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Neil Saunders (Fr 2008)

Neil Saunders is a Senior Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at University of Greenwich. He was previously an Associate Lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sydney where he completed his PhD. Neil won several awards for his work as a student, including an esteemed Lift-Off Fellowship by the Australian Mathematical Society in 2010. Neil talks to us about his College experience, what life in London has been like, his work in academia and his upcoming TedX Talk.

Please tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from originally and where did you grow up?

I grew up on the Central Coast of NSW. I went to Kanwal Primary School and then Gorokan High School finishing in 2001, which is a dizzyingly long time ago now that I think about it!

Why did you choose to reside at St Andrew’s College?

Originally, it was just pure economics. I was in the 2nd year of my PhD, was renting around the Chippendale/Newtown area and was looking for a new place to live. I did some research on the residential college websites and saw that St Andrew’s was offering some postgraduate research scholarships, and so I did a swift calculation and concluded that if I got one of those, it would be cheaper than renting.

I remember phoning St Andrew’s College very late on a Friday afternoon to find out more information and the Principal at the time, Dr Bill Porges answered the phone. While he must have wanted to get home at the end of a long week, we had a long and very pleasant conversation. He invited me for lunch at the College the following week. I was struck by his warmth and his enthusiasm for building a strong postgraduate community at College. The following week at the lunch, I met Wayne Erickson, John Sergeant and Ian Jack who were all very welcoming and my mind was made up that St Andrew’s was the place to come.

What was your favourite part about being at St Andrew’s?

This is a difficult question because I loved everything the College had to offer. As a high school and early undergraduate student, I was very sporty and musical having played grade cricket and competitive tennis, as well as being in the orchestra. However, those aspects of myself were slowly fading during my PhD years.

St Andrew’s gave me an opportunity to revive these extracurricular activities in a wonderful community filled with such talented people.  I fully immersed myself in the life of the college playing Rawson cricket and tennis; I competed in the Palladian cup as a solo pianist and as the accompanist for the college choir; and the Senior Common Room always had a lively schedule of after dinner talks given by fellow postgraduate students or visiting academics.

I must also add that St Andrew’s is where I met my partner Melissa-Kelly Franklin and we’ve just celebrated being together for 12 years!

Why did you choose to study Mathematics?

Originally I went to university with the design to major in physics as I was always was fascinated by astronomy as a boy. But I remember a lecturer in a 2nd year physics class telling us that if you want to do physics properly, then you need to study a subject in pure mathematics called group theory. So I enrolled myself in a group theory course and was just blown away by how beautiful it was. I switched majors from physics to pure mathematics and have been doing pure mathematics ever since. The mathematics I did my PhD in and continue to research has applications in physics, so I might return to mathematical physics again some day.

A mathematical training equips you with the skills that allow you to turn your attention to many different fields, which is what I tell prospective students coming into their higher education.

How did St Andrew’s help you achieve your goals in your life and or career?

St Andrew’s is a great enabler for its residents to acquire a well-rounded education: you graduate with a wealth of rich experiences as well as a degree. I’ll always be grateful for the postgraduate scholarship the college gave me so that I could live on campus while completing my PhD, but I owe the College a massive debt of gratitude for all of the extracurricular activities that enriched my experience as a postgraduate student.

After I finished my PhD, I stayed at St Andrew’s for an extra year as the Dean of Studies, while I had a one-year lectureship at Sydney. Here I worked very closely with Dr Hester Wilson and Professor Ian Jack in organising the College’s Tutorial Program. This was a great experience and certainly boosted my CV when it came to applying for permanent academic positions.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far – career or otherwise?

I was once an invited speaker at a large conference at Cambridge where Professor Stephen Hawking was also giving a public lecture. Since my fascination for astronomy was inspired in part by his work and his writings, I was thrilled to be speaking at the same conference.

I have to sneak another one in here. When I was working at the EPFL in Switzerland I did my best to quickly learn French so that I could teach mathematics in French. I couldn’t speak another language before moving overseas and so now being able to speak French is a great source of pleasure for me. I still try to speak it whenever I can.

You are living and working overseas in London now, what has that been like for your career and life in general?

Yes, I’ve been living overseas since 2012 when I first moved to Bristol for a postdoctoral research fellowship. London is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities – there’s so much going on here, from theatre to music to museums and art galleries, I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to live and work here.

Professionally, London is just a wonderful place. There are many seminars and conferences at the many different universities in Greater London, which is great for my research and its proximity to Europe where I have other mathematical collaborators is very useful.

The university campus where I work is the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. You’ll quite often see it in movies and British TV series. We often have large film crews descend on the campus for a massive film shoot, which is always very exciting. I’ll get a call up as an extra one day hopefully!

What is the biggest challenge of your job as Senior Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of Greenwich?

Balancing time between my own research and teaching is always a challenge. While it’s nice having a permanent job in academia, I do miss those heady days of just being a research fellow where I didn’t have any teaching responsibilities. Though I do love teaching a lot and I always want to give my students an excellent university experience, so it’s a perennial, but healthy tension.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I really enjoy just thinking and talking about mathematics, whether it’s doing original research or learning a new piece of mathematics, or finally understanding something that I didn’t understand before. I’m very lucky to have a job where I can just think about the subject I’m passionate about – it’s that saying of “when you find a job you love, you never work again”.

One aspect that gives me particular joy is seeing how my students immerse themselves and subsequently flourish in their tertiary studies. For many students at Greenwich, they are the first in their families to attend a university and so to see them thrive once finally given the right opportunity is very pleasing.

We hear you recently recorded a TedX talk. Can you tell us a little bit about that?*

My TedX talk was entitled “Daydreaming, Mathematics and Our Creative Future”. The aim of the talk was to remind people that it’s ok to daydream, and that we should allow ourselves the time and space to do so because that’s when we’re at our most creative. It’s where all the threads pull together and where true understanding about the world and our place in it happens.

A secondary message of the talk was that mathematics is as much a creative endeavour as it is a logical one. Many mathematical discoveries come about by letting our minds wander through the labyrinth of ideas. So I always say that when I’m staring blankly at the wall or outside a window, that I’m doing some serious work (and most of the time I get away with that!). But this attitude of giving our brains time and space to create is an important one that can be applied in almost every other discipline.

*Neil’s TedX Talk will be released online later this year

How are you managing at the moment during the COVID-19 pandemic? (We hope you are doing OK!)

We’re managing just like everyone else at the moment – responding as best we can to the challenges this pandemic poses.

Teaching at universities in the UK has been online for a while now, so I’ve adapted many of my lectures so that they can be live-streamed and recorded. I’m holding my video conferences and tutorials with colleagues and students alike, trying our best to manage their (and our) anxieties and expectations.

More broadly, this pandemic has given us time to reflect on what really matters, so we’ve been enjoying reconnecting with family and friends. Times like this emphasise that at the heart of flourishing lives lie good relationships and I hope that this attitude can continue after this pandemic is over.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

I love sampling everything London has to offer when I’m not working. I love going to the theatre, going to concerts and gigs and arts exhibitions. My partner Melissa-Kelly always knows where and when an interesting production or gig is happening, so I’m always grateful to her.

I’m also a cricket tragic and play in a friendly league on the weekends in summertime. The cricket grounds in England are so picturesque and while the standard of cricket isn’t as high as it might be (speaking for myself), it’s still a lot of fun!

What are you reading/ watching/ and or listening to at the moment that you would recommend to others?

I always have a couple of books on the go. I’m currently reading Milkman by Anna Burns which won the Booker Prize in 2018 (a recommendation from my partner). It tells the story of a young woman growing up in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’. I’m also reading The History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling – I’ve always had a keen observer’s interest in philosophy.

One book I’d recommend to others is Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. He was a Stoic philosopher in the early Roman Empire (well his day-job was really that of a civil servant in Nero’s Rome). Despite its bleak title, the book is an examination of the human condition and exhorts us to really meditate on the things that are important, thereby making full use of the time we have. He, along with the other Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus remind us that we should not worry too much about the things not in our control and do our best with the things we can. It sounds so simple but it’s actually quite profound in practice. Stoicism is a wonderfully rich resource for times like this.

What words of advice would you give to young Androvians?

No experience at university is wasted. Soak up as much as you can as the experiences you have at St Andrew’s and the wider university will provide you with the resources to live an enriched life. Education is more than the acquisition of knowledge; it’s about bringing out the best in individuals (as can be seen from its Latin roots). Aristotle tells us that the purpose of education is so that we can make a “noble use of our leisure”; that’s an interesting thought, but it reminds us that education is for life and not just a career.