Mathematics is my science of choice: Meet Ruth Luscombe

Ruth LuscombeRuth Luscombe is a research mathematician who works in a hospital. She has a PhD in a branch of mathematics known as Operations Research, which she earned in the School of Mathematical Sciences at QUT. Her research examined dynamic logistics problems, specifically for real-time management of a hospital emergency department where new patients arrive and where tasks and priorities are constantly changing. She currently works for Queensland Health as an analyst looking at improving and optimising rosters for different staff groups. She has been involved in teaching mathematics to science undergraduates as well as delivering science workshops to primary and secondary students as a QUT Extreme Science ambassador. Her goal is to help young people to appreciate how mathematics supports the experimental sciences and how mathematics is hiding in everything.

Throughout her career she has been lucky enough to apply her math skills across several industries including defence, sustainable transport, and more recently health care. For Soapbox Science, she is going to uncover the mathematics that is hiding in some interesting places.


SS: Ruth, how did you get to your current position?

RL: I was working as an accountant, but felt that mathematics was more my thing. So I looked around for a real mathematics job and landed an amazing opportunity to live on the Sunshine Coast and work in a hospital. This work led to a PhD and the PhD research led me back to the hospital to do more exciting analysis and optimization. Now I’m a specialist in hospital analysis and optimisation.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

RL: I didn’t even know that being a mathematician was a job that you could have so I found this career by serendipity and hard work. I was always inspired and encouraged by people around me who saw that I enjoyed being challenged and that I was eternally curious.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

RL: Part of applied mathematics is working with people in other domains. That’s what excites me: applying my tricks and technique to solve other problems. I work in a hospital and I’m a doctor, but I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a doctor of mathematics so I get to play with numbers. The cool thing about medicine and hospitals is that it is always evolving; they are always trying to improve the treatments they give, their understanding of the human body, and the best way to treat patients. To support this continual program of improvement there is lots of data collected and lots of analysis to do. So part of my job is doing statistics, and part of my job is making models to improve processes. In my work, I focus more on the management side of the hospital rather than the clinical side of medicine.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

RL: I love science, I love talking to people about science and trying to lead them to something that is interesting to them personally. I love mathematics; it’s my science of choice. What is exciting for me is how wide and varied are the applications of mathematics. I want to share some of my insight and passion with other people.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

RL: Anticipation; what am I going to discover about my audience?


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

RL: I want science to be more cool in school. The culture of science in the university is more exciting, but at school there aren’t as many opportunities to discover your own science topics or to explore different and exciting scientific discoveries. Science is so broad and amazing. It’s not even a question of why do science, it should be a question of which science is right for you. You can have a favourite science in the same way you have a favourite sport or a favourite colour. Maths is my favourite science. One of my best-friends is into ‘fungus’-science (mycology). Are you into bugs, or tropical reefs, or robots, or brains, or bones? Because there’s a science for that. There’s a science for everything and if you have a deep enough curiosity then let that curiosity drive you into PhD research.


What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

RL: Work hard, be curious and do what makes you happy.


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