Solving a mathematical problem

  • November 9, 2011
Solving a mathematical problem

Nadja Tschentscher is investigating why some clever people are bad at maths.

Nadja Tschentscher [2010] has always been interested in issues that bring science and the humanities closer together. She believes there is no easy division between the two and that both are vital for approaching the complex issues that scientists like her are investigating.

A biology PhD student, she is researching how humans solve complex problems by focusing on people’s mental calculation skills and strategies. With brain imaging methods, she investigates neuronal circuits in the brain that are involved in easy and complex mental calculations, and asks how much a person’s arithmetical abilities are related to the amount of time they spend practising them and and how much to their general intelligence.

As a teenager growing up in Recklinghausen, Germany, Nadja’s interests encompassed both arts and science. Her uncle teaches German literature and philosophy and acted as her mentor, giving her piles of books to read in her spare time. She also had an inspiring German literature teacher at school.

Her secondary school took an alternative approach to education. A Waldorf school, its emphasis was on practical experience and on music and the arts. Nadja learnt to play the violin and was trained as an electrician. “It was not the typical school that prepares you for a career in science,” she says. “However, what it did do was prepare me for thinking independently and in a creative way. I think this is very important for science and for devising scientific questions. Just as important as learning the technical tools needed for a career in science so I am very grateful for what it gave me.”

Nadja, whose father is an architect and whose mother works for local government, was always fascinated by science. She was also drawn to philosophy and German literature. At school she excelled in maths and science, but she also studied German literature. When she started at University of Muenster she studied psychology, German literature and philosophy. One of her main interests was statistics, which she had to teach herself in part because she had not studied it at school. She was drawn particularly to neuroscience because, she says, it combines humanities and science. “You can ask philosophical questions and investigate them using scientific methods,” she says. “I am interested in philosophical questions about how humans interact and how we think.”

Nadja was also keen to travel and emphasises the international nature of science collaboration these days. She spent six months of her third year of her five-year German Diploma [encompassing a Bsc and masters] doing a research internship at Dundee University. “It was my first opportunity to do real scientific research and I got my first publication from it,” she says.

Her research focused on how our ability to focus our attention is influenced by bodily stimuli. For this she investigated if when people view varying sizes of objects they are imagining how that object would fit in their hand if they grasped it. “The idea is that we are trying to make meaning out of real objects at every moment,” she says.

She spent her fifth year in Cambridge writing up her masters thesis. She was offered the chance to work on a research project on embodiment and cognition at Cambridge on the back of her work at Dundee, but said she could only do this if she could complete her masters project while at Cambridge. The research looked at whether our perception of numbers is shaped or biased by our finger counting habits. “Usually people learn to count with their fingers,” says Nadja. “People have very individual ways of counting and imagining counting. These are shaped by the habits they have built up since they began learning to count.”

For her PhD she is looking at how people solve arithmetic problems and what makes certain people more adept at solving them than others. She says she is fascinated by how some people who are highly intelligent find mental calculation of numbers very hard. She wants to investigate if it is linked to their ability to apply certain strategies, and whether this can be traced back to brain systems that represent and process information from our senses and guide and control our movements. She investigates this using brain imaging, and looks at what the differences are in brain activity between people who are fast and slow at performing mental calculation tasks.

Nadja, who is also passionate about promoting women in science and is on her department’s equality committee, says she hopes her research will find out what influences arithmetic ability and will have practical implications in the classroom.

Picture credit: Teerapun and

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