is mathematical modelling, simulation and advanced machine-learning algorithms. I’m helping to develop our data science capability in the UK as well as operational research mathematical models for our clients.
What does a typical day of yours involve?
I’m still within my first six weeks of joining the company, so my typical day will inevitably change from how I know it today. However, at the moment, my days involve writing proposals as well as having meetings about possible future projects, designing new machine learning algorithms, and preparing a presentation for a technical conference about cost modelling and machine learning.
What benefits can machine learning algorithms like the ones you design bring to our clients?
Machine learning is application neutral, so it has great potential both internally and externally from predicting how long an employer is likely to stay to high-end engineering problems. As humans, we have no problems spotting patterns in three-dimensional space (three factors) but when dealing with hundreds of dimensions, it’s hard for us to differentiate between an actual pattern and random noise. This is where machine learning can really help us and our clients.
What would you say is the proudest moment in your career so far?
Receiving my second mathematical doctorate and delivering talks at Oxford and Cambridge Universities all rank very high. However, the work I’m the proudest of is the creation of a mathematical cost capability trade-off model for the HMS Queen Elizabeth at a time when the £6.2 billion project was still at the computer design stage and the first sheet of steel had yet to be cut. My model convinced the client that this prestigious aircraft carrier should indeed be built, and I saw myself cited in an American book called The Encyclopaedia of Mathematics & Society. I was one of only a handful of British mathematicians to receive such an accolade.
What inspired you to be a mathematician?
A career book I read when I was about to enter my final year of my mathematics degree. I realised I needed to choose a career that I was going to pursue after I graduated, so I started with all jobs beginning with A then B, C, D, E etc., writing down the ones that looked interesting. When I reached M and read that I could be a professional mathematician, I closed the book and never looked back!
Have you got any role models?
The NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson
. Her biography was depicted in the film Hidden Figures. Also, the pure mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan
. His biography was depicted in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about mathematicians?
Biggest misconception is that the best mathematicians are those who find mathematics easy. This is not true. The best mathematicians are not those who find mathematics easy - the best mathematicians are those who see a problem and never ever quit until they solve it.
What do you like doing outside of work? Any hidden talents?
I’m a science communicator – I’ve done presentations at schools, universities, theatres and science festivals. I also like cycling, and I enjoy playing five-a-side football. I also used to be a ten-pin bowler and at one time, carried the highest score of 230… but my skills have deserted me since.