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Six Questions with: Meena Kotecha

Six Questions with: Meena Kotecha


Meena Kotecha is a class teacher in the Department of Mathematics and also Department of Statistics at the London School of Economics


When did you become first interested in mathematics and what keeps your interest fresh?

I obtained an MA in Sociology after achieving a BA Honours in Philosophy and Psychology. Mathematics had always remained a mystery for me since my school life, perhaps because most of my questions unfortunately remained unanswered by my mathematics teachers, understandably due to time and syllabus constraints. I had always wished for an opportunity to solve this mystery at some stage in my life but was not sure how exactly I would go about it.

I feel privileged to have got a second chance when I decided to read mathematics with the Open University (OU) as a mature student. To my utter delight, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundation course-M101 during my first year. The highlight was the residential summer school at the University of Reading where I had my very first taste of some of the interesting applications of mathematics through the extra lectures I attended there. I could not believe that the subject I once thought was out of reach, turned out to be so beautiful and fascinating. As I continued to read mathematics, I became more and more drawn to it and began to unravel various applications of mathematics during my degree course.

Once I started my teaching career in mathematics, not a moment has gone by when I have not felt excited by it. I am interested in various applications of mathematics in medicine, operational research, astrophysics, finance, economics, biology, engineering and several other fields. I participate in events and conferences on various mathematical themes that are not limited to my teaching area. This keeps my interest fresh which, I believe, also gets transmitted to my students and acts as a strong motivator for them to engage with the subject.


Could you tell us a little about your career path so far and what your current research involves?

My research interests are rather inter-disciplinary but my main interests can be broadly classified as Mathematics/Statistics Education-improving teaching and learning of the subjects at undergraduate level, enhancing students' learning experience and improving their engagement with the subject. I think that this can be done by working on students' perceptions and preconceived notions of the subjects which can obstruct their learning and adversely affect their academic efficacy and engagement. Furthermore, I would argue that students are more likely to enjoy reading mathematics if they are encouraged to share their questions, before it is too late, by putting them at ease and ensuring that their questions do get appropriately addressed!

Whilst I am deeply fascinated by mathematics in medicine, astrophysics and biology, I am staying focused on education at present.

I lectured at the University of Hertfordshire (UH) where I taught mathematics and statistics to first year undergraduate students aspiring to read business related subjects. I enjoyed my work at UH where I made my lectures to large groups highly interactive by using a variety of formative assessments which kept my students actively engaged and interested. The only downside was that it made the lecture theatres rather noisy!

I am currently involved with class teaching at the LSE where I teach mathematics and statistics to first year undergraduate students aiming to read economics, management sciences, accountancy, finance or actuarial science. LSE has been the best place from the viewpoint of my professional development because of the intellectual freedom, support and encouragement they give their staff. I continue to work on enhancing students' learning experience of the subjects by using teaching and learning approaches aimed at maximising student participation, creating interest and motivating them to not only perceive mathematics positively but also believe in their own potential to succeed. I gave a presentation on the theme this September at the annual national learning and teaching conference Maths, Stats & OR Network (Higher Education Academy) hosted at the University of Birmingham.[1] [2]


What achievements are you most proud of?

I was thrilled when I was awarded a First Class Honours in Mathematical Sciences by the OU which seemed like a miracle, especially because the subject had seemed so intimidating during my school life.

Just this year, to my absolute delight, I was invited to an international event in London on Saturday 25 September 2010 by the India International Friendship Society (IIFS) to be presented with The Glory of India Award and Certificate of Excellence by Baroness Sandip Verma.[3] It was attended by some 300 people including several members of parliament and dignitaries from the UK and abroad. The IIFS presents awards annually to honour Indians across the globe for their contributions to fields such as science, engineering, technology, medicine, and education; and for the strengthening of India's international relations. Candidates are selected on the basis of outstanding academic achievements, and for showing extraordinary excellence in engaging with their respective professions and making significant contributions in their own fields.

However, I find it much more personally rewarding when students who start off saying how much they "hate" mathematics/statistics then change their mind after only a few classes and start giving me unprompted feedback, both written and verbal, on how they have learnt to enjoy the subjects. For me, truly magical moments come when students who have not performed well in their earlier coursework assignments due to extremely low academic efficacy and negative perceptions of the subjects, e-mail me after the exam results to share their brilliant grades and thank me for my guidance and encouragement.


How do you achieve a balance between your work and homelife?

I think it is important to communicate with family about one's commitments and busy periods in one's work schedule with no expectations of help. It is however equally important to make time for family whenever possible so that they do not feel that more importance is assigned to work. It is always an added bonus to get help and support from family, but it is best not to expect this and remember that it is a "bonus"! I follow this and it works for me perfectly.

Effective time management, forward planning and being organised always helps.


What advice would you offer to young women who are just starting their careers in the mathematical sciences?

A career in the mathematical sciences will certainly mean that there will never be a dull moment in your professional life. You will need much perseverance, dedication, hard work and understanding from family and friends. It is important to be focused and not lose patience as there will be tricky times but it is all worth the effort. You will soon learn to thrive on challenges.

The other suggestion I should like to make is to invest time in participating in conferences, workshops and lectures organised by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), the London Mathematical Society (LMS) and European Women in Mathematics (EWM). I frequently do this whenever my commitments allow me the luxury and it has substantially enhanced my professional network further contributing to my professional/academic development.[4]


Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

It was through the IMA that I came in contact with the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences. I have enjoyed the INI events enormously, and also found them beneficial from the viewpoint of my academic and professional development. Furthermore, they create such wonderful networking opportunities for Mathematicians across the globe and provide an ideal setting for collaborative work.

I am passionate about promoting Mathematics by enhancing students' learning experience and improving their engagement with the subject. The INI has played an important role in helping me to effectively pursue my passion, engage well with my profession and contribute to my field.


References

[1] http://www2.lse.ac.uk/maths/News/Meena_Kotecha_MSOR.aspx
[2] http://mathstore.ac.uk/headocs/EConferenceBooklet.pdf (Pages 69-70)
[3] http://www2.lse.ac.uk/statistics/news/news.aspx
[4] "Promoting Mathematics in Mumbai" Mathematics Today, April 2010 issue, The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications publication

University of Cambridge Research Councils UK
    Clay Mathematics Institute London Mathematical Society NM Rothschild and Sons