Moths, maths and musical numbers

Dr Rafael de Andrade Moral, assistant professor of statistics, Maynooth University

You have a passion for biology and statistics – where did that come from?

When I was growing up in Brazil, I loved counting. As a small kid I counted everything – I counted the steps as I went up the stairs, I counted to 1,000 just for the fun of it.

I was also really interested in animals, especially insects, so I used to count them too. For my career, I didn’t know whether to choose biology or maths. My mum is a secondary-school maths teacher and she suggested that I study biology, then find a way to use maths to describe it.

So how did maths stay in the equation?


The first year of my biology degree in São Paulo we studied calculus and I think I was the only person in the class who loved it. Because of that interest, I started working on projects with supervisors in college who researched mathematical modelling and biology in population dynamics – and this has been a focus of my own research since.

What research do you do now?

When you are a statistician you get asked to work on lots of projects. My main focus is on animals – mammals, birds and insects – and to count and estimate the numbers of animals in a given environment, whether in the wild or in agriculture, to see if their populations are declining or exploding out of control.

By applying statistical modelling, we can help to monitor ecosystems and come up with ecologically sensitive and friendly ways of increasing or decreasing populations of species to keep things in balance.

What kinds of animal data have you worked on?

Giant anteaters, pumas, Brazilian maned wolf, jaguars – jaguars are cool but I have never seen one for real, that is the thing about the predators, they can see you but you don’t see them! – and lots of insects, such as butterflies and moths.

Moth larvae are terrible pests in monocultures of cotton and corn, and we want to find alternative ways to control them so we can avoid spraying pesticides that will get into the crops.

You write songs to help people understand statistics, in lectures and on social media, how did that develop?

My family was always big into music – Mum and Dad played music in church and I was in a band with my uncle. During the pandemic lockdown we had to record videos of lectures for students, and I thought my delivery was a bit boring, maybe I could sing it instead.

So I started to write parodies of popular songs, where the lyrics summarise what the students have learned in lectures. It helps the students to remember what we covered.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of your job – apart from the musical numbers?

The big challenge for me is organising my time and learning how to say no. I get opportunities to work on so many interesting questions, but you have to realise that if you say yes to everything then you are spread too thin and you can’t work on each one as well as you want to.

The big rewards for me are getting to talk to so many people whose work I admire, and also seeing students respond when you tell them something about statistics in a lecture and they get it, you can see them light up.

What is your advice to students and early-stage researchers in any discipline?

For everything that you do, it doesn’t matter how small you think the job is, do your absolute best, make it stand out. Lots of people can do things in an average way, but if you put your best into the smallest things, you will stand out and you will get lots more opportunities.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation