Three Minute Squiz With… Lily Serna

It’s quite possible that Lily Serna is the first mathematician to be featured in Australian Vogue, but that’s par for the course for a whiz who can teach you how to win at ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ using game theory. Now working full time at Aussie tech success story Atlassian, Lily is a big advocate for more women in STEM (aka science, technology, engineering and maths…). Please welcome Lily to this week’s Three Minute Squiz. 

How and where do you Squiz?
A friend of mine recommended The Squiz and I jump into the email most mornings. It’s an awesome way to get a snapshot of what’s happening in the news.

You were a co-host on SBS TV show Letters and Numbers. We would have never believed maths could be entertaining unless we’d seen it with our own eyes. Did the cameras and glare of the lights make it harder to knock out long division in your head?
I remember the first numbers game of the first episode of the show. The lights were warm and glaring down, the studio was dead silent despite the 30-or-so people in the cast and crew. All eyes were on me to solve the problem. The pressure of the situation was too much and I ran out of the studio crying! Thankfully they didn’t air that bit haha! As time went on and we filmed more and more episodes, the studio environment became familiar and safe to me. By the end we had filmed 450 episodes and I felt I could solve the problems standing on my head (although I never tried that).

How did you know that you had a talent for maths?
I’ve never really thought of myself as having a talent for maths. It was always a subject that I genuinely enjoyed learning about so I just kept on studying!

You’re a data scientist at enterprise software giant Atlassian. Describe a typical day for us.
I’ll describe yesterday. I caught the ferry with my friend’s Labrador who I’m dog-sitting and together we came into work. After making some avo on toast from the kitchen I sat down to work with Frankie (the dog) at my feet. In the morning, I analysed an experiment that I’ve been waiting two months to finish! Statistics is a big part of my job. I ran some code, got some interesting conclusions and published my findings on Confluence (Atlassian’s team collaboration software). In the afternoon, Frankie and I went to a few meetings where she made some pawsitive contributions (sorry, I couldn’t in good conscience not put a dog pun in) and started a deep dive about a metric that was misbehaving. Frankie and I left at about 5:30pm.

Women are still very under-represented in STEM industries. Why is that?
This is a very complex and multifaceted topic. At the heart of it, I think there’s still an archaic perception that ‘girls don’t do maths’. That’s simply not true. This is something that I’d love to change peoples’ opinions about.

You’re on the board of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and have been involved with the government’s efforts to address the gender imbalance in STEM. What’s your advice for girls and women interested in a career in the field?
When I was still studying I would get really anxious before exams. I’d tell my dad that I didn’t think I was going to do well. His response was always the same. He’d say to me “don’t sit the exam if you’re going in with that mindset because you’ve already lost the battle”. I think mindset is really important. For the girls and women interested in a career in STEM I would say set your mindset to tenacity, take the bull by the horns and go for it!

You spent a year studying abroad in France. We’re currently dreaming of a European summer. What was the best part about a year away?
Without question the cheese. Every week I used to go to the local fromagerie and pick a new cheese to try. The cheese is best eaten with a fresh baguette that steams when you tear it open… Stop it! 

You’re a puzzlemaker in your spare time. What’s your favourite way to bend brains?
I like a good old chess game to get the noggin ticking over.

Name four people – living or dead – you’d kill to sit down to dinner with.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Turia Pitt, Melinda and Bill Gates (I’ll count them as one), JK Rowling.

Your favourite book/writer?*
Oooh I have so many, where do I start?! Here are some fiction favs:
• I just finished Educated by Tara Westover which I loved and declared to everyone that that’s my new favourite book. Her determination is inspiring.

• I loved God of Small Things by  Arundhati Roy because it was so beautifully written.

• I also love lots of books about adventure like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, The Beach by Alex Garland or Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

And for non-fiction:
* I love anything by Bill Bryson. I’m always in tears of laughter when I read his books.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. I think that’s a must read for everyone.

The best piece of advice you’ve been given.
Always bite off more than you can chew, and chew like buggery. My university honours supervisor used to say that to me. I think about it every so often – it reminds me to keep pushing to achieve things. 

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Gosh that’s a hard one! I wouldn’t say that any virtue is overrated but I do think honestly is grossly underrated.

What’s your worst and best habit?
Worst – I have a bad habit of leaving cupboard doors open. It drives my fiance crazy.

Best – I’m not a vegetarian but I’m obsessed with vegetables.

*Buy any of these books using this link and The Squiz might get a little commission.

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