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Features: Faculty Insights

 

Mathematics teaching at Cambridge is world-class, but what does the Faculty do to help students find their feet in the world of industry? It enables them to experience it first-hand through the Cambridge Mathematics Placements programme (CMP).

The CMP does what its name suggests: it arranges placements for undergraduates and Part III students in industry or academic departments of the University. Host organisations range from large multinational companies to smaller local enterprises, covering sectors including pharmaceuticals, finance, engineering, energy and more. Participating University departments cover maths-heavy subjects such as engineering and physics, but also more surprising areas such as veterinary medicine and even music.

“I loved using maths in a new way; in a way that was more tangible."Tim Hennock

Those undergraduates toying with the idea of doing a PhD in maths are also catered to: they can opt to do a research project within the Faculty, working with one of the researchers there.

"The CMP is a way of giving students the chance to learn skills outside of the standard academic curriculum, but also to find out what the possibilities for them are [after their degree]," says CMP co-founder James Bridgwater. The host organisations in turn get access to bright young mathematical talent with bundles of energy, enthusiasm and creativity.

The roots of the CMP go back to 2010, when Bridgwater was completing Part III as a mature student and noticed that, while the academic content of degree was excellent, there was not much in the way of helping students figure out what they might do after they graduate. Bridgwater exchanged ideas with Marj Batchelor of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, who had similar concerns, and so the programme came into being.

"It turned out that we were pushing on an open door, both on the student side and on the sponsor side," says Bridgwater. [The programme] has been growing ever since and is now a substantial exercise every year. From four or five students in the first year we have grown to over 100 every year."

How does it work?

Every year towards the end of Michaelmas term the CMP invites industrial partners and University departments to think of projects they would like a mathematical intern to work on, which they then present to interested students in January. "The presentations can be quite technical, which is great because it's not often you get the chance to stand up in front of an audience and talk about what you really want to do and have them all understand it," says Bridgwater.

The projects begin in the summer, after students have been matched to their hosts through an interview process and any necessary funding has been secured. They typically last between eight and ten weeks, with exact details arranged between the student and their host.

"A really important part of [the programme] is the presentation day, where you get to stand up in front of your peers [as well as hosts and sponsors] and talk about what you have been doing," says Bridgwater. Presentation days take place around two thirds of the way through the summer and form a vital part of the students' learning experience. "Some people are natural presenters, but most people need to learn that skill. And the sooner you start doing it the better."

The following January students who took part the previous year talk about their experience to the next generation of potential interns, and so the cycle begins again.

A win for the students...

One benefit the CMP has for students are the transferable skills they pick up during their project — working in teams, presenting their work to others, and computer programming, to name just three. Such skills are valued highly by employers, but don't take centre stage in the ordinary course of a maths degree.

Equally important, though, is the chance for students to explore what they can do with the mathematics they are learning. While there are many jobs for mathematicians in industry and academia, few have the word "mathematician" in the job title, so it can be hard for students to know about the many options open to them.

Tim Hennock took part in the programme in 2013, the summer he was graduating as a Part III student. "I was interested in trying my hand at doing mathematics with other academics elsewhere, so with the help of the programme I spent the summer working at the engineering department on a team who were looking at steering vehicles around obstacles," he says.

"[I loved] using maths in a new way; in a way that was more tangible. By background I was more of a pure mathematician so I [wasn't aware of] many applications. My eyes opened to the way maths can be used outside of academia. The opportunity to collaborate was also quite an attraction."

Hennock eventually went for a career in financial mathematics, but the stint in the engineering department laid valuable foundations in real-world mathematics. "It brought value to me and the way I thought as a mathematician and I hope it was valuable to the people I worked with in engineering — and I saw other students working in different projects having a great experience as well."

...and a win for the hosts

For host organisations there are equally enticing benefits. "The partners are looking for bright mathematically competent students, people they might hire in years to come," says Bridgwater. "There is huge demand now from industry: everyone wants people who are mathematically literate. [Through the programme] you can hopefully [get access to] some of the best and brightest mathematicians around."

There's almost no end to the diversity of sectors that have a need for the mathematical talent on offer. "I am always astonished at the way that maths is used in places I didn't realise," says Hennock. "Even quite pure-seeming maths: there was a project a couple of years ago that involved some fairly serious graph theory applied to zoology. It never occurred to me that that was something there was a need for!"

On the academic side the students' work has even resulted in published research papers. "I have been thanked in a number of academic papers in the last few years," says Bridgwater. "That's just fantastic!"

Securing the future

Bridgwater and Hennock are still involved with the CMP. Both help support the programme financially, Bridgwater having also provided vital initial funding, and act as external advisor and "friend" of the programme respectively.

Apart from individual donations, the CMP has received funding from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, the Department for Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, as well as grants from industry and host companies. This ongoing stream of financial help from open-minded people and organisations is essential for the programme's future. "The challenge is always to keep this programme running and to fund it from year to year," he says. "Part of that is getting companies and other sponsors aware of it, interested in it, and helping to promote and grow it."

Whatever your role on the programme, whether host, sponsor or student, it's bound to provide a rewarding experience. As Bridgwater puts it, "It's inspiring to see what some of these kids can do when they are given the chance."

If you would like to help secure the CMP's future, as a host or donor, or if you would like to take part as a student, then visit the Faculty's Summer Research page, where you can also find a list of past projects.