Senior Lecturer Dr Clara Grazian joined the School of Mathematics and Statistics in 2019.
She reflects on her time with us, and reveals how she fell in love with statistics, what excites her about teaching, the things she misses about her hometown in Italy, and why she thinks UNSW is unique.
What do you miss most about your home city of Turin (Torino, Italy)?
There will always be a special place for Turin in my heart. My family and most of my friends are still there and I am always happy to go back. Turin is surrounded by the Alps and you can see their peaks covered with snow everywhere in town: I miss those beautiful landscapes and the possibility of hiking there. Finally, I miss the wonderful wine and chocolate produced in the region!
Tell us a bit about your experience as a Postdoc at the University of Oxford. What was it like living there?
Oxford is a very small town: before that I lived in Turin, Rome and Paris, which are large cities offering any type of cultural activity. Getting used to a small town in the country was quite difficult! However, its position in the centre of England is ideal to visit other areas in the UK and to do amazing hikes, especially in Wales.
Oxford is also a very peculiar town: much of its population is made up of students and researchers, therefore within a few miles there are university departments and research institutes, and it is easy to collaborate and participate in seminars and workshops in different disciplines. Unfortunately, it is also a very traditional place - colleges still create large differences among students, often based on socio-economic backgrounds; female and minority participation in many activities is still limited compared to other, more dynamic universities.
You started working with us last year. What were your first impressions of UNSW and the School of Mathematics and Statistics?
I’ve just had my first UNSW birthday! I first came to UNSW for my job interview. I was attracted to it because I knew there were many researchers in my fields of interest, but I had no idea what to expect in practice.
During my first weeks, I fell in love with the university. I loved the campus - it is beautiful, particularly at sunset. There is so much interaction, among researchers, among students; there are seminars, events, and concerts every day. I think the great strength of UNSW is made up by its people: I’ve never seen so much interest in creating a good working and studying environment in any other university I have visited.
As soon as I arrived, my colleagues showed interest in helping me settle down and were available to show me how things worked. There are also several opportunities organised by faculties and schools to create a community, which is extremely important for a university where there are so many international students and members of staff.
What led you to pursue statistics as an academic career?
This is a funny story. When I chose my degree, I decided to enrol in medicine, which was my parents’ dream. I lasted two years there - I did not like any of the subjects I studied, and I hated the lab life; my favourite moments were the coffee breaks.
During my second year, I had to complete a course in statistics: every student hated it, except for me. I rediscovered my love for mathematics, which I’d taken in high school, and maybe this was the first time I could see the application of it in real life. Before, I couldn’t see how to use maths outside of a theoretical setting, and seeing how statistics could answer questions in a formal and scientific way attracted me. I switched to a degree in statistics and day after day I fell in love with it, both the theoretical and applied aspects.
I then decided to pursue an academic career in statistics because it allowed me opportunities to use it in many different areas, from environmental sciences, to biology, genetics and astrophysics. It is a career where you can teach what you love, and observing how students fall in love with the subject in the same way I did is one of the most rewarding aspects of this job.
You’ve been a Maths and Science Champion since last year. Tell us a bit about your involvement in the program.
The UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champions Program is a one-year career development program to support female research students and early-career scientists to become science professionals.
The program organises workshops to help us develop our presentation skills, particularly with non-scientific audiences. This is an example of what I was talking about before, the range of opportunities to create a community at UNSW. This program was very important in helping me to understand the challenges of communicating about my science with people who aren’t familiar with it.
We practice presentation skills so that we can communicate with high school students and teachers; as part of the program we can do some outreach activities, and I’ve already put into practice what I’ve learnt. The funniest moment was a practical exercise where we were trained to do an interview with a journalist: I think my interview lasted five minutes, but it seemed like it lasted one hour!
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I love teaching. Sometimes it is draining, sometimes overwhelming and stressful, but it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Maths is traditionally a difficult subject; students get stuck sometimes. Statistics is even more bizarre for students, because they go from subjects in maths where everything is explained by an equation, to statistics, where everything is probabilistic and uncertain.
A change in mentality, a change of philosophy, is needed. Every year, for every subject I have taught, there is a moment where I see students struggling; but the satisfaction I feel when I see the face of a student who has finally understood a concept that they were struggling with is incredible.
The university years are amazing, but sometimes also scary: it’s the time when a student moves from their teenage years to the person they will be in the future; where decisions about future choices are made. Being part of this process, and seeing students decide to work in your area because of the course you have taught, is extremely rewarding.
Describe your career to date with just five words.
Bayesian, environment, clusters, dependence, travelling.
Which staff member should I interview next?! And what should be my first question for them?
Amandine (Schaeffer), what do you love most about the sea?
Interview conducted by Susannah Waters