It’s not often a mathematician is asked to sign copies of her calculations. But for Lily Serna, it’s all in a day’s work.
The 2009 maths, finance and international studies graduate, is co-host of SBS’s Letters and Numbers.
Serna says she heard about the gig through a friend of a friend, who works for the broadcaster. “SBS were looking for a girl with a professional level of maths to co-host a TV show. I definitely wasn’t looking for it, it found me.”
In each episode, contestants and two of the show’s three co-hosts (which include Serna, Sydney Morning Herald cryptic crossword creator, David Astle, and television presenter, Richard Morecroft) race against the clock to solve word and number problems.
When the show is being filmed, Serna travels to Melbourne to shoot up to five episodes a day during the week, then back to Sydney for the weekend.
Serna hopes the show will help people realise mathematicians aren’t just like the socially awkward characters on television shows like The Big Bang Theory.
Morecroft agrees Serna is helping to change these kinds of misconceptions. “Only last week we had a group of university students in the studio audience who had a sheet of her calculations and they were very keen to get Lily’s autograph.
“There are probably very few mathematicians who get to autograph their calculations. I think Lily is bringing a whole new feel to mathematics. ”
Serna says maths is in her genes. Each member of her immediate family has studied mathematics at university, and her grandfather and great-grandfather were both engineers.
Currently, the 24-year-old is completing an Honours degree in mathematics with applications in biology, at UTS. According to Serna, her research, which looks at the effects of floods on the Fitzroy River, will see her calculate the pesticides that eventually wash into the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon.
Serna says she made the decision to undertake further study last year when, at the height of the global financial crisis, job prospects in her then-chosen field of finance seemed gloomy.
“I was sitting in class one day when my lecturer explained there was a cross-disciplinary Honours project with the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster (C3), looking at the Great Barrier Reef and the pesticides that go into it. That kind of tweaked my interest because I’ve always been interested in environmental issues.
“I really enjoy working at SBS on Letters and Numbers,” says Serna. However, when she finishes her Honours, “my loose plan would be to investigate doing a PhD in a similar sort of area with environmental sciences.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Serna believes her understanding of mathematics will always be valuable.
“I would say that if you have an interest in maths, look into a maths degree with something else. You can do maths and science, maths and finance, maths and computing and I’m doing maths with biology and you can just tag it onto anything and it makes you highly employable. ”