Dr Alexandre Anesio

"One of the best things about science is that it’s curiosity driven and everything you discover has an impact – from the moment you test an idea, whether it’s right or wrong, it provides additional knowledge."

As a biogeochemist Prof Alexandre Anesio is a researcher whose portfolio covers many scientific disciplines.

He started off as a biologist, studying and working in Brazil, then Sweden, then Nottingham and Aberystwyth before he was drawn to Bristol University’s internationally-renowned Glaciology Centre.

Both a lecturer and researcher, Alex’s core focus is to understand the carbon cycle of the cryosphere, specifically microbial life, and the impact of human life on climate change on freshwaters.

He is a passionate proponent of curiosity-driven science, and a leading example of how the process of acquiring knowledge is as important as the impact of how that knowledge is used when it comes to understanding global environmental change.

Alex’s research sees him collaborating with geographers, Earth scientists and chemists, while his field work takes him to the Arctic Ocean to the northernmost part of Norway, Svalbard.

"I had no idea what number theory was until then, but I was so intrigued by this slightly mad life of someone doing something they loved all their life that I picked up a book in the local bookstore about number theory when I was 14 and became instantly fascinated. That and competing in the Olympiads was the first time I realised there was a lot of maths outside of the stuff we were doing in school that could be beautiful, challenging and fun, like solving puzzles. I was pretty sure then that I wanted to do maths for life.

It gave me the appetite and a bit of a head start because I already knew by then what a proof was, and all of the basic techniques that one uses to prove a theorem, such as by contradiction or induction; all things which most college students learn in their first year.

One of the things I like is how very basic questions in number theory, like resolving whether a simple equation has a solution in numbers, like Fermat’s last theorem, can seem like an innocuous question but actually requires you to use machinery from complex analysis and automorphic functions. I like this concept of using different approaches and posing questions that seem very natural but are challenging.

The first thing we grow up learning in maths is 1, 2, 3….very simple, discrete objects can have all sorts of fascinating structures that are hidden and in order to understand them you need to really go deep into a lot of areas.

Most mathematicians are typically not working on the big grand problems that become famous, but are working on questions that maybe are a little less ambitious but nonetheless deep and interesting projects. You really need to understand the smaller things before you have any hope of solving the big problems.

Ultimately I would love to prove something that would make a lasting contribution to my field. But most of the time I’m working on smaller steps in a puzzle while keeping at the back of my mind some bigger problem that I would like to understand better.

One thing you really come to understand is how little you know! To be a mathematician is a lifelong learning process. There are some traits that mathematicians seem to share. Most people have a natural affinity for solving puzzles and brain twisters.

At the research level, doing mathematics does require a certain level of ability or intelligence, but also a lot of determination. A lot of the problems we work require weeks, months, even years of work.

As a teenager, I wanted to be someone who would prove theorems and come up with interesting results so I guess I’m happy with where I am now, but there is a whole lot of learning before you get to that point.

The thing I’m perhaps most proud of to date is a research paper I wrote with two collaborators which is connected to this grand programme of Langland’s functoriality conjecture. We proved a special case of that which was a good result but the process was perhaps the most interesting thing for me – we worked on the problem for about three years and there were many times when we felt we had reached a stumbling block that we had no idea how to get over.

Every time we managed to solve those little battles which were daunting but were eventually won and surprisingly so, because things seemed to miraculously come together. That’s quite typical of mathematics.

In some ways working with collaborators is better because you might be beating your head against a brick wall and if you have a collaborator they might understand something that you don’t, and vice versa. Things can also move faster in that environment because you don’t want to let your colleagues down in holding things up.

Mathematics has a long shelf life; ultimately it’s more about the long game. Mathematicians, like everyone else, look for recognition - yet ultimately what they care about most is the search for truth. My experience is that it is very collegial and less focussed on a publication race. That doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t competitive, just that it’s less focussed on achieving quick research results.

There is pressure to get results, of course, but it isn’t unbearable. There might be pressure to get published so as to secure jobs and promotion. There’s also the pressure of your own goals and motivations.

Ultimately everybody needs something to drive them and that’s what drives me; it’s not pressure really, it’s more like going for your dreams and calculating how best to achieve them.

There is a lot of creativity in mathematics – it’s not just about proving a theorem; it’s also about enhancing one’s understanding. You do need talent to get by but you also need to work hard. Just because you might be talented, it doesn’t mean it will be easy. You have to be very interested in a way that it becomes a big part of your life. Ultimately we do maths because we love it so it’s usually the case that we enjoy this process!

I wouldn’t say that it keeps me awake at night but I might go to bed not knowing how to solve something and then wake up with the solution and when that happens, it’s a great feeling. Those sparks of insight are just beautiful.”

Prof Alexandre Anesio, Reader in Biogeochemistry, School of Geographical Sciences

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