Surveys have shown one third of Kiwis think science is too specialised to understand. In this series, scientists who tackle mind-bogglingly complex problems each day make it simple for us. Today, we talk to Dr Alex James, an expert in mathematical modelling at the University of Canterbury.

How would you describe what you do to a peer at a conference? And then how would you to a stranger at a barbecue?

At the start these conversations aren't too different.

Scientists are just like everyone else we're interested in the bigger picture - so I say I'm a mathematical modeller - a scientist that uses maths to find answers to real problems.


Although I'm a mathematician I rarely do maths just for the sake of it.

For example, at the moment I do a lot of work as part of the Predator Free New Zealand drive, questions like when is the best time of year to control for stoats or which of our predator control methods works best?

The big difference is that my peers start asking for technical details more quickly.

What project or projects are you currently working on at the moment and what's involved?

The questions I ask often come from colleagues at Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research or Department of Conservation.

Canterbury University researcher Dr Alex James. Photo / Supplied
Canterbury University researcher Dr Alex James. Photo / Supplied

One of my favourite projects at the moment is how can we get more people involved in scientific research, often called citizen science.

There are some great projects out there, for example the NatureWatch website, that let people record their observations of plants and animals.

The problem is how do we use this great data resource, which isn't always perfect or collected with the usual scientific protocols, to answer scientific questions like do our predator control methods work or is climate change affecting the range of our native species.


What are the trickiest questions facing your field and why is solving them so difficult?

As a mathematician the trickiest part of my job is how to turn the maths that I do into something accessible to other, less mathematically trained, scientists.

As a scientist particularly one working in ecology the big global questions are usually around the impacts of climate change on our ecosystems.

At a more local level questions about predator control are always at the top of the agenda.

What do you feel are the most interesting or fascinating aspects of your field?

Personally I love that I get to learn new things.


With every project I do I either learn more science - my colleagues in other disciplines are extremely tolerant of my ignorance at times - or more maths as I have to pick up new tools to solve something.

Why do you think the work is important and what could it help us understand?

Mathematical modelling has helped so many aspects of science.

We don't make the headlines too often but we do save other scientist a lot of hard work.

It's hard to conduct experiments on entire ecosystems but using maths we can do that.