Professor Ian Frazer is best known, particularly by Year 7 students around Australia and probably other parts of the world, for his work in developing the Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine against cervical cancer.
Professor Frazer grew up in Scotland and moved to Australia in the early 1980's. His dedication to his work has resulted in many significant awards, including the Prime Minister's Prize for Science, The Howard Florey Medal, the Balzan Prize, the Australian Medical Association Gold Medal, the CSIRO Eureka Prize and the William B. Coley Award. Professor Frazer was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011.
It is a great honour to have been able to ask Professor Frazer 10 questions about how he uses maths in his work and I have chosen him to be the first scientist to introduce the "Maths in Science" project.
1. Describe what maths lessons were like for you at school.
We were the guinea pigs for a new curriculum focussed on sets and matrices - it was exciting to see the power of these tools to solve problems.
2. Was the maths that you learnt at school useful to you later in life?
Mostly I use the statistics and probability theory I learnt – sometimes calculus.
3. How good do you need to be at mental arithmetic to do calculations in your head?
I was lucky enough to find a book that had a series of “tricks” to do quite complex arithmetic calculations in your head – however they did require good mental arithmetic.
4. Mathematics teaches us that you can put two things together to make a new thing. Is this important in what you do?
Inferences from independent observations are at the core of research hypothesis formation.
5. Mathematics is about finding patterns. Do you need to look for patterns, or exceptions to patterns, in your research?
Pattern recognition, and outlier recognition, give rise to new theories for testing.
6. Mathematics also teaches us about balance and equality. Is this idea useful in your research?
Systems analysis requires understanding of homeostasis maintenance – which is all about balance and equality.
7. Mathematics helps us to represent quantities and measurements numerically. Do you do this in your work?
We measure and compare numbers routinely as part of bioinformatics.
8. Is estimation good enough or do you need to measure things accurately?
In biological systems significant changes generally occur in half log steps so estimation is often good enough – more than single digit precision is hard to achieve in my field of science.
9. How do you use statistics to analyse your results?
Virtually everything in biological sciences is about demonstrating that differences observed between control and test measurements are (a) statistically and, if so, (b) biologically significant.
10. Do you have any other insights to offer into how you use maths in your work?
It would be fair to say that 98% of the interpretation of our work relies on mathematical tools.
Thank you so much Professor Frazer! I am so grateful for your participation and generosity with your time. Your answers were thoughtful and will give us all something to contemplate.