Meet Murdoch mathematics lecturer, Dr Nicola Armstrong


Dr Nicola Armstrong – a discipline leader in maths and statistics – shares how a degree in mathematics can take you across the world.

Dr Armstrong said she’s always had a passion for mathematics – but she’s not your stereotypical mathematician. 

“Growing up I wasn’t one of those children who could solve a Rubik’s Cube in minutes or spent weekends solving problems. But I don’t remember not liking maths – it’s always been my favourite subject. 

“Where that passion came from, I don’t know! I certainly benefited from having a great maths teacher in high school, in terms of keeping my interest.” 
After graduating from Murdoch with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Mathematics and Statistics more than 20 years ago, Dr Armstrong completed her PhD with the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley in the Unites States, before giving back to the Murdoch community in her current role as Associate Professor in Mathematics.

A career with real-world impact

While Dr Armstrong originally considered a career as a doctor or biologist, she soon realised that dissecting wasn’t for her. Instead she decided to study applied research and work with data. 

Rather than perform actual experiments or treat patients, I use the data generated to find answers to really interesting medical problems and interpret the significance of the numbers.” 
Following her passion, her studies and research have seen her work at universities and medical research institutes across the globe.

“I spent four years as a statistician at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, working closely with clinicians on identifying biomarkers that could be used to diagnosis cancer early, and to help determine the best treatment for patients.

“In Sydney, I continued to work with cancer researchers at the Garvan Institute, investigating the epigenome as well as genetic and transcriptional changes related to the disease. I also investigated healthy aging and the onset of different types of dementia such as why some people are affected but not others.”

Her current day-to-day job sees her working with many different specialists, from biologists to doctors, across the world.

“I am involved in a large international group looking at the genetics of the brain and healthy aging. Ultimately, we want to identify those individuals at risk of complex diseases such as cancer and dementia, and to either treat or prevent the onset of them.

“These projects involve over 25,000 individuals in the US, Europe and Australia where we work collaboratively on scientific questions such as ageing as well as specific diseases.”

Dr Armstrong says it’s rewarding to know her work has a real application which can make a difference to people’s lives.

A pathway with endless possibilities 

Unlike the subject, there is no right or wrong answer to where a degree in mathematics may take you, says Dr Armstrong.

“Mathematics is used across many different industries including meteorology, where a typical role would analyse weather data to produce forecasts, engineering, teaching, research, banking and finance.”

You’re not just locked into one option – there are many exciting possibilities where your mathematical journey may take you.” 
Dr Armstrong advises future students to think about what interests them, and to not just rely on the degree itself.

“As many fields rely on mathematics, research what career or industry you want to pursue. The structure of the Murdoch degree offers flexibility where you can enrol in other units that interest you such as finance or biology.” 

According to Dr Armstrong, mathematics is a sought-after skill set that can be applied to many different fields. 

“You’ll have the ability to explain real-world phenomena, find solutions or make discoveries to benefit the community. This unique skillset will keep your career interesting and provide you with the ability to change career paths as you discover your passion within mathematics.”

Giving back to the Murdoch community

Dr Armstrong is now Associate Professor in Mathematics at Murdoch University where she’s been using the opportunity to collaborate with other specialised researchers.

“Collaboration is extremely important to foster discoveries – and this is an area that Murdoch excels in. Just recently I began collaborating with environmental science researchers to estimate endangered species population sizes and analyse animal movement data.”

Second and third-year level applied statistics students can benefit not only from Dr Armstrong’s knowledge and passion, but her team made up of renowned academics. 

Murdoch students have access to acclaimed and approachable lecturers as they discover mathematics – the language of the universe.” 
“There is also the advantage of smaller-sized classes which helps with better communication between our leading lecturers and students.”

Nicola’s top tips for mathematics students

For future mathematics students, Dr Armstrong has the following advice:

  • Pace yourself over the semester. University life isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. Stay organised and don’t leave everything to the last minute and you’ll make it to the finish line. Slow and steady wins the race! 
  • The further you fall behind, the harder it is to catch up.  Maths is a subject that is like a tower; you need to have a good grasp of the basics before you move on to the next level. From year to year but also from week to week within a unit. My recommendation is to prioritise! Write yourself a list and check it off as you go. 
  • Go to your tutorials, meet other students in your units. One of the best experiences of your life CAN be university if you make the most of it. Go to your tutorials, develop relationships with other students, join clubs or even volunteer. It’s your experience – so make the most of it! 
  • Your lecturers aren’t (all) scary – talk to them. We are here to help you if you’re not sure, require guidance or have questions. Maths is easier to talk through than to read about and Murdoch lecturers are approachable and happy to help.
  • Find your balance between work, study and life. As a student you may be juggling work and social commitments with university deadlines. You don’t want to get burnt out over the semester – so take time out to find a balance that works best for you.
  • Learn more about a course at Murdoch, or discover our study options available for international students
    Posted on:

    1 Aug 2019

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