School of Mathematics

Academic Interview - Iain Gordon

Becky Nisbet has written the following article as part of our series of Academic Interviews; featuring our Head of School Iain Gordon!

Recently, I spoke with the Head of the School of Mathematics here at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Iain Gordon. I was interested in knowing how his career had developed and how he had made it to where he is today as a Professor and Head of Mathematics.

Iain's early life

Iain grew up and went to school in Edinburgh. I asked him how he got on and what his opinions were on mathematics at an early age. He told me he was always good at maths, but at the time wasn't aware that doing this was something you could do as a job, nor did he know what one could do after leaving secondary school in general. He vaguely recalls a visit from a University and answering a Multiple Choice Questionnaire, which was meant to suggest a career that suited you. It seems career-predicting technology hasn't progressed much since then!

"For me," Iain recalls "it said I should be an accountant or a judge. So in a certain sense, becoming the Head of the School of Mathematics was a compromise to that!"

As a University Student

Being a judge or accountant wasn't what was in Iain's mind though. A few years later he went on to study for a BSc in Mathematics at the University of Bristol. It was here that he started to discover his passion for the subject and, after a broad and varied first two years of his degree, he started directing his specialism to pure mathematics. Yet, still at this point, he didn't know what he wanted to do as a career, so he followed the enjoyment he found which lead him to apply for a Masters, specifically the Part III Mathematics at Cambridge University.

"Cambridge was a big step up to start with," Iain remarks. He quickly found a group of people, many of whom he is still friends with, who, like him, found the content challenging. The irony was that, in the end, the ones who acted like it was easy performed worse than those who admitted that the maths was tricky, and in turn it was those that found it tough that comprised most of those that ended up staying in academia and mathematics.

It was during his Masters that Iain started to get interested in Lie algebras, which in simple terms are algebras that are made up of infinitesimally small elements of Lie groups, a type of group that has lots of symmetries in it and are often found in physics. It was these Lie algebras that got him thinking about what he wanted to do for his PhD, but one thing he did know at this point was that he wanted to return to Scotland. "I applied for PhDs at lots of different places, but two main places were Glasgow and Edinburgh. The decision came down to the project I resonated the most with, which was the one in Glasgow."

The project in question was on "quantum groups", a modern topic in the mid- to late-nineties, which advanced what was going on in the algebraic world, but was a little bit different. It was here that Iain started to get interested in representation theory, as a lot of the questions one had to answer were to do with it; this is what started his move in that direction.

Postdoctoral research

On finishing his PhD, Iain was awarded the Seggie Brown bequest at the University of Edinburgh, which funds a postdoctoral research fellowship position here in the School of Mathematics for three years. However, after one year he chose to move to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Bielefield to continue his postdoctoral work, before later coming back to Scotland to take up a position as a lecturer at the University of Glasgow.

Proving a combinatorial theorem

Whilst at Glasgow, Iain remarks that he was "lucky enough" to prove a combinatorial theorem that a lot of mathematicians wanted to know was true. Whilst I expect there was a lot of hard work that contributed to that luck, one doesn't just tend to stumble across a proof unless they have been working quite hard on that problem, Iain's connected combinatorics and noncommutative algebras. "I remember the evening when I finally managed to finish the proof. It's like when you finish a difficult homework question, and I remember walking around the West End of Glasgow and knowing I was the only person in the world who knew how to do something and it felt pretty cool."

Starting his work as a Professor and Head of School

As a result of proving this theorem, a lot of the mathematical community suddenly knew who he was and it provided a good boost to his career. A few years after this, in 2006, Iain accepted the position he holds now as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, and seven years ago he took over as the Head of School. I was interested to know what is entailed in being the Head of Maths, what he is up to now and whether he is still doing research.

"To do mathematical research," Iain says, "you need long periods of uninterrupted thought. There's a joke that being the Head of School only takes up about half your time, but it's thirty seconds of every minute".

"Broadly speaking, the reasons for the maths department to exist are three aspects: to educate and to research, but there's also another part about how this research connects to other parts of the University, or more broadly into society and industry. The Head of School is in part responsible for making sure these three things are moving forward."

One of the most exciting things that has happened in the School since he took over, he says, has to be the Bayes Centre. This has the first year graduate school in it, as well as the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences - ICMS for short. ICMS organise short events such as seminars and workshops, and are also involved in Public Engagement. The centre is continuing to grow, becoming bigger and better, and will hopefully continue to do so as in January, Iain reports. The UK Government announced it was giving £300 million pounds to Mathematical Sciences over the next five years, some of which is set aside to help ICMS continue to develop.

It is clear from this conversation that the School of Mathematics is in safe hands, and will continue to step up to whatever the next year throws at it.