SIAM News Blog

Oxford Student Chapter Hosts Sixth Annual Conference

By Dominic Yeo 

The sixth Oxford University SIAM Student Chapter Conference had an unofficial theme: Questions worth asking are sometimes found in unusual places. SIAM past president Nick Trefethen (Oxford) welcomed delegates with an account of events that followed his casual observation that the measure given by the body mass index (BMI) resulted in counterintuitive predictions about the healthiness of some of his friends and colleagues. Following everyone’s favourite statistical mantra—the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”—he described some preliminary research into the history of the metric, and the media circus that followed his informal suggestion of an alternative index that would apply the exponent –2.5 rather than –2 to the subject’s height. Delegates worried about justifying research to funding bodies agreed that this was nothing compared to Trefethen’s efforts to explain his reasoning to the popular press

Plenary speaker Chris Budd toured the applied mathematical problems he has been asked to solve for Bristol Zoo.
Chris Budd (Bath) selflessly gave up time on his birthday to give the first plenary talk. Reinforced by the cake presented by the chapter, he took the audience on an engaging tour through a series of problems he had been asked to solve over the course of hiys career by Bristol Zoo. Along with interesting insights from fluid and thermodynamical theory, the take-home message was that there is no limit to the places where great mathematical problems can be found, and where the answers are of real immediate importance to the people involved. (Not least were the fish dying at an alarming rate until Budd’s application of some numerical analysis to a model of the aquarium’s heating system.) I’m sure no one expected quite so much discussion of penguin eggs during the excellent St. Antony’s lunch and the poster session; students from 12 universities presented 21 posters, which resulted in lots of interest and conversations across disciplines.

The trend continued through five excellent student presentations exploring a diverse range of topics in applied mathematics, from light scattering to jumps in stochastic models for finance. All speakers coped admirably with the tight time constraints. Most impressive, the audience went away at the very least with a clear idea of why the questions asked are important.

Dominic Yeo (left), recipient of the prize for best poster (and author of the accompanying article), discussed fine points of the award-winning poster with Philippe Charmoy, treasurer of the Oxford student chapter. Photos by Sara Kerens.
David Mortimer (BNP Paribas) had an ebven tougher assignment: arguing that there are still good questions to be answered in the field of financial modelling. In the event, he gave an excellent explanation of how the global economic crisis has increased the complexity of the necessary underlying assumptions. The existence of arbitrary risk-free resources is no longer valid, and he gave a compelling argument that applied mathematicians have plenty of fresh material in this area to sink their teeth into. Prizes were awarded for the best student talk (Eric Hall, University of Edinburgh) and poster (Dominic Yeo, University of Oxford).

Finishing the day in style, Sam Howison (Oxford) described models for games in which agents trade finite amounts of some commodity. The combination of competition and exhaustion of the resources leads to highly nonlinear ODEs and PDEs whose numerical solutions present many challenges. As discussed earlier by Mortimer, additional constraints produce interesting price dynamics, and Howison introduced several examples, notably oil, of these effects in the real post-recession world. Delegates thus had plenty to discuss as the conference ended on a highly sociable note over a three-course dinner with wine at a local restaurant, providing a chance to make contacts, unwind, and talk mathematics in equal measure.

The chapter is particularly grateful to St. Antony’s College for its hospitality, and to BNP Paribas as the principal sponsor of this event. The 80 student delegates (from 20 universities in the UK, with one visitor from Germany) also appreciated the chance to chat with Mortimer and the company’s other representatives over coffee, and learn that there is much more to a mathematical career in finance than simulating stochastic PDEs. The chapter is also grateful to Winton Capital for generous sponsorship throughout the year. The next Oxford University SIAM Student Chapter Conference is scheduled for May 2014.

Dominic Yeo is a postgraduate student at University of Oxford.

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