Sally Bridgeland (Mathematics 1986) certainly proved her summer work experience supervisor completely wrong. She definitely can do maths. Sally's time at Imperial allowed her to find the art and beauty in not only science, but in London too. Dramsoc was a major part of her life at Imperial, whether it was performing, designing and making costumes or helping run the venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was also how she met her husband. Sally spoke to us about her time at Imperial and how it shaped her career.
What did you learn during your time at Imperial, in class or out?
That women can be very good at maths! I’d moved to an all-girl school at the age of eight after my primary school headmaster suggested it would be better to nurture my skills and, because boys typically studied maths A-level a year early, we were always a bit behind them. It was genuinely a surprise to me when I came top in my first year. My first year results meant that I had a summer placement doing fluid mechanics research in Switzerland. My supervisor was of the opinion that women couldn’t do maths so I was shouted at a lot. That was 1984, and women were given the vote in Switzerland only in 1973 so it made me appreciate the opportunities which I had in London even more. And calibrated my scale for sexism and chauvinism! I also learned that London is the most wonderful city in the world, full of inspirational music, theatre and art. It was, and still is, a wonderful place to really get to know by bike.
Can you tell us about your studies at Imperial?
I found that there were areas of maths where my natural ability reached its limits: I didn’t enjoy applied maths so much! I loved pure maths and the breadth of subjects and specialisms where I could be creative and find new ways of solving problems. My studies at Imperial allowed me to find the art and beauty in the science. The fact that everyone at Imperial studies maths as part of their courses made me realise how fundamental maths is...and that those who find it difficult need the very best teachers to see things their way. I wasn’t always good at helping my friends understand their applied maths coursework!
Who did you find inspiring at Imperial and why?
My A-level further maths teacher came from a school where maths was in the languages department. At Imperial there were many lecturers and tutors who spoke it so fluently, with such elegance and precision that it constantly made me smile and want to be able to do the same. Dr Lynda White gets a special mention, too. She was one of the very few women on the academic staff and it was wonderful to host her as a guest at one of the Worshipful Company of Actuaries’ dinners when I was Master Actuary in 2017.
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
Graduation in the Royal Albert Hall. The pride of my family. The most amazing setting. Being awarded the beautiful RSA silver medal. Breathtaking.
What is your favourite place at Imperial and why?
The Dramsoc storeroom, on the top floor above the bar in Beit Quad. Home of many laughs and nearly as many cups of tea.
Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing now...
I have a “portfolio” career: I’m a non-executive director and trustee of some organisations including pensions, insurance and investment companies and a public fund for decommissioning nuclear power stations, all of which draw on my actuarial training. I also do some consultancy work which aims to help improve relationships and decision-making. On a voluntary basis I work with couple of charities and with the Royal Air Force helping them make better decisions to do with financial risks and investment.
How has what you learnt at Imperial helped you in your career so far?
The mathematician’s skill of spotting patterns, making connections and being creative in solving knotty problems was honed at Imperial and is priceless. An analytical approach means that you can detect areas of commonality between people who think they disagree with each other. Being able to spot and draw out common ground and articulate a way forward is invaluable. However, all skills and learnings are worthless if you don’t have the confidence to act on them. Imperial gave me faith in my own ability and helped me become comfortable being a round peg in a square hole, which is the source of my resilience and ability to speak my mind.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
Every day is different, other than waking up to a cup of tea from my husband and a hug from my son. It usually involves cycling between board meetings and coffees with friends or business contacts then home, via the school run if I can, cooking supper ready for an evening reading board papers, watching a film or going out again for a concert. Busy but varied and always learning.
What are your plans for the future?
Although I’m an obsessive planner for the short term (and for holidays!), I’ve never really planned for the longer term future. When I fell off a cliff when I was skiing aged 38, I realised how futile that can be! I have some hopes and dreams but am happy keeping my options open and seeing what comes my way.
What would be your advice for current students?
Focus on what you’re good at and are passionate about, and find a way to make your living that way without worrying about job titles. Don’t waste a day. We may be living longer, but life is still short and it takes concerted effort if you want to make a difference.
What are you most proud of in your life?
My son. Kind, beautiful and sensitive and more creative than he knows. His dyslexia and individuality have taught me so much about myself. Worth the wait and determination which goes alongside of a decade of IVF. He’s a wonder of science, technology and medicine!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
In all areas of my work and life I keep bumping into Imperial alumni. Enjoy your time there, you won't be allowed to forget it!