Joanna Mason, Mathematical Modeller

For me there is no such thing as a typical working day; no two industrial mathematics problems are the same, but one thing is common – they always include maths and physics in one way or another.

I walk to work, rain or shine, wellies or sandals, it is a good start to the day for a non-morning person! I usually arrive at the University of Limerick around half nine, and begin the day by replying to any pressing emails, and checking the results of any simulations that I have left running overnight.

In 2008 I completed my PhD in the mathematical modelling of noise and vibration problems in geared systems, such as car gearboxes, wind turbines, and vacuum pumps. Currently I am applying similar techniques to cam-shaft follower systems found in car engines, and magnetic bearings used in kinetic energy storage release.

I usually spend my mornings analysing any new results, looking up and reading relevant papers, and sometimes making a phone call to my collaborator in the National University of Ireland Galway if I find something intriguing to discuss. This morning, with the help of Google Translate, I am reading a German MSc thesis on the dynamics of a cathedral bell that won’t ring reliably. I make notes as I read, and highlight the key equations.

After an essential coffee around 11, I meet an internship student whom I have been supervising this summer. She has to give a presentation on her project later this week, on the dynamics of the double pendulum, and she is understandably a bit nervous. I listen and comment on a couple of practice runs, until she feels more confident.

Lunchtime arrives quickly, and it’s time to get some fresh air. At least a couple of times a week and weather permitting, I try to go for a walk or a run along the tow path next to the river Shannon. It’s a good way to catch up with friends, and make the most of working at such a beautiful campus.

Back at my desk I write a couple of emails to check that the volunteer team I am leading are up to date with the interactive physics tricks we’ll be performing at this year’s Taste Northern Ireland festival in Belfast next month. Outreach activities are a way in which I can share my passion for my subject, and try to enthuse others about science. I should really dedicate some time to start planning some activities for Maths week in October...

Often my day involves preparing for teaching undergraduate tutorials, teaching is a constant challenge and helps keep me on my toes! This year I have taught first-year calculus, third-year engineering maths, and fourth-year mathematical modelling, with sizes of tutorial groups ranging from 3 to 40. The students are still on summer holiday, so today I can postpone any preparation until the start of the semester in a few weeks’ time.

4pm, time now for the weekly seminar run by my research group, the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI), who were established in 2006 to act as a mathematical modelling consultancy to Irish companies. Today’s problem involves investigating cheaper alternatives to a widget in a can of Guinness. Previous problems have ranged from resolving discrepancies in measurements of milk before and after transportation from farm to dairy, to discovering the causes of defects in contact lenses. In each case, a mathematical modelling approach is used to capture the essential phenomena in the simplest possible way, and to provide practical solutions to industry.

By 6:30 I’m ready to leave the office. At least one evening a week I go into town to use the pottery studio that I share with six others. I find making large, abstract, and non-functional sculptures a refreshing change from maths! Although one of these days I plan to make some colourful Penrose tiles...

Joanna Mason

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