By Exploristics Statistical Consultancy Team Lead, Linda Warnock
A wise person once said to me. ‘If you enjoy maths and want to take it further then combine it with statistics’. What good advice that was. At school who knew the plethora of jobs that involve data analysis? My initial thought was if you study maths you go on to become a maths teacher or go into finance, maybe become an actuary. Now I am a STEM ambassador and the first thing I tell the kids is the huge variety of jobs out there that knowledge of statistics can open to them. Anyone can collect data but not everyone can interpret it: that takes skill and training.
It has been with pride that I have been able to promote the world of statistics to secondary school kids, telling them the sense of excitement there is at getting under the skin of a set of data. It’s a bit like being an explorer, figuring things out, delving deeper to learn more and to solve problems. I tell them the privilege there is in being the first person who gets a glimpse of whether a new medicine has worked or not. The story of Coronavirus makes it real for them hearing how at every stage from the epidemiological models, to the determination of the R number through to the designing of clinical trials and analysing of results, statisticians play a key role.
I have also had the pleasure of engaging with primary school children. I love their curiosity and their crazy questions. I run an experiment called what’s in the box. I have 6 closed boxes and inside each one is a single object. The children have to work together in teams and use their powers of observation to figure out what is in the box. Some items are easy: they always get the bouncy ball, but some are hard: a few get the elastic band. Developing medicines is a hard task and just like the kids can’t see inside the box scientists also can’t see inside the body and so have to deduce what is going on through the use of scientific knowledge, experimentation and statistics – it truly is a team venture. The kids are desperate to open the box and have peak. If only medical science were so easy.
I often get asked if I have encountered much prejudice as a woman in a mathematical industry. Interestingly it’s the teachers and not the kids who ask. I can honestly say I haven’t. As a woman I have always felt treated as an equal to the men I have worked with. Children are a great test of cultural prejudice and they see it as completely natural that a woman talks to them about statistics and science. Where I was recently taken aback was when my 7 year old saw the front page of a magazine with the caption “How I became a billionaire at 31”. Now kids love money and big numbers so his interest immediately peaked and he asked “Where’s the billionaire guy?”. I said “It’s not a guy it’s a woman” and his little face looked genuinely shocked. So maybe the message to our girls today is not just to encourage them in STEM subjects but to dare them to dream big, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the boys, to make a difference and to be the best that they can be in their chosen industry.
The world of statistics is a hidden one. We don’t stand in the spot light but we’re often a quiet presence in the background, evaluating, cautioning and confirming. We are a critical part of the decision making process. Perhaps it’s time as we encourage the children of this generation to aspire to great things that we also take a feather from the same cap and encourage the profession of statistics to step out from the shadows and take the credit for the things we do well, then we can surely shine and in doing so inspire more young people into the M of STEM.