Student stories

Read about some of the amazing things our Mathematics students and graduates have done.

Neil McIvor

Neil McIvor

Neil McIvor is currently Deputy Director, Statistical Services Division and Deputy Head of Profession for Statistics at the Department for Work and Pensions. He holds an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree in Mathematics and Statistics from The Open University.

Describe what you do in your job

My main duties are being responsible and accountable for the production of the Department’s Official and National Statistics. We publish around 60 series of official and National statistics to the highest standards of integrity, free from political interference, as laid out in the codes of Practice for Official Statistics. Between May 2010 and January 2015 I have been responsible for the publication of around 800 separate publications. I am also responsible for advising Ministers and Senior Officials around the appropriate use of statistics, and ensure statisticians play a major role in influencing the development of current and future policy.

In my role as Deputy Head of Profession, I am responsible for the career development of the Department’s 200 or so professional statisticians, and have a major role in shaping the direction of the wider Government Statistical Service, through my role as chair of the GSS people committee.

Why did you decide to study with the OU?

It started out as a hobby whilst I was unemployed (indeed in my first year I forgot even to mention it on my CV) I successfully finished both a first degree and a masters in Maths and Stats with the OU, taking 11 years in total from start to finish.

What have you done since you finished studying? How have your OU qualifications helped your career?

Throughout studying for my first degree I held down a variety of different jobs, some of which were enhanced by my studies. Following obtaining a first class honours degree, I was able to meet the minimum requirements to join the Government Statistical Service’s Fast stream programme. Successfully passing the recruitment process in 2003, I have enjoyed a range of roles in the civil service, both as a professional statistician, but also as a professional policy developer, rising quickly through the grade to enter the Senior Civil Service in late 2012, and starting my current role in early 2013.

Without my OU degree I would not have had the minimum educational qualification to pursue that career path.

What advice would you offer to a prospective student considering study at the OU?

Just do it – you will be surprised how many doors and OU degree can open. And the discipline needed to study whilst working is widely recognised by employers. This could be life changing for you, as it was for me.

David Platt

Dr David PlattDr David Platt is a research fellow at the University of Bristol. His computational work played a major part in Harald Helfgott's proof of the Weak Goldbach Conjecture last year, for which David won the first ever Gold medal in the mathematical sciences section of the 2014 "SET for Britain" event. After a BSc in mathematics with the OU, he  completed a PhD at the University of Bristol.

Why did you decide to study with the OU?

I got back into mathematics aged 40 something after nearly 20 years in industry. When my children reached GCSE/A Level I did an A Level at a local Tertiary college, just in an effort to keep up. I got bitten by the bug and wanted to do more. The OU was the perfect avenue.

Describe your experience of studying for your OU qualifications

It was flexible enough to fit in round my other commitments and no more expensive than my other hobbies (that is all it was at this stage). I did not have to commit to more than one module at a time, but knew that the route to a degree was there if I stuck with it. The quality of the teaching materials was especially impressive and the tutorials and the summer school were delivered with enthusiasm and humour.

What have you done since you finished studying with the OU?

After 5 years of very enjoyable study, I graduated, but still wanted more. My OU degree was enough to get me a postgraduate position at Bristol under Andrew Booker and 3 and a bit years later I defended my thesis in Analytic Number Theory. Since then, I have worked at the University as a Research Fellow. I mix with mathematicians from undergraduate to FRS and at no time have I been made to feel my degree is in any way "second rate" not having been awarded by a traditional institution.

Writing the first 13 even numbers as the sum of two prime numbers

Goldbach's (strong) conjecture asserts that every even integer greater than two can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers.

I was lucky enough to collaborate with Harald Helfgott from the ENS in Paris and help him to prove the Ternary Goldbach Conjecture which had been annoying us since 1742. My role was to design more efficient and rigorous algorithms to perform the massive computations Harald needed to support his work. The poster I submitted to SET Britain described these computations and was awarded first prize in the Mathematics section. Harald has been invited to talk at the International Congress of Mathematics at Seoul this year which shows how important his result is.

How have your OU qualifications helped your career?

Put simply, without my OU degree, it would not have been possible for me to follow an academic career path. In addition, thinking back to my previous existance as an employer, I recognised that a maths degree demonstrated an ability to solve problems in a structured and repeatable way. Regardless of the actual course followed, being able to successfully complete an OU degree requires the capacity to manage ones time when faced with conflicting priorities. This is a key skill that any business will appreciate highly.

What advice would you offer to a prospective student considering study at the OU?

For what it is worth, I regard the OU as one of this country's crowning achievements. I am proud to be an alumnus and sing its praises at every opportunity.

Suzanne McGhee

Suzanne McGhee with her M208 module materialsSuzanne McGhee is an artist specialising in the domain of painting the abstract concepts resulting from mathematics. Traditionally she is a research physicist, with a MPhys (Hons) in Physics and a PhD in Physics from Heriot-Watt University. She is currently mid-way studying for a BSc in Mathematics with The Open University.

Why did you decide to study with the OU?

The OU fitted in with my life as I have a young son and I lived on a remote island in Scotland. I also needed a course that was flexible in the hours I could work at it.

Life in a negative world = 0, on display in the "I Love Math" museum in Seoul

Life in a Negative World = 0
16.5 x 22 inches
Acrylic on paper.
2013

What would happen to a leaf, if slowly, positive numbers ceased existing.

This is depicted in six stages, starting from the largest to the smallest segment.

Stage 1: the world as we know it.

Stage 2: positive number are starting to diminish, light is being blue shifted and its rigid patterns are collapsing to a hyperbolic based geometry. Gravity is dominating over the upward forces.

Stage 3: the original leaf punches through with striking comparison.

Stage 4: negativity takes hold. The inability of light to be reflected brings the fall of darkness and the leaf is now crushed under the extreme downward forces.

Stage 5: a glimmer of the world we live in.

Stage 6: pure black, life cannot exist without positive numbers.

Describe your experience of studying with the OU.

I found the OU to be an excellent way to study a degree. I have been to quite a few universities in my time and I find the OU course material to be above and beyond any others I have used. For me this is fundamental as I tend to be very stubborn about asking for help, wanting to solve everything myself – something I plan to work on during my next year of study. The tutorials I attended on-line and at the weekends have a really friendly and encouraging atmosphere. The tutors really do go out their way to help you! I personally prefer to study the OU way, as it really gives me a chance to immerse myself in the topic. This gives me a deeper understanding of my studies and in turn I know it inside out and I am not relying on memorizing it for exams.

How is your study with the OU helping your career?

The OU has given me the confidence to embark on my own career path. This happened when receiving my exam marks, as it really brought home that I could learn challenging subjects under my own steam while living a normal, all singing and all dancing, chaotic family lifestyle. Basically it showed me that I can do something new with my life and make positive changes.

I have always had a love for art and painted since childhood. So it felt natural to use art to help explain and visualise complex and ethereal ideas in math and use the math I learn to help me investigate the creative questions I paint in art. My own career emerged through the interplay with my studies and my love for art as an abstract visualiser, where I get to combine what I consider to be the two greatest subjects: mathematics and art. It has really kicked off to a great start when my submitted painting Life in a negative world = 0 was accepted for an international exhibition in Seoul, South Korea with the Bridges Organisation. This congress looks at the relationships between math, art and architecture. It was organised by the Bridges Organisation and held in conjunction with the International Congress of Mathematicians. The artwork will be held permanently in South Korea within the "I Love Math" museum. I am currently carrying on with my math degree with the OU and producing art pieces to enable me to have my own solo art show, which will plunge into these heady topics even more.

What advice would you offer to a prospective student considering study at the OU?

Life in a Negative World = 0 on display at the 2014 Bridges Conference in SeoulI would say 'Go for it!', most resoundingly, 'Go for it!'. I was very worried about being able to do my course, even before I applied and I do not know how I plucked up the courage to do it. Now, three years down the line I am so glad I did. They are some rules I have followed along the way to make the journey easier and that is to try and stick to the course timetable and to keep the work in small manageable chunks. I also keep going no matter what, as I believe that quite often the learning all comes together quite wonderfully towards the end of the revision period just before the exam. So don’t give up – if any problems do come your way, you could not find more supportive staff and a fantastic network of students all routing for each other.

David Worsley

David facilitating a risk management workshopDavid Worsley is the Risk & Value Manager for Network Rail's London North Eastern Route, and is also a Visiting Lecturer at the Centre for Railway Research at Newcastle University. He has a Diploma in Statistics, Certificate in Mathematics, and a Certificate in Quantitative Studies for Business from the Open University.

Why did you decide to study with the OU?

I did maths A-Level, but I don’t think the real-world applications were properly explained at school, so I didn’t study any maths for almost 15 years. Ten years ago, I was working in the railway industry, and I was given a job as a project risk analyst, based partly on the little maths that I did know. I realised that in order to pursue that career fully I would need to expand my knowledge of statistics in particular, so I undertook the Certificate in Quantitative Studies for Business, Certificate in Mathematics, and Diploma in Statistics at the OU. I did enough maths in these three qualifications to be eligible for full membership of the Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications, which I obtained in 2010.

Describe your experience of studying for your OU qualifications.

The period during which I was studying mathematics with the Open University was very demanding, as I was adjusting to a new job and undertaking a professional qualification with the Institute of Risk Management at the same time. My employer gave me study leave and paid for that course, but I did the OU qualifications in my own time and at my own expense; the incentive that kept me going was the realisation that after three years of hard work I would be qualified in both the managerial and mathematical aspects of my new profession, and thereby in a very strong position to progress in the rail industry.

What made my success possible was the high standard of tuition I received at the OU; a two-hour tutorial from each tutor seemed to impart as much knowledge as days of reading alone. I found myself travelling to adjacent regions when possible in order to benefit from additional tutorials, and I attended the OU mathematics revision weekend at Aston University.

What have you done since you finished studying?

Shortly after completing the Diploma in Statistics, I moved to a job in strategic planning at Network Rail, and I eventually rose to be responsible for long-term planning of the East Coast Main Line. I thus had the opportunity to use maths in cost estimating, demand forecasting, economic modelling, and strategic decision analysis; in particular, all of these applications were used by the committee that chose the locations for the stations on High Speed 2, on which I represented Network Rail’s interests. I was once even involved in an engineering simulation project, examining the perennial problem of “leaves on the line”, in which I used techniques that I had learnt on an OU probability course.

One of the projects for which David undertook the risk analysis

Kings Cross Concourse: One of the projects for which David undertook some risk analysis

I’m back working in project risk management again now, but in a more senior role which has allowed me to help expand the responsibilities of the department to include the complicated statistical analysis required for whole-life cost modelling of new assets. Network Rail intends that this initiative will save the taxpayer over £3 billion in costs over the next 20 years. I also teach many of these applications of mathematics as a Visiting Lecturer at Newcastle University’s Centre for Railway Research, and in this capacity I have been nominated to take part in a European Union funded project that will share this knowledge at a series of conferences across the continent over the next 3 years.

How have your OU qualifications helped your career?

The effort that I put in to studying at the OU in my mid-30s in order to become a qualified mathematician meant that as I turned 40 my career really accelerated, and I now have the opportunity to make a contribution to the railway industry at an international level. As mathematics underlies both risk analysis and many of the tools used in strategic planning, I have been able to make an impact in two professional fields, and I’m now enjoying teaching what I have learnt at University level myself.

What advice would you offer to a prospective student considering study at the OU?

The first suggestion that I would make is that new students plan their studies so that they can pick up intermediate qualifications on their path to a full degree; the prospect of earning certificates or diplomas along the way should make the potential six-year study period seem more digestible. You can also experience a sense of achievement when each qualification is gained, which helps to motivate you for future efforts.

Meanwhile, my main advice would be to take full advantage of tutorials; the opportunity to interact with your tutor and really concentrate on what you are being taught can often make difficult mathematical topics suddenly become comprehensible.

Max Little

Max Little delivering a presentationMax Little is a lecturer and Wellcome Trust-MIT Fellow in the Nonlinearity and Complexity Research Group at Aston University,a Visiting Assistant Professor at MIT and Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at NumericAnalysis Ltd consulting. He has a B.Sc. in mathematical sciences from the OU, as well as a D.Phil. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Oxford.

Why did you decide to study with the OU?

Working in video games on DSP algorithm development I became fascinated by the control that mathematical modelling could provide. This triggered an understanding that mathematics could be both very powerful in practice and intrinsically beautiful. You could say I caught the 'maths bug'!

Describe your experience of studying for your OU qualifications

It was certainly not easy studying at the same time as holding down a demanding full-time job, and I didn't make it easy on myself by choosing to study well over my recommended number of annual credits! But, the extremely well-organized OU material and study plans made it possible for me to achieve a high first-class result, which impressed Oxford enough to allow me to go on to study a D.Phil. there. The support of excellent OU tutors was incredibly helpful in achieving this.

What have you done since you finished studying?

It's been a long road! I finished up my D.Phil. at Oxford in 2007 and since then I have held a number of postdoc and consulting jobs on a variety of topics, including systems biology and rainfall prediction at Oxford and MIT in the US. I have also made many contributions to mathematical and statistical algorithms for analyzing behavioural signals such as voice and accelerometry in neurological disorders. I'm now a mathematics lecturer at Aston.

How have your OU qualifications helped your career?

The OU allowed me to change careers by giving me the opportunity to study my passion - mathematics - while earning a living. After postdoc positions in Oxford and co-founding a web-based image search business, I won a Wellcome Trust fellowship at MIT to follow up on my doctoral research work in biomedical signal processing. I am currently a Lecturer in Complex Systems, Pattern Analysis and Information Mathematics at Aston University, a Wellcome Trust-MIT Postdoctoral Research Fellow, a Visiting Assistant Professor at MIT and Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, NumericAnalysis Ltd consulting.

What advice would you offer to a prospective student considering study at the OU?

Be ambitious, but realistic: ensure that you have good plans in place in order to hit the strict and quite numerous deadlines. Try to explore the subject as much as you can; mathematics is learned by doing not by passively absorbing information.

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