Carmen Jorge Díaz at the Mathematical Institute in the Andrew Wiles Building

Philanthropy Report 2022/23

Music and mathematics in harmony


Talented musician Carmen Jorge Díaz has been able to pursue her passion for mathematical physics at doctoral level thanks to Paul Shreder’s legacy gift.

Music has been a huge part of Paul Shreder Scholar Carmen Jorge Díaz’s life for as long as she can remember. Her mother, also a musician, would play classical music throughout her childhood and it was at the age of six that Carmen decided she would learn to play the violin.

At 14 Carmen became one of the first members of the highly regarded Galician Symphony Orchestra’s newly formed Children’s Orchestra, and at 16 she was selected to join the Youth Orchestra. It was at this point that Carmen had some difficult choices to make. ‘I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue music as a career or if I wanted to study physics,’ says Carmen, who, by this time, was the equivalent of a musical grade 8 in the English system and therefore eligible to pursue a music degree. ‘I didn’t want to leave either of them. So, I decided to do a physics degree and I kept playing with the Youth Orchestra until I was about 20, and then I joined my university orchestra in Santiago where I did my undergraduate degree.’

Carmen completed her BSc in Physics at the University of Santiago de Compostela, went on to pursue an MSc in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, and then applied for a DPhil in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Oxford. Like many DPhil applicants, Carmen needed a scholarship to take up the place she was offered. Little did she know that music would play such an important part in enabling her to follow her passions.

She was awarded the Paul Shreder Scholarship – the legacy of a donor who himself had a passion for both mathematics and music. An Oxford undergraduate in the early 1950s, Mr Shreder studied for a degree in mathematics and taught the subject for most of his career at a boys’ school in Ealing. He was also an excellent musician and his wish was to enable a gifted maths student with a love of music to pursue their educational goals at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute.

Carmen Jorge Díaz plays the violin on the roof of the Mathematical Institute against a blue sky and white clouds
Carmen Jorge Díaz plays the violin on the roof of the Mathematical Institute in the Andrew Wiles Building. Photo by John Cairns 

‘When I got the letter, I started crying,’ says Carmen. ‘I called my violin teacher to say: “The funding for my PhD is because of playing the violin,” and he started crying as well. It was very emotional because being a musician is tough, especially when you’re young and you’re trying to do your schoolwork, your music work, and sometimes you don’t have time for everything.’

Carmen recognises that this particular scholarship is very unusual. ‘When I tell some of my colleagues about it, they can’t believe it. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to do my DPhil otherwise. It was a big relief.’

There was no obligation attached to the scholarship in terms of participating in music at Oxford. ‘It was just an encouragement to contribute to the music environment,’ says Carmen. This has been more difficult than anticipated in some respects, as COVID-19 hit just in the middle of Carmen’s first year. However, she did run a music seminar in her department. ‘Every week someone would present a piece that was important to them and showed different interpretations and explained why they liked it. It was a get-together with eight or nine of us. I spoke about Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, which I really like, and then we listened to it and talked about it. That was really nice. I also gave a talk at the Oxford Science and Ideas Festival about maths, physics and music, and that was really enjoyable too.’

‘There’s a lot of sacrifice that comes with pursuing a commitment to music. For me, it’s been completely worth it’

Carmen Jorge Díaz

Carmen sees huge connections between maths, physics and music – for example, the waves that she studies in physics apply very much to the way musical instruments are tuned. She also explains that preparing to interpret a piece of music entails a lot of dissection and analysis of the different parts and how they interact. The process, for her, feels like going on a treasure hunt. ‘You’re aiming to understand what the composer was trying to tell us, but you’re reading things into something that is not a verbal language. For maths, when you read formulas or when you’re trying to express something with a formula, you’re looking for a translation between whatever verbal language you are using and the language of maths. It just feels familiar, like it’s a similar process, and you have to be very accurate and methodical. A lot of the techniques I have learned are helpful for both.’

The other fascinating correlation for Carmen is that almost everyone she knows at the Mathematical Institute is embedded in music in one way or another. ‘It’s insane!’ she exclaims. ‘In my current office there’s someone who plays classical flute, someone who has sung in classical choirs all their life and there’s me with the violin. Even Professor James Sparks, Head of Department, was an organ scholar.’

She has been so impressed with the musical offerings Oxford has provided during her time here, and frequently bumps into colleagues from mathematics wherever she goes to enjoy music around the city. ‘When I moved here, because London is so close, I just thought all the big musicians would go to London; then I saw that the violinist Maxim Vengerov was coming to Oxford. He is one of my childhood heroes, so I sent pictures to my violin teacher. There’s a very vibrant music community – and definitely lots of mathematicians at every music event I go to!’

‘Gifting education is a way of empowering people and allowing them to reach their potential. It’s one of the most powerful ways to change someone’s life’

Carmen Jorge Díaz

As part of her DPhil, Carmen has been teaching undergraduate mathematical physics tutorials at Keble College, as well as at other colleges and in her department, which she has enjoyed immensely. ‘My students are very nice – all very hardworking and enthusiastic.’ Her favourite part of being at Oxford is meeting people from different countries with so many interesting backgrounds and backstories. ‘I’m learning so much every day. It has just broadened my horizons. And, of course, I’m so grateful for the scholarship – I literally wouldn’t be here without it and on some days I still don’t believe it.’

Carmen hopes that one day she will be in a position to support a scholar as she has been supported. ‘My grandpa always told my mother that “what you learn, no one can take away from you.” Gifting education to someone is a way of empowering people and allowing them to reach their potential,’ she says. ‘It’s one of the most powerful ways to change someone’s life.’

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