IFLScience Meets: Mathematical Ecologist Dr Natasha Ellison On Tracking Sharks With Numbers (And Falling In...)

'If I knew that you could use maths to describe animals and their behaviour I would have been interested in maths much earlier.' Image courtesy of Natasha Ellison

When the math-phobic consider the discipline, scenes of sobering chalkboards and calculator crises likely spring to mind, but as those in the numbers business know, it can have endless applications. For mathematical ecologist Dr Natasha Ellison, it’s taken her from teaching, to working in Alan Turing’s legacy, and even tracking sharks – though that last one did end in slight peril. Here, she tells us why more influential figures need to champion the joy of math whose versatility isn’t always appreciated by the younger generation.

What do you do?

I’m a mathematical ecologist (it's a small part of mathematical biology). This involves using maths to understand animals and plants, and teaching maths at university. I also work in outreach and public engagement where I aim to show people that maths is really useful for understanding nature by visiting schools, doing public talks and short videos.

What did it take to get here?

It took 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 the age of 20! Becoming a mathematician wasn’t a smooth journey for me, I repeated a couple of years studying and I funded my degrees part time whilst working in bars and shops.

Maths was the only subject I was any good at in school. I loved art but I was terrible at it, so I studied maths at university. It really wasn’t until my fourth year that I really began to enjoy it. That's when I started learning about mathematical modelling – using maths to describe real life. I learnt about how maths can be used to understand how virus’ spread and populations of animals change. For my final year I studied a project about Alan Turing’s theories of biology, something I’ve been publicly speaking about ever since.

I didn’t have the confidence to get into maths research straight after studying, so I trained to become a maths teacher instead. I taught in schools for three years and I loved it! I’d like to go back to teaching one day.

I left to pursue further high level maths, I really wanted to do something with wildlife and I got lucky. I found out that the University of Sheffield had the most fantastic researcher, Dr Jonathan Potts, working on using maths to understand animal behaviour.  Sheffield accepted me onto a PhD program and we began working together with bird expert Prof Ben Hatchwell on understanding the behaviours of a population of birds in Sheffield.

Using my skills in teaching and research I now spend a huge amount 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 in outreach and engagement and it's something I have to do in my spare time.

I’ll soon be off to continue researching mathematical ecology at Mississippi State University, starting in November.

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

If I knew that you could use maths to describe animals and their behaviour I would have been interested in maths much earlier. As a teenager I had no idea that maths could be used to understand nature. That’s why I work so hard now to spread the message to young people that maths 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 maths to find out more about it. I like how easy it is to explain to people the importance of mathematical biology. Mathematical Biologists use maths to understand the dynamics of cancer spread, populations, cells and so many important processes for helping people and the planet. Working in this area means I can do exciting science and because the ideas are so accessible I can speak about the work and try to convince people to do the same.

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

As a mathematical researcher, people often think I do all my maths with a pencil and paper, when in fact a lot of the work is coding computers to solve complex maths that we are unable to solve.

I’m always really sad to hear negative things about maths, especially in front of young people. Often people tell me it was their worst subject at school. I love it when I hear the opposite.  I heard Emma Raducanu talk about enjoying maths A level on TV this week. I was so happy, there's nothing better than hearing influential people talk about maths on a public platform.

Memorable moments on the job?

My proudest part of the job is working on public engagement with Dermot Turing. Being able to work on Alan Turing’s legacy with an expert is fantastic, he's great fun to work with.

Really though, every day when I’m teaching I’m often so proud of my students, seeing someone progress is so rewarding.

I’ve already completed my life's dream, to find a wild Harpy Eagle. I met a filmmaker over Twitter who decided to travel to the Amazon with me and help make my dream come true. The funniest experience I’ve had at work was watching the behaviour of a juvenile eagle. These birds are the biggest eagles in the world and watching one have a tantrum at its mother was hilarious.

Any humorous fails?

I was out in the Maldives on a boat looking for whale sharks with a filmmaker. We wanted to film them for a short production on mathematical patterns. A huge storm came in and we spent [h]ours in the middle of the sea being thrown about the boat. It was pretty scary, particularly since I can’t really swim...

What do you never leave the house without?

Definitely my binoculars, I love bird watching and you never know when you will need them. Although, my most treasured possession is the tooth of a three toed sloth that I found under the nest of a Harpy Eagle, we found a whole load of sloth and monkey bones that the eagle had eaten, it was amazing.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

To get into mathematical ecology research, you’d first need to study a science degree with some mathematical content and then think about a PhD program. If you are already on a different path, some people take longer than others to decide what they want to do, and that's okay!

 Choose the people you work with wisely, chat to them first and find the best person for your personality before you apply to work with them. Science is amazing but you have to handle a lot of rejection along the way. It's important to work with supportive people and to find ways to take care of your mental health.

Natasha Ellison will be speaking to Dermot Turing about his book, Reflections of Alan Turing: A Relative Story (The History Press, £12.99) at Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14 October

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