Doing things differently

9 August 2013

Emma Carberry, lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

Emma Carberry only discovered she had a connective tissue disorder after seven years of excruciating joint pain.

It was in her final year of her PhD at Princeton University that she noticed pain in her ankles which she attributed to her games of ultimate frisbee. The pain progressively moved up her body to her wrists and other joints.

The disorder means the tissue connecting Emma's joints are a lot looser and weaker than it should be. This means she experiences pain doing everyday tasks like walking, holding a pen and typing on a keyboard. The finer the movement the more pain she fells.

"When I first came to Sydney my situation was quite unique. Some people questioned whether I could teach or do research. But there is more than one way of achieving things," Emma said, now a lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

It only took a few adjustments like computer voice recognition software to help with typing and a student to help scribe on the white board to make it possible for Emma to do her work.

"I can do things, I simply do them differently. The  staff and student equal opportunity unit was fantastic and incredibly supportive. Once they knew the accommodations I needed to do my work, they provided the funding to help me," Emma said.

In 2010 Emma received the  Laffan Fellowship which is awarded to researchers who have a disability. The fellowship provides academic staff relief from teaching and administrative functions to allow them to focus on research.

"My disability had taken away so much of my research time. The fellowship gave me the time and space I needed to again focus on my pure mathematics research," Emma said.

"I love pure mathematics. There is no other subject where you do abstract thought in such depth," Emma said.

"I work on differential systems which are what is called integrable. These systems have a lot more structure than most differential systems and we can use this structure to our advantage.

"An example is soliton waves which, unlike waves breaking at a beach, keep their shape as they travel. They are useful for example in fibre optics because they do not lose energy as they travel which means they can transmit information over long distances. Often the structure that makes a system integrable is hidden; my research focuses on ways to reveal and exploit this hidden structure."

The University has completed its third  Disability Action Plan which aims to make the University a more inclusive and equitable place to work and study for all its staff, students and visitors.

A key component of the plan is to provide better support for staff with a disability.
"The University's Disability Action Plan will be helpful in ensuring there are the right procedures and structures in place and the funding to support this," Emma said.

"As a society we've come a long way but there is an enormous way to go. People with a disability are not a different category of human being. It doesn't mean we can't do high-functioning jobs."