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Six Questions with: Professor Caitlin E. Buck

Six Questions with: Professor Caitlin E. Buck

Caitlin Buck is a Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield and was a Visiting Fellow on the Mathematical and Statistical Approaches to Climate Modelling and Prediction programme in 2010.

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

I have always struggled to memorise things so, when I was asked to learn multiplication tables at the age of about seven, I needed a work around. I realised very quickly that multiplication was just a fast way to do addition and was very excited. I went to school the next day happy that I had discovered this marvellous new link. When the teacher got to the part of the maths lesson in which we were tested on our multiplication tables, I was asked for "4 times 7", I stood up, thought for a moment and then said "28". The teacher responded "correct, but why did it take you so long" and I said "because I was adding up four lots of seven". The teacher's response has stuck with me forever -- she said "don't be so stupid, there's no relationship between addition and multiplication; go and stand in the corner, facing the wall". After that, I was often sent to stand in the corner facing the wall during maths lessons. In the end, I didn't mind it so much -- it gave me lots of time to think!

I stay interested in maths by being interested in an wide range of real world problems. There are so many parts of life that could benefit from the application of cutting edge methods from mathematics and so few people who can help to "get them out there".

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

From the age of about nine, when I took part in my first archaeological excavation of a Bronze Age site near my home in Peterborough (, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. So, my first degree is in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Bradford. The course was everything I hoped it would be and a lot more besides. I especially enjoyed the time I spent working at the British Museum Research Laboratory and the period I spent working as a geophysical surveyor. Both of these jobs produced very large amounts of noisy complex data that no one seemed to know what to do with. After asking around, I discovered that there was a group at the University of Nottingham, led by Cliff Litton, working on the application of Bayesian statistics to archaeology and I leapt at the chance to join the team as an RA. I was amazed and enthralled by what I discovered. A whole branch of mathematics in which subjective prior information could be incorporated with data to derive formal inference based on both. I was hooked; I registered part-time for a PhD and have worked ever since on the application of Bayesian statistics to messy problems in archaeology and palaeoenvironmental science.

What achievements are you most proud of?

My Mum always told me that "pride comes before a fall" so I would not say that I'm proud of anything I've done. Nonetheless, there are some projects that I've been involved in that other people seem to appreciate and have made quite an impact. The first was the project that I worked on while I studied for my PhD; in which we demonstrated the potential for using MCMC-based inference to aid in interpreting groups of related radiocarbon dates (a situation in which prior knowledge is as important as the scientific data); that work is summarised in Chapter Nine of Buck et al (1996). We worked on these ideas for more than a decade and the methods we developed are now in routine use by archaeologists around the world (implemented in several freely available computer packages including BCal which I am responsible for and others such as OxCal . More recently, I have worked with staff at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge helping to develop a Bayesian approach to dating ice core deposits (Klauenberg et al, submitted) [4] and, alongside that, have helped to develop Bayesian methods for making inference about the radiocarbon (C14) calibration curve. The calibration curve is needed to map raw C14 ages to the calendar scale because the amount of C14 in the atmosphere has not been constant over time; the most recent references for that work are Reimer et al (2009) [5], Heaton et al (2009) [3] and Blackwell and Buck (2008) [1]. I am still working on the IntCal project and am also involved in developing methods for spatio-temporal modelling of the arrival of cereal agriculture in Europe (both projects are funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council). Alongside that, I co-ordinate a large group of scientists from different disciplines all of whom are interested in Studying Uncertainty in Palaeoclimate Reconstruction (SUPRAnet); a most rewarding project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) within which we are seeking to help articulate palaeoclimate reconstruction as an enormous Bayesian inference problem (

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

I guess the answer is "I cheat"! I have a dedicated and patient partner who doesn't have a job and who looks after me. Geoff (also known as Bo the Meson) is a philosophy graduate with a background in flight simulation and electronics; he is also a lyricist and vocalist. We both put a lot of energy and long hours into what we choose to do and each really appreciate the support the other is able to offer. I couldn't do what I do without his support!

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

During a research career, ideas are best developed one small step at a time. Just keep taking little steps in the direction that seems most sensible to you (having taken advice from those whose opinions you trust) and you will get where you want to go. Some steps will be sideways and some might even take you backwards, but that's research! Each step is an opportunity to learn and eventually you will get where you want to go.

Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

This has been the most productive research period I've had for many years. It's been great just to get away from the routine of life in my own department but, much more important, has been the opportunity to spend a prolonged period working alongside some of the most brilliant people working in my research area. The organisers worked really hard to bring together people that they knew would "spark" ideas from one another and that's precisely what we've done. During my time here, I have worked closely with my colleagues on the ice core dating project which has led to submission of a paper to the journal Quaternary Science Reviews (Klauenberg et al, submitted) [4]. Several members of the SUPRAnet project have been here too and we have been able to make quite a lot of progress on a paper that outlines our Bayesian vision for palaeoclimate reconstruction. We have also drafted a funding proposal that will (if funded) allow us to develop some of the models that are needed if the vision is ever to be implemented. In summary, my visit has been inspirational and has given me a great deal of optimism for the next few years of my research.


[1] Blackwell P.G. and Buck C.E. (2008). Estimating radiocarbon calibration curves. Bayesian Analysis, 3, 225–248.
[2] Buck C.E., Cavanagh W.G. and Litton C.D. (1996) The Bayesian Approach to Archaeological Data Interpretation, Wiley, Chichester.
[3] Heaton T.J., Blackwell P.G. and Buck C.E. (2009). A Bayesian approach to the estimation of radiocarbon calibration curves: the IntCal09 methodology. Radiocarbon, 51(4), 1151-1164.
[4] Klauenberg K., Blackwell P.G., Buck, C.E., Mulvaney R., Röthlisberger R. and Wolff E.W. (submitted) Bayesian glaciological modelling to quantify uncertainties in ice core chronologies, Quaternary Science Reviews.
[5] Reimer P.J., Baillie M.G.L., Bard E., Bayliss A., Beck J.W., Blackwell P.G., Bronk Ramsey C., Buck C.E., Burr G.S., Edwards R.L., Friedrich M., Grootes11 P.M., Guilderson T.P., Hajdas I., Heaton T.J., Hogg A.G., Hughen K.A., Kaiser K.F., Kromer B., McCormac F.G., Manning S.W., Reimer R.W., Richards D.A., Southon J.R., Talamo S., Turney C.S.M., van der Plicht J. and Weyhenmeyer C.E. (2009). IntCal09 and Marine09 Radiocarbon Age Calibration Curves, 0-50,000 Years cal BP. Radiocarbon, 51(4), 1111-1150.

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