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Through the glass ceiling with Principal Consultant, Dr Nira Chamberlain

Posted by 4MAT Administrator
Posting date:10/29/2020 11:17 AM

When I was about seven, my friends were all into Batman or Spiderman or Superman. I liked grabbing a calculator and pressing it until the numbers flashed at me. I imagined myself as a super mathematician. I was into TV programmes that dealt with logic, like detective stories. 

Most of my role models were either sports stars or musicians, no one had heard of black heroes of mathematics. And when I was 14 or 15, I was sent to see my careers' teacher. 

"You'd make a great boxer!"

My careers' teacher said to me, "Nira, what would you like to be when you grow up?" 

"I wouldn't mind doing something that involves mathematics or logic," I replied.

And the career teacher said, "Nira somebody of your physique should really become a boxer."

I was quite discouraged by that, I went home and talked to my parents about it. 

"You Don't Need Anyone's Permission."

My parents said, "Nira, you don't need anybody's permission to be a great mathematician."

But I was at the age where you only half believe what your parents tell you. So, I shot back, "You what? With all due respect, a teacher is clever. You dad, work in a car factory. You, mum, are a caterer. What do you know about mathematics?"

So I finished my GCSE's and then went on to do a degree and my masters in mathematics. I was more of a fan of mathematics than a mathematician. I'd go to conferences and watch all these mathematicians doing crazy things on the whiteboard and think, "WOW, I would love to do that!" 

Meeting like-minded people

In 1999 went to this conference up in Scotland, called ICIAM. On one of the days, I found myself surrounded by a group of mathematicians. I said hello, and they introduced themselves as the Congress of African American Research Mathematicians. We got talking, and they encouraged me to do a PhD in mathematics. I went back to Birmingham, applied to a local uni and got an interview straight away. 

Letting my aspirations slip away

The professor took one look at me and said, "Nira, if you think you'll ever get a PhD, you're naive. You're technically weak." 

I went home and decided, I was done.

Challenged by my son

Five years later, a teacher asked my son, Philip, "What would you like to be when you grow up?"

He said, "I'd like to be a mathematician." 

The teacher turned to him and said, "Philip, you will never be a mathematician, but when you grow up, you might become a singer."

I was angry when I heard what had happened and wanted to give the school a piece of my mind. But, I realized, how can I encourage my son when I gave up on my dream. So I went ahead and did my PhD part-time while working full time as a mathematical modelling consultant. I started to truly believe you could work out anything with mathematics.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

One day a Royal Navy Captain came up to me and said, "We've heard you have a reputation as a Mathematician who solves real-world problems. Well, we have an issue with a future ship, it’s expensive to build and unaffordable to run, is there a mathematical way of solving this problem?"

I said, "I'd give it some thought and get back to you."

Two weeks later, I was invited to a boardroom full of men in uniforms and smart suits. I sat down, and they cut to the chase, "We're looking at ways to cancel this project because we believe it's unaffordable. But we've heard you've come up with the idea that might save it?"

I said, "Yes, I have. Have you ever heard the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?"

They said, "I beg your pardon?"

"Well," I said. "Goldilocks goes into the three bears' house and tastes the porridge and says, 'This one’s too hot, this one's too cold... and this one's just right.' That's how you solve your problem!"

They said, "Do you realize this is a project of national importance, and you're telling us fairy tales!"

My mathematical cost capability trade-off model!

I said, "Hold on. It's like this, if you link the ship's design to its capabilities, you can look at its costs. By setting up a whole series of nonlinear equations, I can then write an algorithm. I'll feed that into the computer and ask the computer to design me a ship that's not too hot, not too cold, but just right. And then you'll have a ship that's through-life affordable."

I showed them an example of the modelling, and they said, "I think that might actually work!"

The Navy soon made the decision to start cutting the steel, that was way over 10 years ago. That was my most successful project, and that ship was called the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest aircraft carrier the Royal Navy has ever built.

President of the IMA

2019 was the year I joined the Atkins at ADS&T, and also the year I became President of the IMA. I'm the first black president. And with my parents coming from Jamaica and being part of the Windrush Generation, I'm very proud. It's a very honourable position, and I'm following my dreams in the footsteps of great mathematicians. 

To hear the next chapter in Dr Nira Chamberlain's story, listen to our Black History Month Podcast or read the transcript for accessibility.

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