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The importance of Mathematics

David Clarke (BSc Mathematics, 1984) explains how the Covid pandemic shone a light on the importance of mathematics and shares his experience of being personally tutored by the founder of Mathematics at Warwick.

Why did you choose to study at Warwick?
The undergraduate mathematics programme at Warwick was gaining a great reputation in the late 1970s which meant it was high on many prospective students lists. It was around this time that I watched Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman giving the Royal Society's 1978 Christmas Lectures in mathematics. He was such an engaging and inspiring speaker and had founded the Mathematics Department at Warwick in 1965. This cemented my desire to study at Warwick.

Professor Zeeman became your personal tutor. Can you tell us more about that? It was both daunting and inspiring because Christopher was such a great educator. His lectures were always packed because he was a very charismatic and articulate lecturer. Every term, Christopher would host a dinner for his tutees at his home in Leamington Spa. He’d travelled so extensively that the food was usually more exotic than I'd ever tried before. I ate couscous there for the first time, and he taught me how to eat pitted olives in polite company!

What did you do after graduating?
I initially went on to study Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, but realised a research career wasn't for me. Christopher introduced me to some of his former students in London who suggested a career in banking.

I was offered an 18-month training programme with an American bank in Boston, Massachusetts, and spent the next 35 years living and working across America, Asia, and the Middle East. I’ve absolutely loved experiencing different cultures and seeing so much of the world through my work.

How do you feel a degree in mathematics is transferable into different career paths like yours?
Mathematics is incredibly important because it underpins so much of daily life. Engineers and other scientists get a lot of credit because of all the exciting things that people like Elon Musk are doing. It’s badged as something new and unique but actually, it’s a lot of mathematics!

It was interesting that, during the pandemic, it was mathematics that helped model the Covid-19 virus. Suddenly, you had mathematicians using mathematical models to explain and demonstrate how a virus mutation could cause an exponential increase in the number of infections. I think the public began to realise the usefulness of mathematics and how it relates to all our lives.

What are your interests now?
I'm interested in renewable technologies as well as critical issues such as food, energy, and water security. The world is working on alternatives to fossil fuels, but what happens if we run out of water? These are vitally important topics that university researchers and students are thinking about in ways we simply didn’t when I was a student.

David smiles wearing glasses and holds up a painting of an elephant