Alumni Stories

Our graduates go on to a wide variety of careers and some of their stories are below.

Jon Barry

Former Mayor of Lancaster Jon Barry completed a PhD in Statistics at Lancaster in 1996.

Jon arrived as a research worker in the Centre for Applied Statistics in 1987 and went on to lecture in the department, finishing his PhD in 1996 and leaving in 1998. He was elected as a Green Party Councillor in Castle Ward in 1999, one of a batch of five who were the first Greens elected to the Council. The numbers have fluctuated since then, but there are now 10 City Councillors and 1 County Councillor. Jon has been a member of the Council’s ruling cabinet for 12 years in a variety of rainbow coalitions – political parties are rarely able to get an overall majority in the Lancaster District.

He allocates two days a week to Council work (and lots of evenings!) and three days to his ‘proper’ job when he works as a statistician for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) which is a Government agency of Defra. He works from home for three weeks and then spends the fourth at the laboratory in Lowestoft (which is a long train ride from Lancaster!). 

Jon and his colleague advises 200 scientists on numerous different areas including setting up Marine Conservation Zones, surveys on the amount of litter and plastics on the sea bottom, how bad dredging is for the environment, numbers of eels and jellyfish, why are salmon numbers declining, how to analyse underwater video surveys etc. 

Life is never dull and always busy. His dual roles mean that at one moment he is trying to sort out some tricky algebra and the next trying to sort out why Mrs Smith’s bin hasn’t been collected.

Eddie Bell

In his handmade raw-selvedge Oni 512 jeans, one might guess that Eddie Bell is a designer, but this data scientist works for an E-fashion company and has coined his own title of ‘fashematician’.

The Lancaster University Computer Science graduate now spends his days at London-based Lyst, using maths in the fashion industry to train computers to recognise specific makes of clothes, or to pick up on colours from fashion industry descriptions and to predict individuals’ clothes-buying preferences. He also has a clothes allowance. 

Nothing could be further from the predictions that Bell would have made for himself as a shy, geeky, first year computer science undergraduate who almost did not apply to university and who arrived at Lancaster from his home in Blackpool terrified of making friends and unsure what he was doing in higher education. 

He says: “Lancaster opened up my eyes to study and gave me social skills. Without those two, I would not be doing what I am today.” 

He was not a high achiever at school and did not think about university until the last minute when, to his parents’ surprise, he applied. It transformed his life. He had known he was interested in computing because he had done some in his spare time at school, but now he knew he wanted to study it. The crucial blue touch paper for him was a lecture in his first few weeks at Lancaster from Dr Joe Finney about the elegance of computer programs and ways of designing beauty. This really transformed his thinking and almost overnight he decided he would probably need to do a PhD. 

“Computing is not a cold and sterile science, “ says Bell. “it is more like an art form.” 

He had applied to do computer science, but heard a lecture by Paul Rayson in the computer department about artificial intelligence. This was enough to convince him that this was the field in which he wanted to spend his life. 

Socially he says he initially found it “a massive shock to the system” and remembers a painful evening standing in a corner of a club not talking to anyone in Freshers’ Week after accepting an invitation from the JCR. But the many hours he spent in the labs and doing team work brought him in contact with other people and brought him friends. A number of them were in the philosophy department as he had chosen this subject as a ‘minor’. 

He was an enthusiastic member of the computing society, which gave him the chance to teach others about games and even how to write little viruses! Away from computers he and his new-found group of friends learned to cook together and went to Heavy Metal gigs.

Another life-changing experience for Bell, was to be offered a place under the Erasmus scheme to spend his second year in Norway in the tiny University of Tromsø on the Arctic Circle. He says: “I left a bit wet behind the ears but it matured me.”  Whilst there he had the chance to sign up for Masters’ level courses in computer science, which he loved. The young man who left the UK terrified of what he had signed up for found himself relishing hiking, visiting the Northerly Norwegian islands and going to numerous gigs. He’d only decided to go because one of his friends volunteered, but then his friend dropped out at the last minute but he took the plunge of going alone. 

Under the influence of Pete Sawyer, he did his undergraduate thesis on understanding language using artificial intelligence but felt the need for higher-lever maths, so he decided to stay on to benefit from Paul Rayson’s ideas and did both a Master’s in Statistics and a PhD in Discrete Mathematics with him. 

At the end of his time at Lancaster he knew he wanted to be involved in the ‘real’ world rather than academia, so started off in finance with Bloomberg on the currency trading platform, but found the company’s huge size difficult to cope with. After a year he was approached by a small fashion technology company called Lyst, which he joined as a data scientist. Three years later it had grown to become one of the largest fashion technology companies in the UK,with a staff of 120 people, a turnover of $60m and a site featuring 3 million products from 11,557 designers and stores. 

He admits he has been ‘bitten by the fashion bug’. Out have gone the T shirts and ‘Metal’ garb of his university days, to be replaced by raw edged denim and street wear. He says: “Our company has the most fashionable geeks in London!” 

He thoroughly enjoys his work and runs a team of eight people. Much of his time is spent thinking up ideas, trying them out using Artificially Intelligent models and using data to try and predict trends. His colleagues have PhDs in a number of fields ranging from astrophysics to biology. 

He says: “If anyone had told me in my first year undergraduate year what I would be doing now, I would have said they were crazy. I could not have done it without Lancaster.”

Adrian Hall

Teacher Adrian Hall has little patience for people whose response to philosophy is to question the existence of the table in front of them. For him the subject is much more important and relevant.

He loves to use philosophy with his pupils at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, as a means of thinking about the big questions – whether humans should build machines as intelligent as ourselves, the morals of rationing health care, whether animals have souls and whether states should be able to dictate whether a woman can have an abortion.

As assistant head at a school numbering 1400 pupils from 40 primary schools drawn from three counties – Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire – much of his teaching time is assigned to mathematics. However in formal philosophy courses, and informal discussions with pupils, he loves to challenge them to play with ideas, and not to be afraid of tackling important issues.

The challenge of sharing his passion for ideas continues to fire his professional life. After 20 years as a teacher he counts himself fortunate still to be in a job he loves: "I still get up feeling that I have a moral purpose and that I am doing something worthwhile – it is a job where you change people's lives."

Adrian holds Lancaster University responsible for inspiring his philosophical interests. The three-subject option in the first year was the greatest draw for him as an 18 year old, straight from a mediocre comprehensive school in the West Midlands. He was, he says "a typical mathematician" with a liking for finality, but the opportunity to study philosophy alongside mathematics and ICT, opened up his thinking in new ways.

Mathematics was enjoyable but it was the philosophy courses that really felt exciting and relevant. Of course he wrestled with the meaning of life and with courses on existentialism and Nietzsche, but he also tackled issues like artificial intelligence and the separation of mind, body and brain, that continue to be hot topics for discussion today. He dropped ICT after the first year, but continues to use it at school when teaching mathematics.

He felt instantly at home on the campus and spent most of his time socialising there outside lectures, with people he met on his course and in college. Having bars to hand made it easy to drop in and chat to people over a drink, without it turning into "a session". He and his friends also took advantage of the nearby Lake District to explore the fells.

Adrian also met his wife, Tina (née Mant) in Bowland. Tina was doing psychology. She is now a speech and language therapist and they have three children.

At the end of his course he was interviewed for maths-based jobs such as actuarial work, but found them 'lacking in heart'. He applied to do a PGCE at St Martins and immediately felt he had found his niche. Since his first teaching job at a high school in Chorley, he has moved to other maths teaching positions around Lancashire, until arriving in his current job in 2007. Today half his time as an assistant head teacher of an Ofsted-rated 'outstanding' school, focuses on staff and professional development, classroom teaching methods and developing links with the community as a Teaching School. He is also trying to develop links between the school and universities including Lancaster.

He feels Lancaster University prepared him for teaching and inspired his love for philosophy, which lives with him daily. He says: "Lancaster got me excited. I have a critical eye on the world and my time there helped me to think about and try to resolve issues."

Stacy Westhead

Many people express surprise that Stacy Westhead has made such a successful people-based career in marketing, given that her degree is in mathematics.

As a recent winner of Media Week's Rising Star award for entrepreneurs under 30, Westhead does not see anything particularly special about inhabiting more than one world at once. Lancaster University helped to prepare her to do so.

She says: "I have a nice balance of logic and being comfortable with numbers, but also the social element of life and marketing. Lancaster University was all about broadening and making me realise that there was more to my world than my small background."

Now as Director of atom42, her day is spent ensuring that clients and her work teams are happy, mentoring and overseeing the company's strategic direction - a total people job - but she would never have predicted this career direction.

The decision of her 18-year-old self to study at Lancaster was made on the basis that she was good at maths, she was keen on a campus university, and the open day presented an idyllic scene to her of students sitting outside the George Fox building in the sunshine, with rabbits jumping around them.

She arrived as a confident fresher from a small local comprehensive in Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and rapidly realised how narrow her horizons were and how sheltered she had been from different cultures and nationalities. She was excited and eager to find out about life.

One aspect of that was addressed in her first week, when she met a second year sociology student, Gareth Westhead in the Grizedale bar at a freshers event. They dated throughout university providing her with stability during her studies. They married in 2012 on the 10th anniversary of their meeting at Lancaster.

"I loved it at Lancaster," she says. "I always felt safe in the college community. My one regret is perhaps that I did not get involved in more student organisations."

Grizedale became the centre of her social life and friendships have continued beyond university, to the extent that a quarter of their wedding guests were from their old college. Her confidence grew to the point that she felt able to go alone to the USA for three months with CCUSA to work on a summer camp after her second year - a choice which would later come to change her career path completely.

Academically she found Lancaster tough. Having breezed through the first year, the second year came as a challenge with many compulsory modules of pure maths. Westhead reckons she would have foundered without the support of Gareth and other friends who were also struggling with the shock of the second year.

Light dawned in the third year, when she took modules in teaching maths with St Martin's College and another in marketing, both of which were demonstrations of maths in action, with words often doing the work of the Greek alphabet. She realised how much she had missed dealing in language, rather than formulae.

The day after she was accepted to train as a Maths Teacher at St Martin's College, an email circular from CCUSA dropped into her inbox, which changed her life. It required former scheme participants to go round UK universities to recruit - a marketing job, but with no experience required. She took it and decided she could always come back to teaching if it did not work out.

When she went down to London to join Gareth nine months later, she now had marketing experience as well as a mathematics degree. She soon gained a job at PHD Media in search marketing, where she gained experience working at a large media agency. The person who appointed her there, Andy Atalla, moved on after a year to set up on his own as atom42. She decided to join him in setting up the company.

Seven years later atom42 is thriving with clients like AOL, National Accident Helpline and Drinkaware. She finds that maths makes total sense in a people business, providing the skills to forecast, plan and report accurately in order to implement creative ideas and concepts for her team and clients.