Oxford Alumni Network: Meet a Mentor

Tom was featured on the University of Oxford Alumni Networking Directory as the highlighted mentor for March 2021. Fellow Oxford alumni can access the original article on ‘My Oxford Network’ here.

Firstly, where did your love of numbers come from? 

To quote my UCAS personal statement (I’m already regretting this…) ‘it is not possible to determine where my love of numbers came from, for it has always existed’. Even if a little cringeworthy, it’s not too far from the truth. I’ve always enjoyed maths for as long as I can remember – there isn’t really an obvious point where it started. Perhaps the oldest clear memory that I have was during primary school when we were first learning about long multiplication and had been set a few pages of exercises to work through. I was having so much fun solving the problems, I just kept going and going and going… until suddenly there weren’t any questions left! I’d finished the entire book. I don’t think this was anything to do with being a ‘genius’ or a ‘child prodigy’, I was simply doing something that I was enjoying and so saw no reason to stop. Fortunately, this enjoyment has continued to the present day – I see maths as more of a hobby than work.

Tell us more about your journey to becoming a maths communicator and working in outreach. How did this come about and what inspired your passion to show that maths is fun? 

My first taste of maths communication came about as an undergraduate student when I joined ‘Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians’ (unsurprisingly the name never really caught on). We would visit local schools – and a few festivals, including one in Dublin which was tremendous fun – to perform shows and host workshops that aimed to show people just how fun maths could be. The content was provided by the very experienced Marcus du Sautoy (hence the name) which made our jobs much easier – we just had to make sure that we knew the material well enough to present it to the students. Unfortunately, I struggled to find a similar initiative in Cambridge (where I was studying for my PhD) until the final summer where I spent 8 weeks working as an intern with the ‘Naked Scientists’. As part of a team of science journalists, my job was to search out the ‘hot’ science research being published each week and to arrange an interview with the author that would be broadcast on BBC national radio… I loved every second of it! In fact, I agreed to take up a full-time position with the team after I finished my PhD which is where I really became hooked. As I began to learn more and more about the world of science communication, it became increasingly obvious to me that there was a gap in the market for high quality maths outreach content, and so ‘Tom Rocks Maths’ was born. I’d always enjoyed teaching, so taking the passion I had for my subject and combining it with my newly developed production skills made for the perfect recipe for fun, exciting and engaging maths-based content.

Where do you get your creative ideas from for your content? 

Everywhere and everything. I’m always on the lookout for the latest online trends to see if there’s a way that I can incorporate them into an opportunity to teach maths. Some of my favourite examples include a series of articles on the maths of Pokémon – entitled Pokémaths (I’m quite proud of that one) – and an explanation of how the England men’s football team were able to finally win a penalty shootout using some simple geometry and probability.

The more mathematical ideas come from my students. I figure if they are struggling with a concept in our tutorials, then it’s more likely than not that other students around the world will be struggling too. Some of my most popular videos cover undergraduate-level topics on the Gamma Function and Modular Arithmetic.

We can imagine that your career path has been a bit different to that of your peers. Any advice for other alumni taking an unorthodox career path? 

This is a tricky one as I’ve never really thought of myself as having had a ‘career path’ per se, my approach has always been ‘I like doing this so I’m going to keep doing this’. I guess the main piece of advice that I could offer would be to make sure that you enjoy what you are doing, and if you don’t, keep trying new things until you find that job that doesn’t feel like work. I’ve completed internships in finance, insurance, research, teaching, journalism, film production… it took me a long time to work out what it was that I really wanted to do, but once I did find it, I took that idea and committed to it 100%. I still remember saving up to buy my first DSLR camera to film videos, having never previously owned (or even used) a camera that wasn’t built into my phone. It was undoubtedly a gamble, but I knew it was ultimately what I wanted to do and I’ve spent the last 3 years turning my hobby into a part of my job.

Have you ever had a mentor, or if not, who or what has inspired you?  

There have been a few people that have certainly influenced me in my career so far, but I wouldn’t really call any of them a ‘mentor’ in the usual sense. My maths teacher at school during my A-levels was very supportive and challenged me to achieve as high of a mark as possible. When I had decided to apply for PhD programmes, my tutors at St John’s were very helpful in terms of suggestions of potential supervisors and with the many references they had to write! And in terms of science communication, I’ve had many short but impactful conversations with many people in the field that I really look up to: Hannah Fry, Matt Parker, James Grime, Ian Stewart, and many more that I have no doubt forgotten to include – sorry!

Where next for the maths communicator? 

The big focus at the moment is to continue to grow my YouTube channel. The one silver-lining of the past year has been the increase in the number of people using YouTube as a source of knowledge and entertainment – and the extra ‘free’ time allowed me to revamp my channel with a new aesthetic. My video series on ‘Disease Modelling’ in particular proved to be extremely popular as people searched for a reliable source of information on how mathematical modelling can be used to help to understand the spread of a virus in the age of COVID-19. I was also recognised by YouTube as their ‘Creator on the Rise’ for December which – whilst being a huge, but very pleasant, surprise – has really motivated me to continue to pump even more time and effort into the channel. So make sure you subscribe everyone!

Any more maths tattoos planned? 

Always. I think I now have over 70 tattoos in total, with around 10-15 being maths-themed (I did try to count but they are dotted all over my body and it’s really hard to see some areas – even with a mirror!). I’ve recently had a ‘necklace’ of maths symbols added along with a giant pair of x and y-axes that extend from the top of my neck to my ankle (y-axis) and run across my arms and shoulders (x-axis). For the next one, I’m tempted to do something involving Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and their relationship with the wave equation – watch this space!

If you could have dinner with 3 mathematicians, past or present, who would they be? 

First one is easy: Euler. My favourite mathematician simply because no matter what area of maths you study, there is always an ‘Euler’s Theorem’. And most of the time it isn’t a simple result, but something really fundamental and transformative – the man was incredible. Second I think would be Richard Feynman (Physicists are basically applied mathematicians so I stand by this choice). He was such a character in so many ways, and whether you love him or hate him, he undoubtedly made physics more interesting by adding some personality to the subject. Plus, I’d love to hear some of the stories he could tell… For the third one I’ll go with someone living: Gregori Perelman. He’s the only person to ever solve a Millennium Problem – a set of 7 unsolved maths problems that were each given a $1-million prize in the year 2000. But, the best part is, he turned down the prize money – and no one knows why! That story alone would be incredible to hear.

Favourite memory from your Oxford undergrad days? 

This is harder than you might think as having spent the vast majority of the last 12 years as a student or lecturer in Oxford and Cambridge it’s quite hard to remember where and when everything happened… but one thing that does stick in my mind was winning football cuppers in my first year as at St John’s. Despite being a pretty large (and rather rich) college, they hadn’t won the main football tournament in over 30 years, until we (myself and 5 other freshers) arrived in 2008. That season, we won every match that we played bar one (a 5-5 draw with St Hugh’s I believe) as we won both the league and cuppers, defeating the dominant Teddy Hall in the final. I still remember scoring the winning goal in the quarter final, sparking a pitch invasion of around 100 ecstatic supports that descended on me in what is still to this day the largest ‘pile-on’ I have ever seen. It was magical.

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