Liam Jolliffe

We caught up with Liam who is currently studying toward a PhD in maths at University of Cambridge, “trying to answer questions that no one knows the answer to”.

Global mathematician

We caught up with alumnus Liam Jolliffe who is currently studying toward a PhD in mathematics at the University of Cambridge, “trying to answer questions that no one knows the answer to”. Liam is currently back in New Zealand during the pandemic and took time to share some fond memories from his time in Wellington.

Where are you living and what are you doing?

I currently live in Cambridge, UK, and am studying towards a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, although I have returned to New Zealand during the coronavirus pandemic. I am a student at Trinity College, one of the 31 colleges which makes up the university.

What did you study at Victoria University of Wellington?

I studied for a BSc in Maths and Physics at Victoria before doing my honours year in Maths.

Why did you choose your degree?

I always enjoyed both mathematics and physics at school, and I wanted to learn more about these subjects.

What appealed to you about Victoria University of Wellington?

I grew up in the Wairarapa and always though that Wellington was an exciting city to move to. The university and the student life is at the heart of what makes Wellington such a great city. I had visited the University as a school student for various reasons and it seemed like a vibrant and exciting place to study.

What’s your strongest memory of studying at Victoria University of Wellington?

My strongest memories of studying are the undergraduate physics labs. We spent a lot of time in those labs in the first three years doing more and more interesting experiments as we learned more and more physics. A particular lab session I remember well was on my birthday in first year when we were doing an experiment involving pendulums. The lab was interrupted by the Seddon earthquakes, and I can remember sheltering under the desks as the whole Laby building and all our pendulums shook. We continued the lab session as aftershocks kept occurring, and eventually we heard that the university had closed, and we all had to leave.

What was Wellington like when you were studying?

I was a student at Victoria University from 2013 to 2016. During this time Wellington was a vibrant city with lots of events going on. The Cuba Dupa festival started, Wellington was a host city for cricket world cup and the Hurricanes hosted back to back finals, winning the second, during my time in Wellington. Even when there is not an event on, the city and waterfront have a great atmosphere on a nice day.

Any memorable lecturers?

All of my lecturers in both the Physics and the Math department were fantastic. I would like to mention Dr Dillon Mayhew in particular as I worked closely with him in my honours year on my project, which I really enjoyed. He was supportive and both he and Dr Daryl Funk took a keen interest in my work. I should also mention both Professor Donelan and Professor Turner who were generous with their time and were always willing to give advice.

What does being a Victoria University of Wellington alumnus mean to you?

I am very proud to be an alumnus of VUW. There is a large community of Victoria alumni around the world doing all sorts of amazing things, and I have bumped into a few amongst the staff and student body in Cambridge.

What do you wish you had known before applying for your first job? What advice would you give someone planning to enter your profession?

I am currently still studying, haven’t entered the workforce proper yet. However, I would tell anyone who is planning to do further study not to be put off applying for scholarships to overseas universities. Your degree from Victoria will be held in high regard, and you never know where you could end up if you don’t apply.

What were your plans on leaving the University?

In my honours year I had been awarded a Woolf Fisher Scholarship to study in Cambridge, so when I left Victoria I planned to continue studying overseas, first for my Masters degree and then my PhD.

What have been your career highlights since graduating?

Since beginning in Cambridge a career highlight was my Masters graduation ceremony at Senate House in Cambridge, which was carried out entirely in Latin, as is the centuries old tradition. Before the ceremony we walked across the grass in Trinity College’s Great Court, a privilege usually reserved only for fellows of the college.

What do you enjoy most about working in your profession?

The thing I enjoy the most about mathematical research is that you are doing things that no one has ever done before. You have to think about new concepts in a number of different ways and adapt tools to different situations. I also really enjoy teaching undergraduate students, and find it rewarding when they understand new concepts.

Biggest challenge for your industry?

The biggest challenge of mathematical research is that you are trying to answer questions that no one knows the answer to, which means that when you start a problem you don’t have a good idea of how difficult it is going to be. Many problems in mathematics remain unsolved for decades, but with perseverance we can get closer to answering them, or to answering other questions that come up along the way.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best piece of advice in my research I’ve been given is not to worry if you feel you aren’t making progress, or if an idea you have had doesn’t solve the problem, because that’s the nature of research.

If you could say one thing to current VUW students?

I would tell current students to make the most of their time at Victoria University because three or four years can go by very quickly and then after that all the people you meet at university will be spread out throughout the country and the world.

What do you want to do next with your career?

The next thing I plan to do in my career is to finish my PhD, after this I would like to remain in academia. I would love to return to Victoria University and to Wellington to continue my academic career and to teach the next cohort of students.

How has what you learnt at Victoria University of Wellington helped you in your career?

Victoria University gave me the foundations to continue studying mathematics. I built on this knowledge and skills since leaving, but I use ideas and techniques that I first learned at Victoria every day in my research.

What took you to Cambridge and what has kept you there?

The University of Cambridge is what attracted me to the UK. After studying at Victoria I wanted to do more study, and I had a been awarded scholarship to study in Cambridge. It was also a good opportunity to travel and to experience a different part of the world.

What do you love about living there?

Living in Cambridge is amazing because of the amount of history in the city. The buildings and the University date back many centuries. I particularly enjoy going to formal dinners at college in the 16th century dining hall where many famous mathematicians, scientists and others have dined over the years.

What do you miss most about New Zealand?

I miss many things about New Zealand, especially family and friends. I also miss the Wellington waterfront, views of the harbour and going to games at the stadium. Sometimes I even find myself missing the Wellington wind.

What advice would you give fellow Victoria University of Wellington alumni heading to Cambridge to live and work?

Any alumni heading to Cambridge to live and work should try and get involved in the college life and the traditions of the University. Keep an eye out for events in May week, which is a celebration of the end of the academic year.

What’s one must-do for alumni visiting Cambridge?

Anyone visiting Cambridge should take a punt tour along the backs and visit some of the colleges.

Plans for the future?

I am planning to finish my PhD in the next few years and then follow an academic career which I hope leads me back to New Zealand and to Wellington.

What would someone be surprised to know about you?

I played football for a New Zealand fans team against the Republic of Ireland’s fan team in Dublin before an All Whites game in 2019.

Find out more about our network of alumni who are working to grow connections for Victoria University of Wellington graduates around the globe.