Maths: Womens' Work

21 March 2016

Professor Nalini Joshi
Professor Nalini Joshi

Professor Nalini Joshi, from our School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sydney, was recently included in the Australian Financial Review/Westpac list of women of influence for 2015. Professor Joshi is indeed a dynamic academic who not only is a leader in her field of solving non-linear differential and difference equations (equations used everywhere to understand everything from climate change to disease epidemics to computer building), but is also a champion for celebrating mathematical research with the general public. I was inspired by this announcement to look at some of our current female PhD students to see what they are up to. "No pressure" I told them, but you are our "future Nalinis"!

I had a chat with Adrianne Jenner, who received an honourable mention for her presentation at the recent Annual Meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society. Adrianne is in her first year of study towards gaining a PhD, where she has chosen to mathematically model an emerging and promising area of cancer treatment called oncolytic virotherapy. This is where we genetically engineer viruses to selectively infect and damage cancer tissue. There is a laboratory in Korea that is well in the swing of experiments, and Adrianne is using their experimental data to mathematise so as to understand the underlying dynamics of what is going on. This type of mathematical investigation is vital to making the treatment maximally effective. Adrianne says she just loves understanding how things work, and especially in the area of biology. For her the connection between mathematics and biology is the most exciting merging of fields. It's how our biggest medical problems are going to get solved. With cancer, she can already see the tipping point. So many mathematicians are uncovering so many unique aspects of how this disease works, and as more and more thinkers come together on this issue, we're certain to topple the problem over.

Shila Ghazanfar, who is in her third year of PhD studies in statistics with us, is also doing work that's directly relevant to cancer research. She is analysing large data sets to tease out how DNA mutations actually affect how the DNA copies itself. Ever since first year university, she found herself fascinated by the logic and mathematics behind inference. Within cancers, amongst all the gene mutations that occur with the disease, some are its drivers. These are what Shila is working hard to isolate and understand in particular. What is the data actually revealing in terms of cause and effect? Which ones are actually doing the driving? She loves that she can use what she is most fascinated by to contribute to such big world problems. When statisticians, biologists, computational biologists and bioinformaticians come together is when there's the most opportunity for maximum impact. Her dream is to keep working as part of multi-expert groups in search for answers to current diseases.

OK. So let's go to the completely pure mathematical side. Ting-Ying Chang is also in her third year of PhD studies. Her work lies in grasping the abstract structural framework underlying differential equations the equations that Professor Joshi likes to work on too. But Ting-Ying's work might be compared to deconstructing sentence structure and its role in the underlying meaning of a sentence, as opposed to understanding just the meaning of the words. She is amazed at how abstract her work is, especially as she was originally interested in looking at solving equations in fluid dynamics or physics, but after chatting with her current supervisor, somehow found herself at an extreme of abstraction she never even realised existed! That she supplements her work with the odd real world example means there's a broadness to what she investigates, which she loves. Working on such diverse problems and using a variety of skills, she can see that her future steps could be in countless unpredictable directions.

Look, honestly, male or female, I don't really care; I just love hearing about the variety of thinking that happens here. I sit at my desk knowing that I'm always just one chat away from such amazing thinking which only happens in research hubs such as these!