Consortium employs maths to solve real-world problems

26 Jul 2013

Dr Joanna Mason, business development manager at the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry

At the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI), applying maths to solve real-world problems is the name of the game. Claire O’Connell met MACSI’s business development manager Dr Joanna Mason to find out more about her work helping industry and academics come up with practical solutions, with the odd bit of science busking thrown in.

Every morning, bleary-eyed people brew up some coffee to perk up – maybe you are one of them. But could that revitalising shot of caffeine taste even better if the water moved through the filter in a different way? And here’s another puzzle: if you are looking to capture wave energy, how do you ensure your equipment is ready for what the open sea has to throw at it?

Those are some of the real-world problems that mathematicians and companies have bent their brains around recently through MACSI, a group within the maths department at the University of Limerick (UL).

The focus is on using applied maths to get a different perspective on practical problems, explains Mason, so companies large and small come to them with specific questions that need solving. And while MACSI works year-round with industry, the collaborations particularly hot up each June when the UL consortium hosts a week-long European study group with industry workshop.

“It’s an intense week,” says Mason, who describes how applied mathematicians from around Europe come to Limerick and companies ‘pitch’ the problems that need to be solved. Groups form around specific questions and thrash out models and solutions with the industry representatives, then MACSI follows up with a technical report and a visit to the company to present the findings.

So far, MACSI has run six such study groups, and preparations start as far back as January. Invitations go out to potentially interested academics and companies and MACSI looks to do a bit of ‘matchmaking’ before the event, explains Mason. “Industry wants to know who is going to come and solve their problems, and academics want to know what problems are they going to solve,” she says.

So what kinds of problems do they grapple with during the week? “Broadly speaking, some are data-driven problems, such as scheduling deliveries or analysing large datasets that companies have collected over the years to see what customers or processes are profitable,” explains Mason. “And then what our mathematicians tend to get really excited about are the more physics-driven problems, like the water going through a coffee filter and affecting the quality of coffee’s taste.”

The latest workshop took place in Limerick just last month, and saw three SMEs and three multinationals work with around 100 mathematicians. One local SME, Limerick Wave, wanted some mathematical insight into its marine energy prototype. “They wanted the group to make a mathematical model so they could predict how it would deal with different types of waves,” Mason says.

Maths for the real world

That kind of real-world application of maths has been a thread through Mason’s own career, which started out in the University of Oxford with a degree in mathematical sciences. “I don’t think I realised how privileged I was until I left Oxford – that having a tutorial with two or three people was unusual,” she recalls.

Applied maths had turned her head in college and she went on to carry out post-graduate mathematical modelling and engineering studies at Bristol University, where she became absorbed by the noise and vibration of vacuum pumps.

“They are used in the semiconductor industry in thin layer deposition for flat-screen TVs,” explains Mason. “But as these pumps were being made larger and faster, the noise and vibration were getting worse due to the gearing mechanism inside the pump. So I spent a long time studying gears.”

Linking industry and academia

Next stop was MACSI as an industrial maths researcher, and she also spent a period at NUI Galway, funded by IRCSET (now the Irish Research Council) looking at impact and friction issues before returning to MACSI to work in business development and liaise between academics and potential industry collaborators.

The institute is funded through a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator Award to director Prof Stephen O’Brien and also through industry partners, and Mason looks to encourage companies large and small to interact with the MACSI’s mathematicians and computational scientists in areas that align well with their expertise. “One of the most exciting things about my job is that I get to see all these different projects,” she says. “I loved my research but it was quite narrow, whereas now I get much more of an overview and have a much larger opportunity to make a difference.”

Networking and busking for science

As well as forging connections between industry and academics, Mason has also been building up links between women in maths – she runs an annual day-long event for women in the discipline to network and share the stories of their careers.

And while Mason herself has been interested in maths from an early age, she appreciates that it doesn’t come so easily to everyone, so she is also involved in outreach to schools and the general public, including science ‘busking’ at music and food festivals in Cork and Galway.

“We bring boxes of science and maths tricks out into the streets and we have experiments made from everyday items, like making a tornado in a bottle, tying people together with strings and knots and a card trick where you ‘spell’ out your birthday in binary,” she explains. “Part of the appeal is the general public is seeing science in a place they wouldn’t expect to find it.”

And more generally, Mason believes that seeing maths being applied to solve a practical challenge is a great way to spark interest. “I think the ethos of seeing how maths can be used to solve real-world problems is really important,” she says. “And the younger that starts the better.”

For more information on MACSI, industry workshops and networking days for women in maths, contact

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication