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What..?  Math?

by Stephanie Wong

It is without doubt that scientists and mathematicians are a misunderstood and unappreciated breed.  Despite their contributions to the modern world, their work largely goes unnoticed.  It is disheartening to see how there is almost an anti-scientific revolution in our midst.  I have been spurred to write this article because a few things that happened to me the past week.  Take it how you wish.

One afternoon, my friend and I went to the career fair that was held at the University of Alberta.  It was a day-long event where companies of all kinds (well, actually, about half of them were engineering-related) had booths set up showcasing job opportunities.  You would go around, looking for what interested you, ask questions, give them your resumé, or get a feeling about what opportunities lay ahead.  My friend, a math and physics major, and I, a math major with an interest in all things "out there", embarked on a job-hunting quest.  We knew the responses would be dubious, but thought we'd get some meaningful advice.

The Government of Canada's employment department seemed to be a benign choice.  We went to their booth, and my friend asked, "Do you know of what opportunities there are for a math and physics major?"  The lady there, who for the previous clientele, appeared to be brimming with information, replied, "Everyone else's questions were easy.  You HAD to ask a hard one!"  She thought deeply for a few seconds.  "Sorry, my brain has blanked out."  Her brain blanked out???  She tried her best to aid my friend, but the main advice we got was to check out the Government of Canada's Jobs website.  Mainly out of curiosity, I upped the inquiry: "How about opportunities in robotics?"  I knew that Canada did have relatively healthy industry in robotics, although perhaps not within Alberta.  The response: "You have to ask an even harder question!  For such a highly-specific field, your best bet is to go right to the source and ask those companies that do robotics."  Fair enough.  I however disagree that robotics is such a "highly-specific" field.  Our whole society is filled with things that came from the robotics industry.  Also, there are many more people with degrees in math and physics working in industry than many know.  The critical thinking and problem solving skills learned in such programs are very valuable to employers, despite what most people think.  My friend and I continued to more booths.

We were given more blank stares as she inquired about math and physics.  I decided to probe recruiters with various professions, seeing which ones were more favourable.  From past experience, I have learned that if you tell any of the career fair employers that you are in math, the only feasible job they suggest to you is "the accounting department".  For the sheer number of engineering companies at the fair, it is sad to think the only use of math would be accounting.  What do you think your engineers do?  They do math!

The next day, while at a restaurant, my family ran into an old acquaintance, of which we hadn't seen for nearly 20 years.  Suffice to say, she last saw me as a tiny little one, and thus had no previous disposition of who I was.

"So you are in university now?  Are you in medicine?"  I was stunned for a moment.  What could have led her to ask whether I was in medicine?  Perhaps I forgot the golden rule that anyone of appreciable competence would/should go into medicine.

"No, I'm in math."  This time, I stunned her, for she stood there in utter silence.  My father compounded the problem, "she takes math AND physics."  Expectedly, the conversation about my studies didn't go further than that.

I told my father, "please don't tell people I am taking math and physics because they think I'm from another planet!"  He replied, "maybe you should just tell them you're in engineering."  True, the times that I have said that, people gave very amiable responses.  The problem is that I was NOT currently in engineering!  I AM in in math, and have been so for over two years.  I am neither taking medicine, engineering nor accounting.  However, I AM taking math, physics, quantum chemistry and computer programming, among other things.  Yet, as a budding scientist, I do feel very "normal", and believe my contribution to society is equally as important than any doctor.  And that is indeed true.

In physics class earlier that week, the professor told us a story about how he got into an argument with his sister-in-law about whether physicists or physicians should be paid more.  He started to list all the things that physicists discovered that has contributed to modern medicine.  Who do you think won the argument?

I urge everyone who has read this article to send me an answer as to who you think won, and to also write a response to "What would medicine be without the discoveries of modern physics?"  I will try to post all of your responses online.

- 25 September 2004


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Last Updated:
26 September 2004

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