Career interview: Brazil correspondent, The Economist

Marianne Freiberger Share this page

If you enjoy your regular dose of Plus, then let us introduce you to the person who's responsible for much of your pleasure. Helen Joyce was Plus Editor from 2002 to 2005 and her vision and pen shaped much of Plus as you see it today. These days Helen works as a journalist for The Economist and is shortly off to São Paulo for a stint as the paper's Brazil Bureau Chief. It's an open-ended assignment, but she expects to spend about four years there. In between packing and learning Portuguese, Helen has found the time to tell us about her varied career and the role maths has played in it.

Early maths

Helen Joyce

Helen Joyce

After leaving school in her native Ireland, Helen's first career move was to train as a dancer. "I had a childhood dream of being a ballet dancer and did lots of ballet during the evenings when I was at school. When I was 16 I decided I wanted to go into musical theatre and was offered a place at a musical theatre college in England." Helen moved to England to take up the place, but it soon became clear to her that she wasn't going to be happy as a dancer. She dropped out at 18 and found herself with the difficult choice of what to do next.

Helen had very much enjoyed maths at school and she was good at it, so she made a rather rushed decision to apply for a maths degree at Trinity College in Dublin. She was accepted and started the course in the autumn of 1987. "I knew I did the right thing straight away. Dublin is a great place, but it was also about the maths, which was very different from what I'd done at school. A lot of school maths is about repetitive problem solving: someone has told you how to do a certain kind of sum and you do it ten times for homework. That does have its pleasures — if you're a methodical person who likes numbers, it feels very satisfactory. However, it's not what a degree in maths is like at all. In a degree you start coming up against things no-one knows the answer to. Some people drop out because it turns out to be not what they wanted, or they switch to more applied subjects like engineering, accountancy or statistics. But I liked the theoretical side and I had a very happy four years."

Helen graduated in 1991 without a clear vision of what she wanted to do next. At a careers service in Dublin she found out about a course called Part III of the Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge. It's essentially a masters course in mathematics with a reputation for being hard. Helen enrolled for Part III and spent a rather miserable year in Cambridge — "Back then it was a brutal course without much hand holding. Nowadays, I've been told, they try a bit harder to make non-Cambridge graduates feel welcome!" — but she got two things out of it: a newly-discovered interest in fractals and the prestige of finishing Part III with a distinction. These earned her a scholarship from the British Council and a PhD place at University College London, studying fractals under the supervision of an expert in the field, David Preiss. "I had my three happiest mathematical years during my PhD. David is an inspiring and inspired teacher. I managed to solve some problems, wrote my thesis and got the PhD."

Research maths

Helen's PhD was in an area called geometric measure theory, which combines the mathematics of measurement with that of shapes. "In ordinary life there are some things we measure the length of, some things we measure the area of and some things we measure the volume of. If it's a thing you measure the volume of, you say its three-dimensional, if you measure the area, it's two-dimensional, and if you measure length, it's one-dimensional. But there are also strange scattered structures which are best measured using a new measure we call fractional dimension, which is where the word fractal comes from. And in geometric measure theory you study these structures both using these measures and using ideas from classical geometry, suitably adapted—notions like tangent, or curvature, for example."

Fractal structures occur in many places: the outline of clouds, the movements of the stock market and the structure of our lungs can all be understood using fractal geometry. Mathematicians became interested in fractals in the 1960s and 1970s when computers allowed them to draw such intricate structures. Understanding fractals and setting down their defining principle has largely been an exercise in pure maths.

Menger spongee

The Menger sponge does not have any volume as it is riddled with holes. But it's more than just a two-dimensional object. It's a fractal and its Hausdorff dimension (a measure of fractional dimension) is around 2.73. Image: Niabot.

Helen's thesis was about geometry and measures in infinite-dimensional spaces, which are nothing like the world we're familiar with. You couldn't get more pure-mathematical than that — "it was unbelievably inapplicable" — so the obvious next step after the PhD was to stay in academia. Helen moved on to a postdoctoral position in Cardiff and then spent two years at Jyväskylä University in central Finland, funded by the European Union on a Marie Curie research fellowship.

She enjoyed the research, but eventually the heavy toil of pure maths was beginning to take its toll. "It's a strange thing doing research in pure mathematics. Most days you get absolutely nowhere. You might get nowhere for a whole year; whatever you try to solve your problem doesn't work. Then one day you have an idea. It doesn't feel any different from all the other ideas you've had, but somehow it works and on you move. There's only two ways you can cope with this: either you're a very easy going, happy-go-lucky person who can sleep at night even though it's been six months without progress, or you're incredibly brilliant and you have these ideas all the time. I wasn't either."

While Helen was winding down her work in Finland, a tragedy in her husband's family intervened and brought her back to England. "It was a very black time really. I had spent eleven years of my life doing something I now no longer wanted to do, and my husband and I came back to England without jobs, to be with people who were grieving terribly."

Helen went back to University College London and started work on a project that marked the starting point of her future career. The project was run by the geology department and involved putting some maths online for geology students. "I became interested in this business of telling non-mathematicians about maths and started to think about public outreach work. I hadn't actually realised that this was a career option. Then I saw a rather intriguing job ad. I remember getting the shivers, thinking 'that's exactly it'! I just couldn't believe that there was anyone trying to do exactly what I had become convinced was really worth doing."

Bringing maths to the masses

Plus staff

Past and present MMP staff at the Plus 10th birthday party. Front row top to bottom: Owen Smith, Rachel Thomas, Marianne Freiberger, Helen Joyce, Julia Hawkins, Steve Lay, Mike Pearson. Back row top to bottom: Robert Hunt, Robert Harding. John D. Barrow, Mark Wainwright.

The job ad came from a newly launched project called the Millennium Mathematics Project (of which Plus is a part), based at the University of Cambridge as a collaboration between the mathematics department and the education department. "The project is about explaining this beautiful subject to anyone and everyone, but also about doing this in a way that is intellectually secure and profound."

Helen's initial job at the MMP involved producing puzzles for one of the MMP's partner organisations and working on a project called Motivate, which enables mathematicians to interact with schools via video link. However, Plus was what appealed to her most and after two years she got the job of Plus editor, working alongside the Assistant Editor Rachel Thomas.

"As Editor of Plus, I continued the work of broadening our readership beyond school students that had been begun by the founding Editor Robert Hunt. We hoped to produce articles about all aspects of maths that would be sufficiently interesting to appeal to young people who hoped to study maths at degree level. But the articles should also be accessible to those for whom a maths degree was never an aspiration but who were interested in mathematical ideas nevertheless. It was a tricky balancing act, but a pleasingly steady increase in readership, and a substantially expanded and reliable pool of regular contributors, does, I believe, prove that our endeavours were successful." Helen and Rachel also oversaw a complete re-design of the Plus website, launched a rolling news desk with Rachel as News Editor and produced our careers posters, which have been enormously successful with teachers ever since.


During her time at Plus Helen developed an interest in a subject that is often mentioned in the same breath as mathematics, but is really quite different: statistics. "While maths goes back many thousands of years, further than recorded history, statistics is one of the youngest disciplines of the mind. People didn't start to notice regularities [in information] in a structured way until the late eighteenth century. They didn't draw charts summarising data until the time of William Playfair at the turn of the eighteenth century and Florence Nightingale a little later. Unlike mathematics, which is done for the joy of it, statistics is always about solving particular problems. For example, why are some people born deaf? Nobody would ever have thought that deafness at birth can be caused by rubella — that's a statistical observation. Someone noticed a pattern, and then hypothesised and worked backwards. Statisticians sometimes say that statistics is an order of magnitude harder than mathematics because mathematics is deductive [you start with general principles and see how they apply to specific cases], while statistics is inductive [you start with a specific circumstance and try to work out the general principles behind it] and obviously induction is just that much harder."


While at Plus Helen developed an interest in statistics.

In 2004 Helen was given the chance to live out her passion for statistics: she became founding Editor of a magazine called Significance, published by the Royal Statistical Society with the aim of highlighting the practical uses of statistics and its benefits for society. "Significance was my baby. Out of all the jobs I've ever done, this was the one I was most emotionally connected to, because I played a leading role in its creation. I led the decision on what to call the magazine, I hired the wonderful graphic designer Charles Trevelyan, who is also the designer for Plus, to design the magazine and create the covers, and I shaped what would go into the magazine. Obviously, I led people rather than imposing [my ideas] and there was a lot of discussion — I had a wonderful time!"

The Economist

Statistics, with a little help from the 2005 general election, was also what landed Helen her job at The Economist, a respected weekly news and international affairs paper with a circulation of around 1.5 million. One day in 2005 Helen noticed a small ad in The Economist advertising for a writer for the paper's Britain section. "I didn't seriously think there was the slightest chance I'd get the job. But at the time I was working on something for Plus and Significance which I thought would make a good article for The Economist. It was coming up to a general election and I had commissioned a little piece about polling from each of the polling organisations."

Neil Kinnock

Remember him? The polls predicted that Neil Kinnock would comfortably win the 1992 general election. Image: Dushenka.

The pollsters had famously got the 1992 general election completely wrong, predicting a comfortable majority for the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock. After the election, which was of course won by John Major's Conservative Party, there was a massive post-mortem, with the whole industry trying to work out what had gone wrong. In her research into polling Helen came across some pretty surprising confounding factors, all of which had served to over-emphasise Labour's vote. There was the "shy Tory" phenomenon, with people reluctant to admit they voted Tory, in case it made them look like they didn't want to pay their taxes. Then there was the fact that people tended to forget about the Liberal Democrats, so when asked who they voted for last time, some forgot it was the Lib Dems unless they were reminded of their existence. Another confounding factor was that pollsters who went out to interview people tended to pick houses that were closer together and had smaller drive ways, to save on the distances they had to walk, so they ended up surveying too many natural Labour voters.

"I had found out all these hilarious things about polling and the closing date for the job ad was the day after the general election. So I wrote two versions of an article, one for if the polls got it right and one for if they got it wrong (they did get it right). The editors liked it and called me in for an interview."

To her complete surprise, Helen was offered the position of Education Correspondent. This was partly due to her experience in working in universities, but also to her unique background. "There's a lot to be said for having a different background for a profession than most people do. Most people who go into journalism did English, history, or politics, and there's some sociology and maybe a language if they become foreign correspondents. Hardly anyone in mainstream journalism has a background in the quantitative fields. The Economist, unsurprisingly, hires quite a few economists, but I was the only one who had a maths and stats background. They were a bit nervous about hiring me, so they got me to write another article before they made the final decision."

The new job was a challenge. David Cameron (not yet party leader at the time) was at the first working lunch Helen attended, and she didn't dare say a word. "You suddenly feel that you're part of something very influential. There's a 160 year-old tradition of how to do things. A new person is quickly molded to The Economist." She's enjoying the job immensely. "It's a very cerebral environment. Even though journalism has changed — it's become faster-paced and 24-hours — The Economist is a place where ideas still matter. The debates during editorial meetings are sharp contests of the mind during which everyone can speak. It's a very challenging and exciting place to work."

During the following four years Helen wrote mostly for the Britain section of the paper, on education, family and social affairs. She also wrote the occasional piece about politics, health-care and even far-removed matters such as the plans for a third runway at Heathrow in 2007, or the collapse of Christmas hamper club Farepak in 2006, to cover for absent colleagues. "I enjoyed the variety," she says. "On a daily paper, beat specialists have less chance to rove into other areas." And she also wrote about education further afield, spending a week in Finland and Sweden, the former often cited as having the world's best schools and the latter the model for the current Tory governments education plans; and another, in 2008, in New York. In the run-up to the recent general election she wrote about politicians' statistical errors for The Economist's website and, in collaboration with the new education correspondent, a long piece about the Tories' education policies.

What's next?

Helen left her position as Education Correspondent in 2009 and moved on to a project investigating how to best present statistics to readers. "It's an open-ended investigation into what The Economist should be doing with data. Should we be doing interactive things online, should we use very visual representations, etc? We also think about the financial and economic indicators we publish, for example stock prices, GDP, interest rates, or produce in-house, like our house-price index and the well-known Big Mac Index."

Neil Kinnock

Exciting prospects: Helen is moving to São Paulo.

The project is coming to an end this summer and Helen's life is about to take another, quite dramatic turn. In August she'll move out to São Paulo to become The Economist's Brazil Bureau Chief. From being part of a team covering a single middle-sized country, she will move to having sole responsibility for a country of nearly 200 million people, covering almost half the area of South America. "I did gulp a little when I saw a map of Brazil in a book with all the countries of Western Europe super-imposed on it — nicely spread out and non-overlapping!" she says.

And instead of having a fairly narrow specialist beat, she will write about anything and everything, from the upcoming presidential election to business — "São Paulo is Latin America's business hub, which is why The Economist has a correspondent there" — to social and environmental affairs. But she is looking forward to the travel — "my predecessor got to go into the rain forest, as well as visit cities all over Brazil" — and becoming immersed in a different culture — "though not the bureaucracy. I'm already sick of Kafkaesque paperwork, and there's lots, lots more of it ahead." She expects to be in Brazil for around four years and she's taking the whole family.

Clearly, you can become a foreign correspondent for a major and respected publication without having done maths at university, but Helen's career is a great example of where mathematical training (and it doesn't have to be a PhD) can take you.

"It's maths that landed me the job at The Economist in the first place, because it gave me that little edge over other applicants." Writing about politics and economics, it's obviously essential to be numerate and in particular to understand statistics, but mathematics also gives you other, less tangible and highly transferable skills: being able to understand and convey difficult ideas, follow chains of reasoning and spot regularities in a confounding mass of information. In this wider sense, maths truly is a multi-purpose subject.

About the author

Helen Joyce was interviewed by Marianne Freiberger, Co-Editor of Plus, in London in April 2010.