QUIZ SHOW SUCCESS EQUALS INFINITE POSSIBILITIES FOR LILY SERNA
LILY Serna never dreamt of being on television. She laughs as she recalls the night before she learnt she had won the role on SBS cult quiz show Letters and Numbers.
Serna was living at home with her parents and was chatting with her mum – they burst out laughing as she said “imagine if I get it”.
“I’d never done anything remotely like this – no stage acting, nothing,” she explains. “It was just the most ridiculous thought that I could be on TV.”
But how wrong she was – not only did she secure the role, but she also launched her career in a completely different trajectory.
It started as the numbers expert on Letters and Numbers, and then to other opportunities such as touring Australia with Adam Liaw for Destination Flavour and also on ABC’S Catalyst.
“It’s been such a privilege, especially to give me a platform to talk to students and kids out there about maths, and challenge some of those stereotypes about what it means to study maths,” Serna says. “And who studies it and what it is for.”
She was just five years old when, driving around the city of Jerusalem with her grandfather, she was introduced to the concept of infinity.
Serna was practising her counting.
“We reached all the way up to a hundred, and I couldn’t imagine a bigger number,” she recalls. “He told me no matter what number I could think of, there was always a number bigger.”
And the seed was sown – it would eventually grow into a passion.
But Serna explains at school she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. She knew she loved maths, not English – “the ambiguity of the marking process made me feel very uncomfortable. Maths is not ambiguous.”
At 15, she did work experience at a law firm. “I liked the idea of arguing a point, debating a point but in retrospect what I actually liked was the analytical process of that,” Serna shares. “When it came to Year 12 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. The No. 1 advice was do something that you love and that’s why I decided to do mathematics at uni. I honestly didn’t know where it would lead me – but it has taken me to a lot of weird and wonderful places.”
Serna doesn’t look like the usual picture of a mathematician. The 35 year old, who has a son with her partner Blair Hickey, loves surfing, hiking – just being out in the elements. She’s an avid documentary watcher, but laughs as she confesses she’s not above watching trashy stuff such as Below Deck for a little bit of “mind junk food”, as she calls it. “I really love that I do get out and speak to students – especially girls – about not being confined by some of the stereotypes,” Serna says. “Don’t let that define your path. Have a think about what you enjoy doing and look past the stereotypes.”
She’s also renowned for saying high school maths isn’t real maths;
she qualifies that she thinks school maths is important.
“Look maths to me is about training the mind in a systematic and logical way,” Serna explains.
“It’s akin to being a soccer player and the high school maths is the drills that you do at practice. You know, passing the balls and learning the finer skills. Mathematics is the game and I don’t think you get to play the game as much at school as when you go out into the world and apply those mathematical skills to the real world. That is the game.
“Training is really important, like to the soccer player – but that is not the full story.”
It’s still surreal to Serna that Letters and Numbers is back after nine years with two new seasons. Adapted from the much-loved quiz show which aired from 2010-2012, and inspired by the thousands of audience calls for its return, Celebrity Letters and Numbers will be hosted by comedian and Triple J presenter Michael Hing. Serna will be joined by her Letters counterpart, legendary wordsmith David Astle. Each episode features
three comedic celebs – including Hamish Blake, Matt Okine, Merrick Watts, Jennifer Wong, Aaron Chen and Susie Youssef – and a special guest alongside Astle in Dictionary Corner.
Serna loved the new twist to the beloved series. “It was so much fun,” she says. “I’ve never been in a room with so many comedians. It was an absolute ball. They are just so quick on their feet. I’m just in awe of the way their minds work, the way they link ideas and respond – it’s lightning speed.
“I can hand on heart say they were all genuinely lovely people.”
The next addition to Serna’s already impressive resume is an episode of another Australian institution – Play School.
“I’m ridiculously excited about it – we haven’t filmed it yet, it will be a maths one, of course,” she shares. “It’s another absolute dream of mine.”
Seems it really is to infinity and beyond, for Serna’s career.