In this blog post, we spoke with Thomas Prellberg, Professor of Mathematics at the School of Mathematical Sciences. He discussed his desire to help students understand difficult maths concepts, which is at the core of his love for teaching. He also talked about his various research interests and the skills that each student should have in order to pursue mathematics at University.
What’s good about teaching at Queen Mary University of London?
There are many things that are good about teaching at Queen Mary, such as lecturers that really care about their students’ success. Perhaps the most important aspect in the current situation is how well the School has adjusted to remote learning. My own experience this term shows that students are very happy with our offering and feel supported.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching mathematics? One comment on ratemyprofessors.com states "... he gets sad when he sees an uninterested student.” When I read this, at first I was taken aback, but on further reflection, I feel that this is spot on, especially when expressed positively. I live for these epiphanic moments when “the penny drops” and students suddenly manage to understand some difficult concept, irrespective of whether this happens with basic or advanced concepts. Helping students to have these successful learning experiences is what matters.
On your web page, it says that your favourite papers keep changing. What holds your attention at the moment research-wise?
My interests are somewhat divided between rigorous combinatorics and computer simulations. At present, I am excited about the potential of extending a sampling algorithm of mine to parallel computing. This will enable us to push simulations into areas hitherto inaccessible by existing algorithms. Nathann Rodrigues, who spent time with me during his Brazilian PhD, is presently applying for an EPSRC fellowship on this topic; I am Partner Investigator in an ARC grant application in this area, and I have a shortlisted candidate for a related PhD project. I hope that at least one of these will be successful.
Tell us about one project you’ve particularly enjoyed working on and why. Research is most exciting when one manages to connect different areas of maths in unexpected ways. My work in enumerative combinatorics occasionally helped me to do just that by showing that certain objects that appear to have no obvious relation to each other are equinumerous and hence must be related. This then encourages others to find these direct connections. As one of my colleagues likes to say: it always becomes easier to prove something if you know it to be true.
Any advice for students willing to pursue mathematics at University? If you have a genuine love for the subject, just go for it, but be prepared to stay flexible. The two most valuable outcomes of pursuing a degree in maths are the following: firstly, learning how to learn, i.e., the ability to efficiently acquire knowledge in new areas if and when you will need it, and secondly, acquiring a unique mathematician’s approach to problem-solving. Both of these skills will put you in good stead, no matter what you choose to do after your degree.