Mathemagic: tracking cancers with maths with Paola Elefante

How much do you like maths? Or should we ask: how much do you hate maths? Many of us have had..unpleasant experiences trying to learn maths at high school and often dropped the subject there or at undergraduate level. The low enrolments for students studying mathematics is a cause for concern generally, but what’s also frustrating is the way maths is feared by so many; often due to poor teaching or culturally accepted stereotypes and expectations that only a few with natural abilities can understand maths. And frequently, we ask the question: what good is maths in the real world if you aren’t in a lab?



This week, we’re going to take a fresh look at maths and its applications in the real world. We’re travelling all the way to Finland to meet Paola Elefante/@PaolaElefante, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki. Paola is a mathematician by training, but uses her mathematics to work on tracking cancers with Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  We asked Paola our usual set of questions.


Why/How did you end up in science?

I was naturally curious and both my parents had a background in science, so they introduced me softly to some interesting questions. I have a very analytical personality and that fits well with science investigation. Also, I found out as an adult I could not become a musketeer, so I had to go with plan B.


I was lucky enough to meet a great mathematics teacher in the last years of my high school education. He was passionate through the subject and very smart. It started as a challenge to impress him and friendly compete with my classmates and it ended being a lively and sincere interest in the subject.


I work in applied mathematics, and inverse problems. I research in the field of X-ray tomography. Since radiations can help cancer development and are dangerous, there is a great interest in lowering the irradiation doses. My group and I build image reconstruction algorithms that give good visual results with much less data. At the moment I am working with 4D X-ray tomography, that is sampling a moving object with X-rays.


Mathematics is underestimated, if not feared. Beside the beauty of it, that may be a matter of opinions, mathematics is deeply linked with our daily life and innovation. I would like people to see the fun side of it, meaning showing the applications that motivate me every day in my job. In our field, we often struggle to make contact with “more practical” professionals (engineers, industries, medical physicists), because they fear our language. However, we have very good results that may be beneficial for everyone… I would like to show this “hidden side” of maths, in the hope to change the perception of it.


I am passionate about themes as gender equality (in science or not), equal opportunities and social justice. I have or follow several networks regarding this theme, including a local “women in science” network in Helsinki. For some time I have been organising a students’ seminar to help students network among themselves and occasionally with maths professionals. I am passionate towards science communication. I like to attend several courses on communication, the latest being a course on photographing science.


I am a mother, so.. what is a day off?! An ideal day off would be one where my daughter wakes up at a reasonable hour, we all get ready and go out for some family activity. So boring family stuff. I could try imagine something without family, but then I’ll know I’d miss them crazy…


Please welcome Paola Elefante to Real Scientists!



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