I'm working in chemical engineering field and being mathematician and programmer I'm conducting simulations and mathematical modeling problem solving. Basically the battery processes simulations. There is a problem with my chemists colleagues who can't really help in theory regarding the processes inside of batteries that needs to be modeled. The question is, is it my responsibility to learn chemistry, electrochemistry etc in order to be able to build the math model of the processes by myself not relying on chemists? What is the general practice in this case in the world? Or do people in other research groups and/or universities hire mathematician-chemists specialists for this purpose?

I'm kind of being blamed for making slow progress and I feel like I don't fit into this group as not knowing chemistry field. Publications though can be made using commercial software but ideally I want to be able to build the model of the battery without relying on other software that does it for you, as it is introducing some restrictions.

  • 1
    Do your chemist colleagues understand the process you're trying to model? If yes, they should be able to help you. If not, you need better chemist colleagues.
    – user37208
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:43
  • @user37208 I'm afraid they don't. I need to know from what to start. I read other publications. Ask chemists then for explanations. I need to figure out what is important for our case and what is not important. I ask about equations used there, like what is this stuff etc. But still couldn't get complete response.
    – maximus
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:48
  • actually it is confusing for me. if chemist knows theoretical stuff, equations. then he doesn't need mathematician. if mathematician knows chemistry equations then he can work by himself. so i guess there is a need in a "all knowing guy" in math and chemistry.
    – maximus
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:50
  • 3
    I don't know why there should be a "general practice". When people don't have all the expertise they need for a project, some choose to learn it themselves, some choose to collaborate with those who do have it, and some might just drop the project altogether. Sep 3, 2016 at 5:27
  • Is your advisor a mathematician, a chemical engineer, or a chemist? It's not very clear from the question, and I'd answer very differently if you were a mathematician being advised by a chemE group or just collaborating with them.
    – AJK
    Sep 5, 2016 at 0:38

2 Answers 2


Yes, absolutely - up to a point.

You do not need to be the world's greatest expert on the subject matter, but you will need to know enough to participate in the research process and make suggestions. If your role as an applied mathematician is "Subject matter expert gives you equations to solve, you apply numerical method," that is consulting, not modeling or research. Here are some things where more subject matter knowledge improves the life of both applied mathematicians and their collaborators:

With more chemistry knowledge you can know

  • What approximations could be appropriate? What information do your collaborators really need?
  • Do the results you have make sense? Being able to determine simple checks and analytic test cases yourself will save a lot of time.
  • If you can answer this question, what is the likely next question?
  • If the suggestion your collaborators gave you has a typo - this is obvious with more subject knowledge, but can be missed.
  • When you report on your work (papers, talks) - you can be specific about why it is important

I have worked in many math/[other science] collaborations, and a very common failure mode is that a math student takes a couple of weeks, and comes back with a single result, with an error that could have been caught. Or that the student mis-interprets a suggestion, and it takes a long time to clear up. Or that the student spends a month optimizing a calculation that is only relevant to an order of magnitude. All of this happens a lot, and the best solution is more subject knowledge!

I do not know if this is happening with you. But if you are modeling a chemistry process, you will either need to learn a good amount of the chemistry, or you will need a more well-defined problem at the beginning. And as a modeler, you presumably know that defining the problem well is half of the battle!


There are two aspects to your situation.

First, there's the working relationship. If fingers are getting pointed, or if you're getting the feeling that there might be, that is a red flag. I can't say whether your comment is a reflection of natural anxiety or whether the people you're trying to work with are not as supportive as one would like. But this is something for you to think about. Your own well-being is an important factor in any working relationship and I am glad to see some indications in your Question that you are taking this seriously.

Second is what you explicitly asked about. If you enjoy mathematical modeling, it is wise to give careful attention to the choice of application area. Is this field something you have a natural interest in? Do you enjoy delving into this application area? Perhaps this would be a good time for you to do some brainstorming and jot down two lists of application areas, those that appeal to you naturally, and those that don't.

It may be that this is not the right field of application for you. Or maybe it is, but you'd benefit from working with more collaborative or better prepared colleagues. Or maybe you need to assert yourself more with these people, and have more frequent conversations with them about the underlying science you would like to model.

Perhaps that last sentence gives you a place to start. As those conversations take place, the rest may become clear.

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