Analysis: from vets and sports presenters to farming and the law, maths plays a surprisingly major role in a lot of careers

By Niamh O'Meara, Olivia Fitzmaurice and Patrick Johnson, University of Limerick

We all know that maths is important and plays a pivotal role in our lives and careers. But when asked to name specific careers or jobs that utilise mathematics, most people struggle to go beyond the typical answers of 'engineers' or 'scientists'. This lack of knowledge around the careers that depend upon maths highlights a deeper problem around the impact and value of maths in society. 

Since 2017, Career Mathways has been unpacking the maths in numerous careers and communicating this to students in secondary school so they will be more informed around the importance and potential impact of mathematics on their future lives. A number of careers, which initially might not be thought to rely on or utilise mathematics, were selected and an individual working within each one was approached and invited to speak about their career and the impact that mathematics can have in their profession.

The attorney from Making A Murderer

One such interview was with Dean Strang, a defence attorney who featured in the Netflix series Making a Murderer. He spoke about how lawyers regularly need a good understanding of mathematics to identify and challenge statistical fallacies. The importance of statistics within his working life is far more than he ever imagined, so much so that he lamented the fact that he didn’t study statistics when in law school.

Making A Murderer defence attorney Dean Strang

Strang outlined an example of where he believed the prosecution team in their closing argument in the Steven Avery case, the case at the heart of the documentary, might have used one such statistical fallacy. Unfortunately, due to his lack of statistical knowledge, Strang was unable to challenge the claim, which he feels should have been challenged, and perhaps could have undermined the creditability of the prosecution teams’ closing argument. In an increasingly scientific world, Strang stressed that everyone should take advantage of the learning opportunities available to them in science and mathematics as "your educational deficits could matter to other people later in your life".

The woman who talks about sport

RTÉ sports presenter and author Jacqui Hurley spoke about how she uses mathematics in her job daily without even knowing it. Hurley outlined how sport fans are more hungry than ever for all sorts of match statistics.

RTÉ Sunday Sport presenter Jacqui Hurley

She recounted an incident from a few years back in the National Football League when a number of teams finished the final day on the same number of points. Hurley was aware that the points difference would end up determining who stayed up and who was relegated and the Sunday Sport team were the first to analyse the data live on air. As such, they knew that they had to perform the calculations quickly and accurately

This resulted in them being in a position to inform an inter-county manager at full time that his team had been relegated, despite him firmly believing that his side had done enough to stay up. One simple calculation error could have resulted in an embarrassing situation with an incorrect message being relayed; a situation every journalist, wishes to avoid.

The vet who's very comfortable with maths

Veterinary nurse Ciara Walsh spoke about how drug calculations were central to her work. She discussed how she would need to work out drug quantities and levels of dilution for animals weighing a couple of tonnes and for animals weighing a few grams. She emphasized how a simple error could not only negatively affect the health and well-being of the animal, but how it could have knock on effects for the child or elderly person for whom this animal is their best friend and companion.

Lawyers regularly need a good understanding of mathematics to identify and challenge statistical fallacies

Walsh went on to outline how mathematics plays a central role in her job from fluid therapy to anaesthetic calculations to laboratory work, and that anyone considering going into the veterinary profession would need to "get very comfortable with mathematics" and be confident in their ability to carry out mental calculations as needed.

The farmer turning a profit

Co Kerry farmer John Mulvihill indicated that a proficiency in mathematics is crucial to both ensuring the health of his animals and making a profit in the farming business. Considerations regarding feeding quantities, grass growth, maximising milk production, and purchase of equipment are daily deliberations in his life and a sound understanding and knowledge of mathematics is vital for him to ensure that he remains profitable.

The guard

It is important to point out that not everybody who was interviewed as part of this project always felt the way they do now regarding the importance of mathematics. Interviewees recounted stories of disliking mathematics or never seeing the purpose of it during their school days.

Everyone should take advantage of the opportunities available to them in science and mathematics as "your educational deficits could matter to other people later in your life".

Sgt. Frank Lavin, a Senior Collision Investigator with An Garda Síochána, highlighted that he never saw the relevance of mathematics at school, but he feels that had he been exposed to different contexts or careers that required mathematics they could have altered his perception of the subject. In his current job, Lavin regularly uses trigonometry, geometry and algebra to aid him in understanding how car accidents occur and who, or what, is at fault for these collisions. But when studying these topics in school, he felt that the emphasis was placed more on formulae and recalling facts, than on the relevance and usefulness of the topics. 

The key commonality across all interviewees is that they highlight the central role mathematics plays in their everyday work. It is important to get the message out that mathematics is everywhere and we should all have a good understanding of the basics. Rather than proudly boasting that we are no good at mathematics, it is important to look at the tasks that we do every day and appreciate that mathematics plays a role in most decisions we make, jobs we undertake and activities we participate in.

Dr Niamh O'Meara is a lecturer and researcher in the field of mathematics education at the National Centre for STEM Education (EPI∙STEM) in the University of Limerick. Dr Olivia Fitzmaurice is a lecturer and researcher in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Limerick. Dr Patrick Johnson is a lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Limerick.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ