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Reflecting on Life as a Mathematician and a Researcher - Linnéa Franssen on Being the St Leonard's Associate Researcher 2017-18

In this article doctoral student Linnéa Franssen reflects on her experiences working with students at St Leonards School in St Andrews as the 2017-18 St Leonard's Associate Researcher.

Each year - as part of their Theory of Knowledge course - St Leonards School appoints a University of St Andrews doctoral student as an "Associate Researcher". The role of the Associate Researcher is to familiarise the School's sixth form students with research, to provide a general point of contact for them within the University, and to give them an opportunity to work with a doctoral student to explore a specific area of knowledge in more depth.

After attending an interview process at St Leonards School in November 2017, which included delivering a "taster" presentation to the students about my research in mathematical oncology, I was excited when St Leonard’s Doctoral and Postdoctoral College informed me that I had been appointed the Associate Researcher for 2018. In addition to the fact that I enjoy public outreach in general, there were two main reasons why I was greatly looking forward to developing and delivering my five formal presentations and three tutorials to the students:

As a researcher, I do not spend much time considering basic questions like the one central to the Theory of Knowledge course “How do we know what we know is true?” on a daily basis. So I was looking forward to taking the opportunity to reflect upon what this means to me in the context of my research area - mathematics.

Secondly, the opportunity to speak to the students, who would soon make the life-changing decision of what career they would pursue, appealed to me: when I was in their shoes I was very unsure what path to follow. Through a number of coincidences, and by following my interests, I am very lucky to have found my way into a very rewarding career as a researcher in mathematical oncology. I have two personal highlights from my time as Associate Researcher. The first was being able to demonstrate to the students the amazing and useful things one can do using mathematics. The second was conveying to the studnets that it is okay to be undecided about what exactly one wants to pursue after school and that it is always a good start to let one’s true interests guide the way.

Linnea Franssen Speaking with Students

"As a researcher, I don't spend much time considering questions like the one central to this course 'How do we know what we know is true?'. This was an opportunity to reflect upon what this means to me in my research."

Linnéa Franssen speaks to students at St Leonards School as part of the Theory of Knowledge course

Apart from explaining my own research in mathematical modelling of cancer cell invasion and metastatic spread, topics we covered included a short introduction to the history of mathematics and science; mathematics in nature, art, and architecture; mathematics and science in the job market; and (the relative lack of) women in mathematics and other STEM subjects.

To facilitate Theory of Knowledge-related discussions, we explored each of these topics with a particular "knowledge question" in mind. These included:

  • Is mathematics invented or discovered?
  • If mathematics is "out there" in the world, then where exactly can it be found?
  • How can a mathematical model give us knowledge if it does not yield accurate predictions?

While these are questions that I do not claim to have an answer to, I believe that they are worth exploring. The exploration in itself is of great importance - we must never forget to question the status quo of knowledge as well as its sources, in particular those of us with the mission of generating knowledge through research.

"We must never forget to question the status quo of knowledge as well as its sources, in particular those of us with the mission of generating knowledge through research."

St Leonards School students with Linnéa Franssen

Linnea Franssen with St Leonard's Students

Also, after finishing my lecture series as an Associate Researcher as well as other previous enriching public engagement encounters, I can only recommend to any researcher who feels that there is a slight possibility that they may enjoy public outreach to just give it a try.

On a final note, I would like to thank Mr Ben Seymour, the coordinator of the Theory of Knowledge course, for the warm welcome to St Leonards School and the engaged Theory of Knowledge students, who I found to be a very responsive and interested team in exploring the topics of my lectures - thanks to you I thoroughly enjoyed lecturing in my role as an Associate Researcher!

About Linnéa Franssen

Linnéa Franssen is a doctoral student in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. Her supervisor is Professor Mark Chaplain.

In recent years new technology has facilitated the collection of vast amounts of data on cancer as well as insights into its complex mechanisms of evolution. Many of the over 200 forms of cancer, however, are still poorly understood. In particular, the cancer cells’ ability to invade the tissue and metastasize poses an unsolved challenge because 90% of cancer deaths occur due to secondary metastases.

Linnéa's doctoral research focuses on this very problem. Using mathematical models Linnéa is looking at the interaction between cancer cells and their environment in order to predict how they may invade the tissue and spread in the body. Her derived computational model is aimed at gaining an understanding of the mathematical rules driving cancer’s invasion process. Her research will help doctors to anticipate a cancer’s next move, giving them a better chance of "outsmarting" it with case-specific treatment.

Linnéa Franssen - Personal Website

St Leonard’s Doctoral and Postgraduate College

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