A good head for figures

18 May 2007

Professor Nalini Joshi
Professor Nalini Joshi

Nalini Joshi's life has always been full of adventure, from her childhood growing up in Myanmar to her adult life exploring the highly complex world of mathematics.

Born in Burma, Professor Joshi enjoyed an unusual childhood. "My father was in the army and I grew up near jungles with wild animals. I had the freedom to explore all day long so long as I went to school and that's what I actually seek every time I look at mathematics; it's an adventure, an exploration, forging new paths into territories nobody else has looked at before," she explains.

When she was 12, the family moved to Australia. After high school she completed a bachelor of science degree at the University of Sydney, gaining first-class honours and a University medal in applied mathematics. She then went to Princeton to complete her PhD.

After working in various positions around Australia and overseas, she returned to the University of Sydney in 2002 as chair of applied mathematics, the first woman to be appointed a professor of mathematics at the University. In April 2007 she was appointed head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, again becomingthe first woman to hold the position.

Much of her research work is focused on integrable equations, which she describes as 'beautiful'. "They have no chaos whatsoever,but onlycoherent well-ordered solutions and yet the equations themselves are non-linear. To have non-linear equations that have the same predictability properties as linear ones is a kind of miracle."

These equations have important uses in many scientific fields. They can model interactions of nuclear particles, describe the behaviour of light in optical fibres and predict the motion of massive waves observed in the Andaman Sea.

Professor Joshi is also passionate about her work as director of the new Centre for Mathematical Biology. "I'm working on problems that involve cellular automata, simple rules that can model reality with tremendous accuracy," she says. "One of the surprising roles they have played is in predicting HIV/AIDS-infectedT-cell numbers inlymph nodes."

Contact: Jake O'Shaughnessy

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