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Nicola Petty

Nicola ('Dr Nic') is a maths and stats whisperer. She is co-director of Statistics Learning Centre, a social enterprise with a mission to make maths and statistics fun.

NicolaWhat do you do on an average work day?

During the day I prepare materials to help people to understand mathematics and statistics. I keep current with educational trends in maths and stats. I write scripts for videos and lessons for online materials. We develop games to help people learn mathematics and statistics, so some of my time is spent on game testing.

About once a week I run a maths events to help children and teachers to feel more excited about mathematics. I also spend time on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and my blog. The internet is a way to reach many people and help them.

One of my favourite activities is parcelling up boxes of Dragon cards to send around the world!

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At school I studied Maths, English, Chemistry, Biology and Latin. They didn’t have statistics at my school back then.

At university I kept changing my mind. I did want to be a maths teacher, so I mainly studied maths, but in my second year I started operations research, as I found its practicality appealing.

Operations research uses maths and mathematical models to explore and find solutions to problems in the real world. It has a wide range of applications, and I liked the applied nature of it.

I also really enjoyed programming and did two years of computer science.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

My study did lead to what I do now. After becoming a maths teacher, I lectured in operations research at the University of Canterbury for 20 years and completed my PhD.

My PhD thesis involved operations research and school effectiveness – modelling good systems for allocating resources for the education of children with vision impairment and blindness. Being a mother of a son with special needs has also enriched my way of thinking about education. I sometimes ask my son how he thinks about maths ideas, which helps me to broaden my thinking.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

You can have everything, but not at the same time. I have spent most of my career in a field dominated by men. It can be tiring, and if you can find a woman mentor or collaborator, it can really help.

Beware of imposter syndrome. Sometimes I would think I wasn’t able to do something, or that I wasn’t qualified, and then a man who was less capable of a task did it instead. Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.

Occasionally there will be a colleague who thinks you belong in the kitchen or at home with babies. You have to pick your battles. I have also had some great allies among my male colleagues.

Nicola with SLC co-founder Shane Dye
What are some of your career highlights so far?

I love it that students in high schools in New Zealand learn from my resources. I cherish getting hugs from children at our maths events, and being told it was their best maths lesson ever.

It is pretty fun to know that my videos are in thousands of playlists and helping students all over the world to understand statistics. It warms my heart to know that I am making a difference in people’s lives.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

I am convinced that understanding statistics is essential to being a contributing and powerful member of society. We all need to be able to tell the difference between genuine results based on sound analysis and fictitious scare-mongering.

When people understand the scientific method and data analysis, they're less likely to be duped by unscrupulous people pushing fake remedies, backward beliefs and life-threatening dogmas such as anti-vaccination.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

Quite often women look at things a different way from men, and can provide a different viewpoint, which can lead to a better solution to a problem. When we limit the opportunities of sections of the population, such as women and people of colour, then we reduce the number of talented people available. 

In addition it is inequitable for women to be unrepresented in fields of higher pay and higher influence. Often women have more influence on their children than men, and having a positive attitude towards STEM enables their children to have more opportunities open to them.

Education is a political act, and knowledge of maths and statistics empowers people, allows greater career choice and enables informed citizenship.

Nicola in a classroom with students

Nicola Petty (Dr Nic) is a maths and stats whisperer. She is co-director of Statistics Learning Centre, a social enterprise with a mission to invent, create and disseminate resources and ideas to enable people to learn and teach mathematics and statistics in a more enjoyable way. Follow Dr Nic on Twitter.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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