Dr Heather Tewkesbury is chief executive of the Smith Institute for Industrial Mathematics and System Engineering, an independent company, established in 1997, that works with clients in the public and private sectors to combine academic excellence with business understanding. The Institute enables its clients to improve products, processes, services and business strategy through the application of advanced analytics and data science. Heather holds and undergraduate degree in maths, and also a PhD in chemical engineering and maths from the University of Birmingham, which focused on modelling heat transfer in chocolate manufacture for Cadbury’s.
“Diversity of thought is vital in mathematics because good things happen when people collaborate. Increasing the outcomes of great collaborations relies on having people who think differently while being able to communicate with each other.”
Using mathematics to develop solutions for real-world business challenges
Throughout my education and career, I’ve found interest and excitement in the creation and application of mathematical techniques to problems faced by businesses, governments and society.
My first job following my PhD was for Cadbury’s, applying maths to challenges across their business. This followed my PhD in modelling heat transfer in chocolate manufacture and an undergraduate degree in maths.
I’ve now been CEO of the Smith Institute, a mathematical consultancy, for six years and before that was in charge of business development for the company after several years as a “Technology Translator” — bridging the communication gap between academic and industry partners on PhD and postdoc projects.
In my past 22 years at the Smith Institute, the problems we’ve tackled have been really hard issues faced by our customers, where the impact of things going right or wrong is extremely high. I love that we can bring mathematical rigour to these problems, helping customers to understand the nature of the problem and how they can go about first of all thinking about it and then tackling it, and finally, using our solutions to have the impact they are looking for.
Using advanced mathematics and data science to create a positive and visible impact on society, the economy and the environment
The Smith Institute is an independent company whose mission is to create a positive and visible impact on society, the economy and the environment through the use of advanced analytics and data science to really difficult challenges.
We have a team of 40 staff plus a Scientific Board, drawing on academic expertise to help us to stay at the cutting edge of new techniques being developed. We don’t have any shareholders, so we grow by investing any profit we make into hiring more people and rewarding our staff. This gives us an incredible ability to focus on doing the right thing for our customers and our business. We have steady organic growth as a result.
Building connections and delivering high-value work to customers
Any CEO’s role is to oversee the running of the company, provide direction and set the standards for culture. Within the Smith Institute these are complemented by engaging with customers, promoting responsibility in the use of AI and building connections for the future business, not just today’s business. I love working with customers and colleagues alike and engage with people so that I can build a great working environment and culture while ensuring we deliver high-value work to customers.
Good things happen when people collaborate
Diversity of thought is vital in mathematics because good things happen when people collaborate. Increasing the outcomes of great collaborations relies on having people who think differently while being able to communicate with each other.
People communicate in different ways so in the mathematical space we’re able to add the language of mathematics and that gives extra power to any team. Mathematicians are trained to be curious and suspicious so we need to have people who think differently in order to take big steps forward on any problem we’re working on.
The power of inclusivity
At the Smith Institute, we pride ourselves on having great gender diversity at the most senior levels of the organisation, which is visible to the whole team, our potential recruits and our customers. Inclusivity is about more than diversity though.
Inclusivity is knowing who on your team communicates in a different way and working out ways that everyone can take part in the discussion. It’s knowing that the quiet people have usually thought deeply about an issue and have great ideas to share. It’s being intentional to recognise the achievements of different aspects of work, not just the technical. It’s being conscious of how you are perceived by different groups within the organisation and being prepared to give and receive feedback regularly to help everyone to build the company of the future.
Maths can help us achieve amazing things
Maths is too often seen by school students and parents as the difficult thing that they will be glad to finish, without realising that it can help us to achieve amazing things. We as a society need to have sustained visibility of those amazing things, linked to the maths inside, so that more people become and sustain interest beyond the age of 16.
At work we have some really important work going on with the energy sector — National Grid and EDF Energy, helping to keep the lights on and reduce energy bills. I can’t wait to see those projects come to fruition to know that we helped the UK and the world in its Net Zero ambition. Personally, I’m also heading off to cycle, swim and walk the Outer Hebrides soon and that will be a great way to clear the mind, step out of the day-to-day and get back to thinking about the bigger picture.
Main image by DCStudio on Freepik