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Ralph Highnam—From Math Grad to CEO

Volpara Health – Updated on March 10, 2021

You may think a degree in math or physics is reserved for more bookish types that aim for career paths in labs, academia, or sci-fi-esque pursuits. But actually, a math-based path of study can help develop quantitative, analytical, and problem solving skills that could be used across a wide variety of applications, ranging from finance, to industrial research and development, to management/consulting, or even in healthcare applications.

Academic History

Ralph Highnam, CEO of Volpara Health Technologies, studied mathematics for his undergraduate degree, primarily because he was naturally adept in the space, but also because it was a broad, universally applicable subject that could feed into different academic and career paths. Ralph went on to earn a Masters in Computation (which has some fundamental mathematic undertones) and a PhD in Engineering Science from Oxford University, focused on mammography image analytics and the quantification of breast tissue from X-rays. At Oxford, Highnam met and was inspired by the work of Professor Sir Michael Brady.

Dr Highnam said, “Mike Brady is an inspiring character, always positive, always looking for solutions, but with a very deep, very broad knowledge in mathematics which stands him in good stead when thinking about the world. He’s been great to work with these last 28 years.”

Following his PhD, Ralph spent seven years as a post-doctoral researcher in engineering, developing model-based image processing systems for quantitative and qualitative purposes.

“I was aiming to find more practical, real-world applications for math and computation, and grew increasingly frustrated with academia. Academics are often evaluated by the number of papers they publish, and spend a significant amount of time applying for grants to further fund their research.

“The pristine walls of academic institutions are no match for the practical struggles of real world, and I wanted to use the skillset I’d learned in academia to create innovative and helpful applications in the healthcare space that had a serious societal impact.

“This is what led me to Volpara Health Technologies in 2009. Volpara is a New Zealand based company which has developed breast imaging analytics and analysis products that improve clinical decision-making, and the early detection of breast cancer to improve patient outcomes and reduce the cost of breast cancer.

“The innovative software program has been shown to help radiologists accurately measure breast density more objectively, and assists in determining the probability of missing potential tumours. This is a very real, practical application of my education, and proof that a study of math can lead to an exciting career, that makes a real difference. Compare our approach – a thorough understanding of mathematics and the physics of imaging the breast versus the application of artificial intelligence which basically tries to be a black box requiring serious amounts of data and is very hard to explain to clinicians.

Advice to the next generation

Ralph genuinely credits part of his career success to studying a broadly applicable subject area that would give him the option to later tailor his academic and professional journey.

“For those considering pursuing their love of math or physics, remember that maths lets you go anywhere later, it is a building block of life, and very powerful, so don’t rush to specialise young.

“And while years of studying math might not appeal to everyone, the same logic applies to other fields – study what you enjoy, and choose a course that gives you the most options. Academic and career paths change, but an underlying skillset and ability to adapt never goes astray.”