‘Choose a job you love’, the saying goes, ‘and you will never work a day in your life’
We should be precise. Christopher didn’t choose this job so much as it chose him. He was nearing the end of his undergraduate degree—a double major in Maths and Physics—when he was offered a summer project on the MARS programme. And he never left.
So, what—you are now keen to understand—is a medical mathematician? One starts—in Christopher’s case anyway—with being fascinated by ‘horribly complicated mathematical problems’. In particular, an obscure branch of mathematics called ‘Clifford Algebra’. If medical mathematician is a career option you are now considering, you should google Clifford Algebra and—if you understand sentences like ‘Clifford Algebra is the Rosetta Stone that reveals the basic computational and representational principles of spatial perception and algebraic cognition’—then perhaps there is an opening on the MARS programme for you, too.
It would probably help if we talk about the MARS programme. The MARS team is a collaboration between the Universities of Otago, Canterbury, and MARS Bioimaging Ltd. They are developing colour x-ray technology to improve healthcare. They already produce a small scanner used in medical research labs and are now developing a human sized version. You don’t need to be a medical mathematician to see the potential in providing clinicians with a tool for making the invisible visible… in full colour. Currently, worldwide, there are 200 million black-and-white CT scans performed annually and—given the choice —who buys black-and-white TVs anymore?
Creating an image in colour is where the maths comes in. Think of a number: all right, 42. If you are producing a gray scale image then 42 will be a specific point somewhere along a continuum between all black and all white. But—as you’ll know if you’ve changed the toners in your printer lately—colour is more complicated. Every colour we see is achieved by mixing multiple inputs and so—while 42 might be the answer—what was the combination?
To develop a colour scanner, you first need a device capable of generating the multiple inputs that give you the number 42 (by measuring the different energies of x-rays that pass through cells in the body) and then you must deconstruct 42—figure out the combination of colours it represents— in order to generate a meaningful colour image. With your newfound knowledge of Clifford Algebra, you can appreciate how fiendish that must be.
Christopher Bateman, meanwhile, is as happy as a kid with a birthday box of Faber-Castells. Like most undergraduates, he wasn’t quite sure how his life would unfold. Computer graphics, maybe, perhaps theoretical physics… But the MARS programme introduced him to medicine and gave him a glimpse of a ‘vast reservoir’ of unsolved mathematical problems. A ‘blue ocean’ of opportunity for someone with his rare—rarefied— skillset. He’ll tell you quite seriously— in fact joyfully—that the problems he sees ahead will keep him occupied for seventy years or more.
Christopher has found himself a giant playground and it means he can stay in Christchurch. Which is home now, for a Napier boy. The ambient temperature suits him, he says (using language that people who are not mathematicians tend not to use) and he has fallen in love with the city and the plains.
He’s a poster boy for the future of healthcare innovation in Canterbury, Christopher Bateman. He is not a medical researcher, or a clinician. He brings a skillset that is new to medicine: new skills for solving new problems. He has unique expertise, the real value of which is only realised when he works as part of a team, helping solve something bigger than he could solve alone. He is young, highly educated, and extremely clever and he could work anywhere in the world. But the MARS programme has captured his imagination and Christchurch can offer him a life’s work as well as a lifestyle. After all—as every mathematician learns at an early age (from Douglas Adams)— the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.
Christopher Bateman PhD, medical mathematician in the MARS programme.