Maths to bring problem-solving to the next level

Research Lives: Prof James Gleeson, department of mathematics and statistics, University of Limerick

James, you are a mathematician at the University of Limerick, and you co-direct MACSI to solve problems for industry. How does that work?

"MACSI, or the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry, is a UL-based network of academics who use applied mathematics to solve problems and answer questions in industry and science. We are funded by Science Foundation Ireland to apply the language of maths to all sorts of questions that people bring to us."

What kinds of questions?

“We have worked on a vast range of things, anything from the physics of how to brew coffee – in this case mathematically modelling how the liquid passes through filter paper – to how information spreads virally on social media platforms or how when a customer switches mobile phone networks it raises the probability of their friends switching too. Companies and researchers come to us all the time with their questions and we bring the maths to answer them.”


How do you innovate?

“As a group we are all academics, so we like to apply known mathematical and statistical methods and develop new ones to solve problems. Often we find that engineers will contact us because they are working on an issue that needs some maths beyond the standard methods, and this is where our research can help come up with new approaches.”

How do you let people know about these maths superpowers?

"We have been on the go since 2006, and word of mouth has been important. We also have an almost annual get-together at UL (and recently in University College Dublin) that brings maths experts and industry from across Europe. It works like a hackathon, where companies and researchers pitch their questions and teams tackle them. More recently we also have a business development manager, Dr Sinéad Burke, who goes and talks to potential industry partners and scientists in other areas."

You are also leading a new way of training PhD students in applied maths, what is that about?

"I am a co-lead on the SFI Centre for Research Training in Foundations of Data Science, which will train 139 PhD students in the coming years in mathematical skills underlying areas such as data science, privacy and security and artificial intelligence. The cohort of students will have close contact with industry partners as they do their PhDs and they will develop the kinds of research skills that are needed to create new knowledge and work with new data sources. The collaboration is between UL, University College Dublin and Maynooth University and the numerous industry partners are co-ordinated by Skillnet Ireland. "

How is it shaping up?

“Very well. We had a relatively short time to get it up and running – we got funded in February and the first cohort of students will start in September – and we were concerned that we might not get the numbers initially. So we were very pleasantly surprised when we got more than 350 applications. That blew us away. We have done interviews now, and the first set of students are ready to get started. I’m pleased to say we have a good gender balance among the students as well, we have close to 50/50, which is unusual in this space.”

What do you wish people knew about maths, generally?

“I wish that more people understood that mathematics is everywhere, whether it is a whorl of water in a river or a piece of information spreading through social media, and we can put maths to good use to answer questions.”

In conversation with Claire O’Connell