iSquared issue 4 - National STEM Centre

iSquared issue 4 - National STEM Centre

The prevailing image of mathematicians is of old, white,

men who are obsessive about maths and lack social skills,

a stereotype associated with John Nash and Albert Einstein

identifying those that cause a specific

disease a bit like searching for the

proverbial needle in a haystack.

However, mathematicians at

Michigan Technological University

have developed a powerful new tool

for pinpointing the genes behind

inherited diseases. The research

group, led by assistant professor

Qiuying Sha, have produced

computer software called the

Ensemble Learning Approach (ELA)

that uses statistical methods to isolate

the combinations of genetic

variations that can lead to a disease.

“With chronic, complex diseases like

Parkinson’s, diabetes and ALS [Lou

Gehrig’s disease], multiple genes are

involved,” says Sha. The ELA makes

it much easier to tackle the difficult

problem of finding genetic variations

that act together to cause illness. By

using their software with data from

diabetes patients, the team identified

11 genetic variations that are linked

to type II diabetes with a high

probability. If their findings are

correct, they will help to improve

scientists’ understanding of the cause

of diabetes, which will in turn aid the

search for better treatments or even a


“Geeky” maths image

deters students

Research funded by the Economic

and Social Research Council (ESRC)

has revealed that many people are

being deterred from studying or

using mathematics by the “geeky”

image of mathematicians. Dr

Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre

Moreau, both from London

Metropolitan University, and

Professor Debbie Epstein from

Cardiff University carried out

surveys, focus groups and individual

interviews with students, as well as

“Identifying the genes that cause a specific disease

is like searching for a needle in a haystack”

analysing references to maths in

modern culture (including those in

TV programmes, films, books and

websites). The subjects involved in

the project included GCSE students,

mathematics undergraduates and also

university students (both

postgraduate and undergraduate)

studying social sciences and

humanities. The researchers wanted

to find out how popular images of

mathematics affect people’s feelings

towards the subject, and whether

these images have played a role in

the decline of interest in maths that

has been seen in the last decade.

The conclusion of the project was

that negative images of maths do

contribute to this lack of interest.

“Given the narrow, negative clichés

associated with maths and

mathematicians, it is hardly

surprising that relatively few young

people want to continue with the

subject”, says Dr Mendick. “A

substantial majority of both Year 11

and university students saw maths as

little more than numbers and

mathematicians as old, white,

middle-class men.” Mathematicians

were seen as “nerdy” or “geeky” by

many of the participants, even by

those who were themselves studying

maths at university. The prevailing

image of mathematicians was that

they were obsessed with their subject,

lacked social skills and led lonely

lives, although some of those who

continue to study maths regard the

idea of obsession with maths as an

indication of devotion to the subject

and see the “geek” image as having

positive value (the latter was

particularly true among male

students). According to Dr Mendick,

this research “raises two important

issues: first, we can see how popular

culture is deterring many people

from enjoying maths and wanting to

carry on with it and, second, it raises

issues in relation to social justice as

these images are mainly of white,

middle-class men and so may

discourage other groups


News articles by Sarah Shepherd

iSquared magazine 7

Left image by Elke Wetzig. Right image by Ferdinand Schmutzer.

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