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James McCaw

Professor of mathematical biology

Thinking of a career in health? Start by honing your maths skills

Maths isn’t just about solving complex equations, it’s also about saving lives. From deciding to stay at home to wearing a face mask on public transport, maths has helped us make decisions that have kept us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mathematics, statistics and computing have all proven to be critical in managing the COVID-19 pandemic,” says James McCaw, professor of mathematical biology at The University of Melbourne.

One example is the famous basic reproduction number, or R0 (pronounced R-naught), which tells us the average number of people who will catch COVID-19 from one infected person if we don’t make changes to our behaviour, such as practising social distancing.

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Mathematicians like James use this number to estimate how quickly diseases such as COVID-19 could move throughout the population. This helps governments and public health officials make big decisions that can help slow the spread. While James says he has always loved maths, it wasn’t until after he finished his PhD in physics that he discovered how it could be applied to health.

Now he works alongside health professionals, doctors and clinical scientists on Australia’s response strategy to COVID-19. “We all rely on mathematics to do our job helping to reduce the spread and keep Australians safe,” says James.

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Maths & Data 2021.

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